Understanding Informal Political Discussion of U.S. National Security

Understanding Informal Political Discussion of U.S. National Security

William "Chip" Eveland

Principal Investigators: William "Chip" Eveland, School of Communication

Does talking about politics -- even with people who may disagree -- boost political knowledge and participation? Research suggests that it does, but the circumstances in which this takes place are unclear because little is known about the actual conversations as they occur in the real world.

In this project, Chip Eveland aims to fill that gap by capturing informal discussions of political issues by a diverse set of voters in their homes and public spaces. To do this, he identified 50 adults randomly sampled from voter registration rolls and equipped them with portable digital voice recorders for two weeks around the 2010 election and the 2011 State of the Union address.

By capturing the everyday conversations of actual citizens, this project's goal is to fill in much of what we don't know from current research, such as:

  • how conversations about national security issues get started and how long they last;
  • how much information is shared and its quality;
  • whether respondents express their opinions and back up opinions with evidence.

One important consideration in examining political discussions is disagreement. How often does it arise? What is its extent? How is it managed? Conflict management strategies include dominance or competition, avoidance or skirting the issue, giving in or obliging, and compromise or integration. This last strategy -- creative problem solving -- is most consistent with democratic ideals, but is not necessarily the most widely employed.

Eveland now has 3000 hours of audio recordings, a gold mine of information currently being analyzed. The first pass is flagging when conversations about national security begin and end. The conversations are then being coded for characteristics such as specific topic, length of discussion, how the discussion began, whether there is disagreement, how conflict is handled, use of logical reasoning and emotion expression, efforts at persuasion, accuracy of information, and frames employed.

Eveland hopes to use this study to set the stage for a major grant proposal that would allow data collection and coding to take place on a larger scale, so that results are nationally representative and more statistically powerful.