By Richard Wike, Director of Global Attitudes Research, Pew Research Center

Special to Public Diplomacy Magazine

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge,” wrote James Madison, “is the only guardian of true liberty.” This belief that knowledge and information empower people and improve the quality of democracy is built into the DNA of many think tanks and research organizations. More information and analysis about major issues affecting society lead to a better-informed citizenry, more knowledgeable lawmakers, and ultimately, better policies and outcomes.

One way that research organizations provide information to citizens, policymakers, and others is through survey research. In many countries, surveys have become an almost institutionalized facet of domestic politics, and polling organizations are also becoming important actors in international politics, providing information about where global publics stand on key issues in world affairs.

When done well, surveys give the public a voice and ensure that the beliefs and opinions of ordinary citizens are heard in debates about important political, economic, and social topics. Harvard political scientist Sidney Verba has suggested that when survey respondents tell pollsters their views, they are engaging in a form of political participation.1 Moreover, polls provide an egalitarian form of participation by soliciting opinions from a representative sample of the population, not just select interest groups or those with enough resources to make their voices heard in other ways. Rigorous polls follow well-established social scientific methods to ensure that the characteristics of the survey’s sample mirror the characteristics of the full population.

In the United States and other wealthy democracies, public polls have become an integral component of politics. They are covered extensively by the media, and have become part of the national conversation, regularly highlighting whose political fortunes are up or down, and more importantly, revealing the public’s thinking on major issues of the day.

Even in non-democratic countries, survey research is increasingly common. In countries like China, where national leaders do not have to stand for election, leaders still utilize polls to check the public pulse now and then. As the Washington Post recently highlighted, Communist Party leaders in Beijing regularly commission polls to gauge what Chinese citizens are thinking on a variety of issues.2 “More than ever before,” the Washington Post’s Simon Denyer writes, “China’s rulers are actually listening to their people, reacting quickly to contain potential crises that could threaten one-party control.” And increasingly, there is publicly available polling in China that informs average Chinese people about what their fellow citizens are thinking.

In addition to its role in domestic politics, over the last decade, polling has also become a common feature of international affairs. Today, organizations like the Pew Research Center, the Gallup Organization, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, and the German Marshall Fund routinely conduct cross-national surveys exploring public opinion on key issues around the world. These efforts are complemented by academic projects such as the World Values Survey and the various “barometer” polls, such as the AmericasBarometer, Afrobarometer, Arab Barometer, and others.

These studies fill the information gap about international politics in the same way polls in the U.S. fill an information gap about American politics: by providing data on the opinions of average citizens. This kind of information is especially valuable in world affairs, where debates are often shaped by diplomats, business leaders, scholarly experts, journalists, and other elites. While all of these groups have a lot to add to discussions about key global issues, international conferences and elite conversations can be out of touch with the priorities and opinions of the general public. When elites jet into a capital city or financial center to talk with other elites about important global challenges, there is always a risk that important voices will be left out of the discussion.

Organizations like the Pew Research Center try to address this problem by conducting cross-national surveys using rigorous social science methods. Our experience suggests there is a strong demand for this type of research among policymakers, the media, scholars, and the general public. These types of polls can tell us a great deal about the priorities of people from countries across the globe. For instance, a 2013 Pew Research survey asked respondents in 39 countries to rate a series of potential global threats. The results suggest people are more worried about big global challenges than they are about localized regional issues or threats from specific countries.3 The top two concerns were global climate change and international financial instability. Lower on the list were issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and political instability in Pakistan.

Polls can also shed light on how the actions of major world powers are received. At the Pew Research Center, we have collected a great deal of data over the last decade on global perceptions of the U.S., tracking the rise of anti-Americanism during the George W. Bush presidency and the rebound in America’s image—in many, though not all, countries—during the Obama era.4 This kind of research is more than just a popularity contest: it examines the various strengths and weaknesses of America’s image and American ideals, in addition to the ways in which people see the various dimensions of U.S. power. It shows the extent to which there is a receptive public opinion environment for U.S. diplomacy, business, and culture.

Similar research can be conducted about other major players on the world stage. For example, polls show that publics around the world clearly see China’s power on the rise. In the Pew Research Center’s 2013 poll, majorities or pluralities in 23 of 39 countries said they believe China either will surpass, or already has surpassed, the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower.5

Today, survey research can make particularly important contributions in emerging nations. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the MINT countries (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey), and other rising nations are playing an increasingly significant role in world affairs, and they are undergoing enormous political, economic, and social transformations. How do people in these countries feel about their growing clout in international politics and the rapid changes affecting their lives?

The current attitudes of the Chinese public show how people in emerging nations are enjoying the economic progress they have made, while at the same time wrestling with the side effects of progress. In the Pew Research Center’s 2013 poll, the Chinese overwhelmingly said their economy was in good shape, and they were optimistic about the future, but growing numbers are also concerned about issues such as air pollution, water pollution, and food safety.6 In China and many other nations, inequality is a major public concern. Most Chinese people welcome their country’s economic growth, but they do not necessarily believe everyone in society is experiencing the benefits of that growth.

On these and other issues, survey research organizations provide information and analysis that inform and shape debates over global issues. In this way, they are significant non-state actors in international affairs. Polls are hardly the only way people can express their views, especially in an era when millions use Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, and many other social media platforms, in addition to more traditional methods of participation such as voting and protesting. However, surveys are still the most rigorous way to get a representative picture of public opinion. As polling becomes more and more common in emerging and developing nations across the globe, we will have a much better, and truly global, understanding of how average citizens view top global challenges, as well as the major issues in their countries and their own lives.