Dr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa. Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this post, Dr. Sumerau raises the provocative question: why do we call surveys that exclude certain populations — in this case, trans and intersex people — “nationally representative”?
What Does “Nationally” – As In, Nationally Representative – Actually Mean?
A few months ago, a student asked me an interesting question for which I had no answer at the time. As I do each fall, I was teaching a course on the sociology of sexualities, and as I also do every fall, I was showing students some statistical profiles of sexual and gender minority communities, issues, and concerns so that we could discuss these patterns and they could learn how sociologists utilize statistics in the study of sexualities. After class, one of my transgender students came up to the front of the room and asked, “Why do sociologists call their surveys nationally representative? Are these surveys from nations that do not have trans people?”
Despite my own personal and professional background related to transgender politics, scholarship, and experience, I must admit that I was stumped. My first inclination was to offer the standard “graduate course in statistics” answer concerning statistical weighting, government demographic tables and sources, and measurement strategies. But, I realized right away that none of these answers would suggest that our surveys actually represent any nation of which I’ve ever heard in the concrete world (i.e., a nation where only males and females exist). As a result, I decided to forgo my first inclination, and answer honestly. I told the student (as I had been told years before) that scientists (physical and social) have historically ignored and/or demonized the existence of intersex and transgender people. Not surprisingly, the student understood this, but said, “so, they’re not actually nationally representative, right?” After I agreed, the student asked, “then why do we call them that?” I have yet to find an adequate answer other than transphobia and/or cisgender privilege.
By transphobia and/or cisgender privilege, however, I do not necessarily mean research has consciously or intentionally erased transgender and intersex populations, though this may also be the case. Rather, I am observing that we live in a society historically constructed via the elaboration of sex and gender binaries by legal, social, political, religious, and scientific power structures and elites. As a result, much of our “knowledge” and “belief” is constrained by these artificial binaries and the entirety of social relations often implicitly or explicitly serve to reinforce these notions of “what counts” and “what should be.” The ability to call a data set representative of a nation when it does not contain transgender or intersex people thus (best I can tell) emerges as a result of internalizing the promotion of these binary “knowledges” and “beliefs” throughout our social world.
Let me be clear, I have attempted to find another answer to my student’s question throughout the past few months in many different ways. First, I spent considerable time reading everything that I could find on statistical theory, survey design, and methodological practice, but in none of these sources could I find a reason that we would call something that did not represent any nation “nationally representative.” The best answers that I could find suggested that since our government erased transgender and intersex people in its data collection, we scientists just did the same in our surveys (or vice versa). Next, I began just casually asking colleagues the same questions that my student asked, and their responses fell into three categories. Some people (like me) responded by experiencing “oh shit” moments and then saying that they guessed it reflected transphobia or cisgender privilege built into science. Other people either (a) said “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” or (b) got frustrated and didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, I began casually asking this question at conferences (three of them so far), but once again I got the same two answers (probably transphobia or religious impressions of “always been this way”) coupled with more angry and frustrated reactions wherein people didn’t want to talk about it or simply dodged the question.
I must admit I am especially fascinated by the angry, frustrated, and/or unwilling to talk about it reactions I have received because these responses are identical to the responses of preachers and other devout believers whom I encountered when I asked questions in church as a child. Although I cannot be certain, I think these reactions likely stem from (a) people’s faith in “representative statistics” or “statistical generalizability,” which leads them (like people with faith in other secular or religious forms of knowledge and prophesy) to lash out at anything that challenges their beliefs and assumptions about “what is real” and “what is right,” and/or (b) people’s realization that, by calling these surveys “representative,” we are participating in the erasure and marginalization of transgender and intersex people, which leads them (like people who benefit from other dominant social norms) to face difficult questions about their role – intentionally or otherwise – in the pain and suffering of others. In either case, I am rather amazed by just how “faithful” or “dogmatic” many people are when someone questions normative assumptions about statistics and/or surveys.
As I continue to seek answers, however, I have run into a couple of exceptional responses. In such cases, people avoided the question at first by pointing out that nationally representative surveys always leave out some groups (i.e., the homeless or smaller populations like those found in new religious movements), so it did not necessarily say anything about transgender or intersex people. Of course, I then asked them why we called something “nationally representative” if segments of the nation (i.e., whichever ones they had just noted) were left out of the sample. Why did we not simply call these “selected” or “chosen” or (as we do with some other surveys) “convenience” samples? At this point, I once again was unable to get an answer to the question (i.e., they generally became angry, frustrated and/or didn’t want to talk about it anymore), but I was able to point out that their first response demonstrated the point of the question. Whether or not the absence of trans or intersex people says anything about transphobia or cisgender privilege, there is still no empirical reason that I can find to call something that does not represent any actual nation “nationally representative.”
In fact, this practice is incredibly problematic if we seek to study the “actual” rather than some “imagined” social world. If we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, for example, we are symbolically saying these people either (a) do not belong in our nation, (b) do not matter in our nation, and/or (c) are not worth our attention, concern, or respect as researchers. Within sociology, we have a term for such processes when done by other (i.e., not our own surveys) means: symbolic annihilation (i.e., the symbolic erasure of inconvenient or marginalized truths and communities for the sake of power and privilege). Likewise, if we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, we are not studying the empirical world, but rather engaging in creative writing about a possible world we have created to fit our own needs. When others (i.e., not physical or social scientists) do this, we typically call it religion or spirituality instead of science. While these suggestions may be especially frustrating or anger-inducing for many of us (especially given the prominence and prestige of “nationally representative” terminology in our existing academic structures), they are likely considerations that all scientists should consider and debate if we hope to avoid becoming just another religious tradition.
The combination of these experiences has led me to stop using the phrase “nationally representative” whenever possible until I see surveys that actually reflect empirical populations within our world. Instead, I have begun referring to these surveys (i.e., the General Social Survey, Add Health, and others) as either “Cisgender Representative Surveys” or “Biblically Representative Surveys” since they only contain cisgender populations (i.e., so the weighting might make them representative of these populations), and they do actually reflect what the Bible says our world looks like (i.e., males and females only). At other times, I simply point out that every sample that does not contain a representation of all social groups is simply a “convenience” or “self selected” sample. Not surprisingly, some people have responded with cheer at my new terms while others have become very uncomfortable or angry. In both cases, however, I am attempting to create space where we may begin to wrestle with the question my student asked me last fall.
As a result, I close this post by asking all of you the same question: why do we call these surveys “nationally representative,” and what does that say about the place of transgender and intersex people (as well as other groups that are marginalized, small, or for some other reason not part of the “nation” represented despite their existence within empirical nations we attempt to “represent”) both within society and within science? Further, I call upon readers to think about resources that could be developed to help scholars who seek more “representative” survey instruments. How could we go about constructing surveys in ways that encourage transgender, intersex, and other underrepresented populations to participate? Obviously, one way would be to stop calling surveys that leave out populations “representative.” But, beyond this linguistic shift, what concrete ways could we go about actively seeking to include all possible elements of populations (national or otherwise) in our survey designs?