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secondary analysis of large social surveys jeremy freese A prospective graduate student once explained his resolute lack of interest in quantitative social research to me by saying the work seemed to him akin to dying before one was dead. Although quantitative methodology encompasses a broad array of otherwise quite distinct types of research, those who view it as a soul-sucking craft seem often to be thinking primarily about the secondary analysis of large social surveys. Somehow, the prospect of a career spending much of one’s time analyzing numeric data collected by other people does not capture the romantic imagination in quite the same way as doing ‹eldwork in some intriguing locale, having long face-to-face interactions with a small number of selected informants, or sitting in a coffeehouse debating the ‹ner points of French social theory. Plus, as human lives and the processes by which human fates diverge are vastly more complicated than anything that can be represented by a few hundred variables, one might be leery of the whole premise that important insights into social life can be gained by gazing at numbers on one’s monitor. In brief, a prospective quantitative social researcher might seem to be signing up for a career of boring, solitary labor contributing to a dreary mountain of incremental oversimpli‹cations on whatever narrow topic they choose to specialize in. Talk about dying before being dead! I have to confess that I started graduate school with similar preconcep238 tions, and I planned to avoid quanti‹cation and questionnaires as much as possible. Now, however, much of my research involves working with large surveys, and, at this writing, I remain physically and otherwise alive. What I came to realize was that large-scale social surveys provide the best means for addressing a broad class of questions about social life that are theoretically interesting and important for broader social understanding and for social policy. The ability to work with large survey data knowledgeably allows one to engage such questions whenever they intersect with one’s intellectual agenda. These surveys also offer important advantages when one wishes to do work on contentious topics, as I will discuss. The labor itself turns out to be intricate, challenging, and subtle, requiring both creativity and discipline to be done well. And even then it is vulnerable to the same kinds of setbacks and problem solving that characterize the research process more generally. Doing quantitative research of course requires understanding matters covered in statistics or econometrics texts, but those are not the purview of this essay. Instead, my purpose is to introduce some of the practical issues that are part of the craft of analyzing large-scale surveys, and to provide my thoughts on navigating those issues. To keep matters concrete, I proceed using a single project as an extended illustration—a project I did as a graduate student (in essence, my own introduction to large-scale survey analysis ) that was later published with my dissertation adviser and another collaborator in the American Sociological Review (Freese, Powell, and Steelman 1999). While I have mixed feelings about excavating a project I completed nearly a decade ago, the project illustrates the main points I wish to make, the methodology is fairly straightforward and transparent, and the bene‹t of hindsight makes it possible to re›ect on ways the project could have been better. Even so, technological advances have meant that the practical work of quantitative analysis is much different now than it was then, and I make note of key differences along the way. At the end, I also discuss some possibilities for using survey data for reaching stronger and more satisfying conclusions than were possible in our study. background The story begins in 1996, with me reading a New Yorker article about a new book by a scholar named Frank Sulloway entitled Born to Rebel (hereafter BTR). The article intrigued me so much that I had a friend drive me to a Secondary Analysis of Large Social Surveys • 239 bookstore so I could buy the book; then, I stayed up all night and read the entire thing. By the time I was done, I decided I wanted to try to test some of the book’s claims for myself to see if they were true. Sulloway has an impressive intellectual biography that includes being a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. His theory in BTR is that sibling competition...


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