Discovery Files

Windows on American Life

Social science research offers insights into American lifestyles and opinions

What do we see when Americans allow us a glimpse into their lives through the windows of social science research? Longitudinal surveys and panel studies funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) provide researchers with opportunities to examine the economic, social and political complexities of American life to better understand how society functions and changes over time. From family structure and childhood development to wealth, poverty, lifestyle choices, political attitudes and more, the studies described below are just a few examples of how researchers gain a panoramic view of the social indicators that define American life. The data from these studies help policy-makers shape important programs and policy recommendations.

The General Social Survey
How do Americans feel about multiculturalism? How connected are Americans to friends, family and other social networks?

At the core of America's social science research infrastructure, the General Social Survey (GSS) of the National Data Program for the Social Sciences has captured the attitudes, beliefs and opinions of more than 44,000 adults from a cross-section of American households since 1972. Recent GSS enhancements have incorporated Spanish language capability and data collection on social context and social units other than individuals and households. James Davis, Peter Marsden and Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago conduct the GSS, and have documented over 8,500 uses of the GSS among researchers. Considered the "gold standard" of social science research, the GSS has inspired such cross-cultural surveys as the International Social Science Program and the European Social Survey.

The Panel Study on Income Dynamics
How much money do Americans earn and how does that income change over time? How do life events like marriage, divorce, childbearing and labor market changes affect families' income, savings and debt?

The Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PSID) has followed a representative sample of adults that began with 4,800 individuals and their family units in 1968 and has grown to nearly 8,000 families with over 65,000 individuals, some of whom have participated for 36 years. Frank Stafford, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, directs the PSID and its data collection efforts. The longitudinal study's design and content variables, which focus on economic and demographic data, income, employment, family composition changes and residential location, have remained largely unchanged over time. Consistent and comparable data is what makes the study so valuable to researchers. Newer topics in the PSID include housing and food expenditures, housework time, health, wealth, child development, family dynamics and issues related to aging, among many others.

American National Election Studies
How do ordinary citizens view the political world, and how do these views affect electoral outcomes? What role does election year politics play in shaping the first months of a new administration?

Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and political science at Stanford University, and Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, are leading the American National Election Studies (ANES), a scientific study of elections. Beginning in November 2006 for the 2008 presidential election, ANES researchers are conducting face-to-face interviews with a cross-section of the adult population pre- and post-election. Results will augment existing data tracking voter behavior and attitudes from more than half a century of presidential election studies. (NSF has supported the effort since the 1970s.) The ANES' long history of rich and multifaceted data, now more robust and accessible thanks to technological advances, is a crucial source of insight into the causes and outcomes of voter behavior in our democracy.

Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences
How can researchers collaborate and employ technology to collect social science research data more cost-effectively and efficiently?

Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan are leading the Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) research investigation. This innovative and collaborative infrastructure project allows scientists from many disciplines to access large, diverse, randomly-selected and nationally-representative subject populations for new studies that measure social, political, economic and psychological dynamics. TESS unites computer-assisted telephone interviewing with the promising potential of computer-assisted Internet interviewing. By combining shared aspects of otherwise separate studies, these modalities allow scientists to achieve the methodological strength of traditional experiments while dramatically reducing the average cost. TESS provides unprecedented opportunities for social scientists to collect customized, original data to pioneer critical advances in social scientific theory and analysis.

--S2N Media