Understanding political attitudes

By Jill Sheppard PhD ‘14

As a graduate student at ANU, I was never entirely sure what was meant by ‘interdisciplinary’.

I suspected it was a potentially useful combination of different disciplines, but one practised by researchers tucked away in dark corners of the campus, weaving together strands of disciplinary theories without ever making an impact on any particular field.

In practice, interdisciplinary research seems to arise by accident, as we fumble for answers to important questions.

The 22nd ANUpoll, on Australians’ attitudes to national security and terrorism, asked questions that needed interdisciplinary answers. The poll set out to identify the tipping point between support for privacy-limiting national security measures such as retention of telecommunications data and support for the protection of civil liberties such as privacy and freedom of movement.

In other words, how much privacy can Australians lose before they start to oppose these policies?

The threat of terrorism is an important element in this question. Colleagues from the ANU Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies contributed invaluable knowledge about the current geopolitical environment and the context for recent national security policies in Australia.

Researchers in the ANU School of Politics and International Relations contributed survey questions on Australians’ fear of experiencing a terror attack on their home soil.

And finally, colleagues from public health and psychology suggested questions I would never have thought to include: asking respondents how they feel about social equality generally.

These questions, which together form a measure of ‘social dominance orientation’, are common in disciplines of psychology. Rarely, however, does the idea of measuring social dominance orientation cross disciplinary borders.

As a result, alongside questions about terrorism, telecommunications data retention, the removal of dual citizenship for ‘foreign fighters’ and potential ‘singling out’ of Muslims under national security laws, we asked respondents four questions about equality in society.
What we found was heartening. On a scale between one and 10, where one means ‘strongly disagree’ and 10 means ‘strongly agree’, the average response to the statement that ‘in setting priorities, we must consider all groups’ was 8.2. For the statement that ‘group equality should be our ideal’, average agreement was 8.1.