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February 2, 2004

The AsiaBarometer : Its Aim, Its Scope, Its Strength - Abridged Version

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, University of Tokyo)

This is an abridged version of Prof. Inoguchi's paper presented at the AsiaBarometer Symposium/Conference, Sanjo Conference Hall, University of Tokyo, May 6-7, 2003.
The full paper is available in PDF form.

1. Introduction

The AsiaBarometer represents the largest ever, comparative survey in Asia, covering East, Southeast, South and Central Asia. The AsiaBarometer distinguishes itself from many others in that it focuses on daily lives of ordinary people. It is not primarily about values or democracy. It is primarily about how ordinary people live their life with their worries, angers, desires and dreams. It focuses secondarily on their relationship to family, neighborhood, workplace, social and political institutions and market place. In short, it is a survey based on the principle of bottom up rather than that of top down.

Most importantly, however, the AsiaBarometer is fundamentally different from other Asia barometers such as the Social Weather Stations barometers, the Korea Democracy Barometers and the East Asia Democracy Barometers have all originated from the Third Wave democratization of the last quarter of the last century in such countries as the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. In a good contrast, the AsiaBarometer originates from the genuinely academic interest in the daily lives, views and sentiments of ordinary people in Asia as registered in survey data.

The AsiaBarometer distinguishes itself from many others in that it makes utmost efforts to be sensitive to cultures and languages. First, focus groups are conducted where deemed necessary. Second, the English language questionnaire and the questionnaires in local languages are thoroughly compared and discussed including those familiar with both. Third, local academics participate in questionnaire formulation and data analysis. In short, the AsiaBarometer tries to be culturally fluent as a whole.

2. Rationale and Promises of the AsiaBarometer

Intra-regional interactions in Asia have been deepening and broadening much faster than anticipated. Interdependence has progressed considerably in the economic sphere, especially in manufacturing. Reciprocal market entry has become quite active in the service sector as well.

A similar trend can be seen in the world of politics. Two decades ago, summit talks between Japanese and other Asian leaders occurred only once or twice a year. But by 2000 such meetings had increased 20-fold. There has been a dramatic increase in the level of interaction among Asian political leaders.

There is no denying that this broadening and tightening of regional interdependence in Asia has benefited both individual countries and the region as a whole. This is corroborated by the region's economic development and relative stability in recent years. To promote further regional growth and engender greater mutual benefits, however, there must also be closer contact in the field of scholarship. Unfortunately, Asia suffers from a decisive lack of a strategy to build a common academic infrastructure. What sort of an intellectual framework would be useful?

A handy model is the Eurobarometer, an ongoing series of large-scale surveys of public opinion within the European Union. I advocate establishing the Asian equivalent - the AsiaBarometer. It is important, however, to stress one major difference between them. The AsiaBarometer is run not by the intergovernmental organization like the European Union, but by non governmental academics. This, I am convinced, would not only result in huge advances in scholarly research in Asia but also make major contributions to indirectly bringing about economic prosperity and political stability.

3. Principles of Questionnaire Formulation

I now turn to its principles of questionnaire formation. They are summarized by the following three points:
Principle one: opinion polls cannot penetrate people's minds by being excessively obtrusive.
Principle two: opinion polls cannot focus too much on the peripheral concerns of ordinary people.
Principle three: opinion polls can be most illuminating when they are re-casted and examined with deft use of Przeworsky/Teune's two contrasting research designs.

3.1. Minimum Unobtrusiveness
When opinion polls are so often used for marketing, journalistic, academic and policy purposes, one tends to forget one important thing: that they are intrinsically obtrusive to potential interviewees. A number of adaptations have been observed to cope with the need to reduce obtrusiveness and to enhance sensitivity while not compromising too much on capturing with as much precision as possible what interviewees have in mind. Here clearly, the need for cultural fluency cannot be overstressed, especially in attempts like the AsiaBarometer.

3.2. Minimum Oddness
It is too easily forgotten to social scientists who play with high sounding norms and abstract concepts that the daily lives of ordinary people are central to them and that politics and economics, let alone international affairs, are peripheral. Bombarding interviewees with barrages of questions the vocabulary of which tend to be odd, strange, abstract, alien, incomprehensible, eerie, or weird at least to bumi putra, the Sons of the soil, does not help survey designers to obtain what they want to tap. The need to be sensitive to differences in survey culture cannot be over stressed.

