A new report from the Pew Research Center says that measuring identity is an art and a science. The nonpartisan think tank measures the American public’s character traits and discusses their opinions and behaviors.

“As a shop that studies human behavior through surveys and other social scientific techniques, we have a good line of sight into the contradictory nature of human preferences,” Scott Ketter, a senior survey advisor, Anna Brown, a research methodologist, and Dana Popky, an associate panel manager, write. “Today, we’re calling out one of those that affect us as pollsters: categorizing our survey participants in ways that enhance our understanding of how people think and behave. Here’s the tension: On the one hand, many humans really like to group other humans into categories.”

The study found, however, that when survey participants were asked to describe themselves, they preferred not to be grouped into a single category regarding gender or political party affiliation, for example. The questions are also personal and may be sensitive topics for some.

The report offers insight into each key demographic question: religion, income, political party affiliation, gender, race and Hispanic ethnicity (which are asked separately) and age. These personal characteristics are used to compare the responses of survey participants and explain the “why” behind their answers. These personal traits also allow readers to see themselves portrayed in reports and learn from people who respond differently to social trends and societal issues.

Pew points out that, until 1950, enumerators for the U.S. census didn’t ask about a person’s race but decided it based on personal observation. Also, when determining a person’s gender during a telephone survey, pollsters listened to the person’s voice and other social cues, but did not ask the person to self-identify.

The center aims to represent the American public accurately and says it asks “nosy but necessary questions.” Questions, it states, that have “evolved over time.”

Read the full report here

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