Studying the Native American and Alaska Native population with internet surveys

(Photo: Mabel Amber)

In estimating public opinion, opt-in internet surveys give researchers and pollsters a unique opportunity to isolate specific tribal members across the US compared to national surveys conducted by landlines say Ben Pryor and James A. Davis

Ben Pryor and James A. Davis

In political science, national surveys are considered the “gold standard” for estimating public opinion. Unfortunately, however, these national surveys are not ideal for measuring the opinions of certain groups in the US. This is because of some challenges associated with drawing a sufficient number of respondents from probability samples. As a result, some of the most vulnerable members of the population can be underrepresented or left out of the national discussion entirely. In 2018, for example, just 1.3 percent of the population self-identified as exclusively Native American or Alaska Native.

Most national surveys are conducted by landline although landlines have faced declining response rates in recent years. This is because about half of the US population owns a cellphone but no landline. The disparity is even greater for young adults and citizens with African or Latin ancestries. Those individuals still holding on to landlines tend to be older and Caucasian. Moreover, current regulations prohibit cell phone surveys conducted by automatic dialers.

Our new American Indian Quarterly article, with co-authors Rebekah Herrick and Jeanette Morehouse Mendez, examines a potential method to resolve this problem. To go about this, we surveyed one of the most underrepresented groups in the US – Native Americans and Alaska Natives – with what’s known as an opt-in internet survey. 

Opt-in surveys have become increasingly popular over the last decade as a viable alternative for measuring diverse subsections of the population. They give researchers and pollsters a unique opportunity to isolate specific tribal members across the US. Opt-in surveys are completed by individuals that join an online survey community. Respondents are provided nominal rewards or incentives for their time in completing them. There is a systematic framework, ensuring that respondents provide quality data. This includes removing those that provide inconsistent responses or respondents that speed through surveys too quickly.

We began by examining the representativeness of our sample using two widely respected national surveys: the US Census and the American National Election Studies. We found that our opt-in survey produced similar demographic patterns and was therefore useful to survey populations after common weighting procedures were instituted. We also found that our survey overrepresented women and college-educated respondents, but this problem could probably be overcome by using a larger sample.

After establishing the sample’s representativeness, we measured the influence childhood reservation experiences had on Indigenous political socialization – that is, how early experiences on the reservation affect their ideas as adults about politics. Tribal Native American and Alaska Natives are a small, yet very diverse group of people. As of 2018, there are 573 federally recognized tribes in the US – each with its own unique history, culture and tradition.

We studied the effects that growing up on a reservation had on the political opinions of present-day tribal members. We compared the results of respondents who had spent no time on a reservation to those who had spent varying amounts of time on a reservation.

We found that:

  • Early reservation experiences were statistically related to demographic characteristics and political orientations as adults. Those Native Americans and Alaska Natives who had spent some time on reservations tended to be younger and college educated when compared to those who had not grown up on a reservation.
  • Those Native Americans and Alaska Natives who had spent some time in childhood on a reservation were more likely to be Democrats than were those without such backgrounds. Additionally, Natives who had spent more than half of their childhood on a reservation were more interested in politics than were those with no such reservation experience.
  • Reservation experiences have greater impacts on individual Native American and Alaska Native political socialization than does tribal membership alone. 

It is important to note that most of peoples in the US do not live on reservations. In 2010, 78 percent of all self-identified Natives in the US did not live on tribal lands; about 72 percent lived in urban or suburban areas. For those who do live on reservations, internet access is the biggest hurdle for implementing opt-in surveys. In 2013, just 37 percent of rural reservations had access to the Internet. However, since then substantial progress has been made. For example, a 2018 report submitted to Senate and House committees that dealt with internet availability shows that 92 percent of households on urban reservations had internet service and some 53 percent of the households on rural reservations did.

Currently, measures to expand the internet on rural reservations have been undertaken. Earlier this summer, the FCC announced a $1.98 billion award to expand internet access in rural areas of the country over the next 10 years that will benefit rural reservations. These funds are part of the FCC’s Connect America program which includes more than $20 million to increase high speed internet on Navajo lands in Arizona.

The South Dakota legislature just approved a $5 million grant to expand rural internet access this year. Of course, the grant will include reservation lands. Moreover, the Gila River Telecommunications Company is in the process of providing the entire Gila River Indian Community with internet access.

In addition, the growing popularity of cell phone internet access has improved access for Native Americans and Alaska Natives on remote reservations or in other rural areas. Opt-in surveys conducted via mobile phone means data may be collected more readily now via the internet where before there was only limited internet access in rural locations. A 2015 study found that Native Americans and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of home internet usage with cell phones than did any other racial or ethnic group. At the same time smartphones and tablets have become more attractive devices for taking surveys. Recent research has shown no effect on the quality of the data resulting from the device used in a survey.

The ongoing expansion of the internet to rural areas and tribal reservations along with the growing popularity of cell phones for internet access means survey operations will be less of an issue for Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the future. Opt-in surveys should prove useful in future studies of this population and other underrepresented groups in the US. 

Opt-in surveys allow today’s researchers to overcome several limitations in traditional survey methodologies. Traditional approaches tend to lump this country’s Indigenous peoples into one category despite their being a very heterogeneous collectivity of sovereign nations. The unique and diverse character of each tribe presents the need for a practical approach to survey the Indigenous citizens of this country. This allows researchers to screen questions to narrow their sample by tribe or some other unique characteristic. 

As internet accessibility expands, improved connectivity will play an important part in the future research in reservations and other tribal areas. We are hopeful this method of survey contributes in some small way to the furtherance of Native American and Alaska Native self-determination.

Ben Pryor is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He earned his MA in philosophy and political science from Oklahoma State University. His research interests include American politics, political behavior, and minority politics. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, AP News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, Scientific American, Social Science Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, and American Indian Quarterly.

James A. Davis is an emeritus professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. He earned his PhD from the Miami University (Ohio) in 1977. His primary concentration is American politics, especially in the areas of political parties and groups, minority politics, applied politics, and the presidency. He has published one book and has several articles in journals such as Public Administration Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Psychology, State and Local Government Review, Political Science Quarterly, and American Indian Quarterly. He is currently working on multiple research projects, as well as a book in the area of the politicization of American Indians in the United States.

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