By Lydialyle Gibson, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the September/October 2013 issue. Read it in its entirety here.

Every two years, a couple hundred survey-takers working for NORC at the University of Chicago set out across the country, knocking on doors in urban neighborhoods, suburban subdivisions, rural communities, and remote outposts, talking to thousands of Americans about everything from the nation’s politics to their own personal lives. This is the General Social Survey, or GSS, which for 40 years has measured the country’s attitudes and feelings on a vast range of subjects.

The GSS is how we know, for instance, the percentage of Americans who believe in an afterlife, or the legitimacy of the death penalty, or the competence of the executive branch—and how those numbers have changed over time. It’s how we know what their sexual behavior is like and whether they’re happily married and how often they go to church. It tells us how many Americans belong to unions or own guns, how they feel about physician-­assisted suicide, prayer in school, gay marriage, and mothers working outside the home. How many hours they spend watching television or visiting friends, how often they feel rushed or bored. Racial attitudes, job satisfaction, drug use. Whether people feel afraid walking alone at night in their neighborhoods. Whether they think their children’s standard of living will exceed their own.

In important ways, the GSS tells us who we are. 

Tom Smith, PhD’80, the survey’s longtime director, is careful to emphasize that the GSS doesn’t actually measure everything. “I take the word ‘comprehensive’ very seriously,” he says. “Nothing covering something as big as American society could possibly be comprehensive.” Still, the GSS is colossal. Only the U.S. Census is cited more often in the academic and popular press. If you’ve ever read a newspaper story or magazine article about a sociological trend or a long-term shift in American opinion, chances are the data originated with the GSS. Smith gets as many as 15 calls a month from reporters, and every year the survey is cited in hundreds of academic studies. As of early 2012, NORC, which administers the GSS, had counted nearly 20,000 scholarly papers and books that had used GSS research since the survey first launched in 1972.

Mark Chaves, a Duke University professor who specializes in the sociology of religion, offers a representative sentiment. “The GSS is by far the most important source of information about religion, especially when it comes to tracking trends in American religion,” says Chaves, who chaired the survey’s board of overseers from 2008 to 2011. “There’s lots of surveys out there now, but there’s no other source that tracks as many aspects of Americans’ basic religiosity—beliefs, practices, affiliation.” Without the GSS, he says, his 2011 book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends “would not have been possible.”

The data is open to everyone. That is the survey’s core principle. Before the GSS, Smith says, most surveys were carried out by scholars with access to funding, and centered around narrow research questions. “And he—I say ‘he,’ because they were almost always men—he’d get the data and analyze it for two or three years, and then he’d write the book,” Smith says. “And maybe the data would eventually get into the public domain, and maybe it wouldn’t.”

The GSS’s founder, sociologist James A. Davis, wanted to change that system, with an idea he first called the 20 questions project. “It occurred to me that there could be a program which provided sociologists and social scientists everywhere data that they could work on without having to get individual grants,” says Davis, NORC’s director at the time and now a GSS principal investigator emeritus, who has taught at numerous universities including UChicago. “So that was the germ of the idea, sort of a primitive socialism.”

Decades of data

Over the decades, a few social trends have taken Smith by surprise, the arcs of American opinion angling out in ways he wouldn’t have predicted. One example is the marked shift in attitudes toward homosexual behavior, which the GSS has monitored since 1973. A suite of connected questions asks respondents to rate the “wrongness” of four types of sex: teenage, premarital, extramarital, and same-gender. “The attitudes toward these behaviors are all correlated,” Smith says. “Someone who is permissive on one tends to be permissive on the others.” So he would have expected them all to move more or less together. But since the early 1990s, disapproval of gay sex has fallen much faster than the others, to less than 50 percent. Most of that, he says, is driven by “cohort turnover”: as older generations dwindle, they’re being replaced by younger people more open to gay rights. That cohort difference doesn’t hold for the other categories of sexual behavior. “Extramarital sex has actually become slightly less accepted over time,” Smith says. Its disapproval now hovers around 80 percent, and it’s never been lower than 70 percent. For premarital sex, always the least objectionable to respondents, there has been a gradual but constant wearing away of disapproval. 

Smith sees similar nuance and complexity in the issue of free-speech rights for social groups held in suspicion: anti-religionists, communists, gays, militarists, and racists. “We ask a series of questions about civil liberties: Should members of these certain groups be allowed to make a public speech? To teach in a college? To have a book they’ve written in the public library?” From the early 1970s to the present, Smith says, the numbers show a basic increase in support for civil liberties—with one exception: “There’s no greater support for the racist.” Less than 60 percent say racists should be allowed the same free speech as other Americans (in 1976, free speech for racists was more popular than for communists or militarists). For the other groups, those numbers have reached 70, 80, or close to 90 percent. “So what you have here is a general social trend pushing support for civil liberties up,” Smith says. “And then there’s a second social trend that is supporting racial equality, that’s also moving up. And that makes the racist less and less socially acceptable over time.” In 2008 the GSS added Muslim extremists to the list of groups. Only 41 percent of respondents said they’d allow them free speech. That number didn’t budge in the 2010 survey.

'There isn't a simple answer'

Perhaps more than any other subject, religion—one of the GSS elements most intensely analyzed by outside researchers—demonstrates the intricacy of societal change. “We document a huge rise in the number of people with no religious affiliation, a drop in church attendance, very little change in the belief in God, and very little change in belief in an afterlife,” Smith says. In fact, belief in life after death has risen a few percentage points, he adds, while belief in God has dropped slightly, but only to about 90 percent. “There’s a very strong theory in sociology that says of secularization, as societies become more modern, as education is increased, science takes over and the nonscientific mythology of religion dies away.” According to GSS numbers, he says, the answer to that theory is both yes and no. The religiousness of society is changing, he says, but in a complex way that can’t be fully understood without examining multiple facets of belief. If you looked at only one, Smith says, “you would substantially misunderstand the religious profile of America.”

Chaves agrees, although he reads the numbers differently. “We now know, I think, that Americans’ religiosity”—that is, traditional religious belief—“has actually been declining.” But the change has been so slow that “if you have only ten years or 20 years of data, you can’t quite see it,” he says. “Now that we have 40 years of data, it’s like building a more powerful telescope.” And alongside that slow slide in traditional worship, Chaves sees what he calls a “diffuse spirituality” accounting for things like a growing belief in the afterlife.

Smith sums up: “What people want is often a very simple story. ‘We’re all becoming more permissive,’ or, ‘We’re all becoming more selfish.’ But society’s more complex than that. Are we becoming more religious? There isn’t a simple answer.”

Originally published on December 3, 2013.