Methods and Madness

August 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every so often I find myself thinking that sociology isn’t really so different from journalism. We both look for cultural and social trends, we base our conclusions on questions (or questionnaires) and interviews.

Then a column by Maureen Dowd or someone like her slaps some sense into me. Today, Dowd maintains that women who supported Hillary in the primaries may stay away from Obama because he is like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – “clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious.” And slim.

Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal article “Too Fit to Be President?” by Amy Chozick, who writes: “Hillary supporters — who loved their heroine’s admission that she was on Weight Watchers — were put off by Obama’s svelte, zero-body-fat figure.”

What evidence did Chozick offer? One comment posted to a Yahoo discussion board. And how did that comment come to be there? Chozick went fishing for it. She posted:
Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his “no excess body fat”? Please let me know. Thanks!
Most of the responses made fun of the question itself. But one person created a user ID of onlinebeerbellygirl in order to say, “I won't vote for any beanpole guy.” That was the evidence Chozick chose and Dowd repeated.

I’m saving this as an example for research methods. The Yahoo discussion has been taken down, but Sorry No (who gets a big hat tip) documents the whole thing and links to a cached copy of the Yahoo board.

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