The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

New U of S survey lab to gauge political attitudes in the province

By in News
Students poll residents from the new SRRL research facility.
The day after the Nov. 7 election was a day of rest for many people, but for a University of Saskatchewan research team, the work was just beginning. That day, the first calls went out from the newly established Social Responsibility Research Laboratory to ask over a thousand Saskatchewan residents why they had voted the way they did.

Housed in Arts 277, the SRRL comprises 20 phone stations and an adjacent room for conducting focus groups. It is part of the much larger Social Sciences Research Laboratories, a multi-disciplinary complex meant to tackle some of the pressing issues affecting society in a rigorous way. If humanities have a reputation for being too theoretical and lacking the hard evidence, the SSRL is a testament to how empirical social science research can be.

“People working in the natural sciences have had their laboratories and beakers and their test tubes… but people doing social science research haven’t had access to the infrastructure or the tools they need to collect the data they need to do their research,” said Jason Disano, survey manager for the election study. “These labs, the larger SSRL complex, is a movement toward building that sort of infrastructure for people to do that kind of research.”

Disano has previous experience in public opinion firms and moved back from Ottawa to run the survey lab. His partners for the project are professors Loleen Berdahl and Joe Garcea of the Department of Political Studies, and Maureen Bourassa of the Edwards School of Business.

The survey questions cover predictable territory, such as asking who people voted for and how engaged they are in politics. However, some of the questions are bound to yield interesting results. Gauging attitudes about the Canadian Wheat Board, immigrants and aboriginal people and unions will help provide a glimpse of residents’ feelings on a whole host of important issues.

Additionally, the results will be used by the spatial analysis lab — another part of the SSRL — to create a detailed map of Saskatchewan’s political and economic attitudes.

“It’s basically meant to be a snapshot of who we are as a province,” said Disano.

The initial results of the study will be released later this month.

There are several advantages to doing this type of research in-house as opposed to contracting a private firm to do it. For one, Disano estimates the university can conduct surveys like this for as little as half the cost. Also, the data will be more quickly and more transparently collected, allowing U of S experts to be involved at every step of the way rather than having to react to polling results once they hit the press.

“It would more directly involve the academics and the researchers in the polling process,” said Disano.

He acknowledged that “even though it’s called an election study, there’s only a handful of questions related to the election itself.” The Nov. 7 election was a convenient time to kick off the research lab, however, since the date was known for years. Now that the lab is operational though, all sorts of public polling can be done, potentially even as part of students’ graduate work.

In fact, one political studies grad student, Kirk Clavelle, is already using the experience gained from the election study toward his thesis.

“I’m really committed to this entire thing, not only for my thesis needs, but also for my future work goals,” Clavelle said.

The public opinion lab was built with help from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which invested the rather arbitrary amount of $169,839. Researchers have enough funding for five years of work, but the lab and the rest of the SSRL look set to become a permanent part of the social sciences on campus.

“It’s a brand new facility so we’ve got researchers and faculty at the university who are just recognizing now that this is here, it’s available,” said Disano. “Folks who have been exposed to the lab think it’s fantastic that they have access to such a state-of-the-art facility.”

Photo: Margie de Jager

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