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Measuring the Effects of Social Context on Policy Attitudes

Understanding how individuals are influenced by their social environment is of importance to many fields in the social sciences. One of the primary tools used today by social scientists to study individuals is the use of survey research. The largest research expenditures within some of the social sciences, especially in political science, are spent upon survey research. Yet this important research tool is often ill-suited or ill-used to capture environmental effects on individuals.

The growth and evolution of survey research in the social sciences has been very rapid. Much of the initial survey research in political science was guided by how (campaign) environments affect (voting) decisions. Over time, such research questions generally narrowed to more fully understand how individuals arrived at their decisions internally. Two consequences have been the failure to properly conceptualize contextual effects and to resort to the use of crude contextual measures for individuals in surveys. This may, in part, explain why the effect of context on individual behavior in survey data is often found to be minimal.

This project describes a way to measure social context that is more accurately tied to an individual's immediate residential environment and assess the effects on policy attitudes. This is done by utilizing a 2000 post-election survey of Latinos in five states and creating measures of neighborhood-level residential segregation unique to individuals and then assessing the effects of segregation on Latinos' trust in government. The project concludes with the description of a pilot project that will provide an even yet more accurate measure of social context for survey respondents. It is the aim of this project to better measure context and to understand the ways in which these better measures influence policy attitudes.