3.3. Most Similar/Most Dissimilar Systems Comparisons
The AsiaBarometer is designed to cover the entire region of Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia. It is a huge region of diversity. As a regional barometer, the AsiaBarometer will be the largest in geographical coverage and least homogeneous in terms of key regional features. The point I am trying to make is that being conscious of similarity/dissimilarity at or across national, sub-regional or regional levels, one can tap more interesting features such as the growing regionalism within each sub-region or globalization's fragmenting effects within each national unit in terms of per capita income level or lifestyle or something else.

To sum it all, the AsiaBarometer tries to be as interviewee-friendly and culturally sensitive as possible and to give analysts more scope and space for cross-level and cross-national examinations.

4. Four Distinctive Clusters of Questions

4.1. Daily Lives of Ordinary People
Recording daily lives of ordinary people is placed centrally in the questionnaire. The idea behind is that without trying hard to comprehend even a modicum of their daily lives, it would be less productive than otherwise to register the array of social scientists' concerns about their norms, values, identities, their relationship to the society and political action and beliefs tend to be treated rather superficially. Therefore it would be much more rewarding and productive to base social scientists' interest on daily lives of ordinary people.

4.2. Perceptions and Assessments of their Lives
How ordinary people perceive their own lives is very important in itself and in terms of its ramifications to public policy, role of central government, confidence in institutions etc. How they place their standard of living on the rich-poor continuum, how happy they are with their life, how satisfied they are with their life, what is their life style, what are their daily worries, what are their desires and ambitions, what are their deprivations and frustrations---these questions are central to ordinary people as well as others.

4.3. Relationships of their Lives to the Larger Social Entities
How do ordinary people relate themselves to the larger society? This is what political scientists and sociologists are most eager to ask questions about. After all, it is not sufficient to relate, for instance, individual economic satisfaction with government support. At least their confidence in government must be placed in the equation linking individual economic satisfaction with government support. The crux of the matter is how they relate to the larger society.

4.4. Norms, Beliefs, Value Preferences, and Actions
Norms, beliefs, value preferences and actions are those pet items of political scientists and sociologists. Social surveys are a most convenient research instrument to use to examine these items. Hence the accumulation of millions of work on these items examined in the context of democratic politics. These items are easiest to ask in a democratic society, but not necessarily in a non-democratic society. Asking about confidence in government is tricky in many societies.

5. Gauging Developmental, Democratic and Regionalizing Potentials

It would be most appropriate to give thoughts on the futures of Asia as the AsiaBarometer is to measure many things in people's minds and hearts. It is my conviction that conducting the AsiaBarometer every year in all parts of Asia would enable us to gauge Asia's potentials of economic development, democratization, and regional integration. In this last section I will give my thoughts to each of the three potentials of Asia in the next half a century.

Economic development in Asia has a vast future. Only in various parts of Asia, most importantly in coastal East, Southeast, and South Asia has economic development begot its self-sustained momentum. Tangible fruits of self-sustained economic development affect merely some ten percent of the total population of Asia. Two giants, China and India, have a long way to go before they can declare that they have reached their self-sustained and mature developmental stage. Vast population and vast space pose a formidable challenge to any engineer of economic development of China and India.

Democratization in Asia has a long way to go. Two largest and longest non-Western democracies, Japan and India aside, many remain to be more deeply democratized even in the democratic corridor of coastal East and Southeast Asia. Continental East and Southeast Asia and most of South and Central Asia need far more time before they are democratized.

Regionalizing potentials are more difficult to grasp with the questionnaire. Questions on identities, primary and secondary and tertiary, would enable one to be more precise on such potentials once questions about sub-regional identities, such as East Asian, are to be included.

6. Additional Remarks

Following the AsiaBarometer Symposium on May 6-7, 2003, we held the first AsiaBarometer survey done in summer 2003 in ten Asian countries: Japan, Korea, China, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

The AsiaBarometer Symposium/Conference on the basis of the first AsiaBarmeter Survey was held on January 20-21, 2004. The results of this Symposium/Conference will be reported shortly on this platform as well.

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