50 Years of Rare Insights into German Society

By Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

50 Years of Rare Insights into German Society


Ruth Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


'Love is blind" is a common expression, but a German polling firm has found that it's true.

Survey respondents, asked whether they would say their spouses or partners are "especially good-looking," answered affirmatively in a strong majority of cases.

That's just one of the unusual discoveries made by the Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research here, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997. It's common to joke here that Bill Gates would never have been able to start Microsoft in Germany, because German labor laws prohibit people from working in a garage. But Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, grande dame of polling in Germany, and her colleagues founded the Allensbach Institute in a garage in 1947. As soon as they could, however, they moved into the present headquarters in a restored 17th-century farmhouse, not far from the pink Rathaus, or town hall. "The institute has become an institution," is the way German Chancellor Helmut Kohl put it at a recent "birthday party" for Allensbach held in Bonn. A venerable legacy To translate the comprehensiveness of its research efforts over the years into American terms, you'd have to imagine George Gallup sending out his legions of clipboard-toting interviewers during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. That's because, as the chancellor reminded his listeners in Bonn, "when the Allensbach Institute was founded, there was not yet a Federal Republic of Germany." The area in which the institute is located was still under post-World War II French occupation. By contrast, the Gallup data go back to the 1930s - but by then the United States had been in existence for over a century and a half. "It's certainly very unusual for one firm to cover all the democratic history of a country, and so systematically" as Allensbach has done, says American political scientist Everett Ladd, of the University of Connecticut. He calls the Allensbach archive a "uniquely valuable resource" because it has been so meticulously organized and maintained. "Elisabeth {Noelle-Neumann} has certainly come in for her share of criticism, not least because of her strong-willed personality," says Dr. Ladd. But he praises her institute's contribution, "both technical and substantive" - in the area of research methods, and the findings of that research. And unlike most American opinion researchers, who generally choose between the academic and the political realms, "Elisabeth has straddled both worlds," Ladd says. Germany's first chancellors regularly sought Allensbach's counsel from the late 1940s, and subsequent governments of both the right and the left have continued receiving its monthly opinion data briefings. The Allensbachers are methodical, but they remain open to surprises, too. In the Allensbach Yearbook of Opinion Research, 1993-1997, the institute reports on 35 so-called "demoscopic discoveries" it has made over the years. Amazing discoveries As Allensbach has found, seemingly simple questions can have far wider implications. "Are you looking forward to the new year with hope or with fear?" is one such question that the institute has put to Germans every December since 1949. It turns out to be one of the best early indicators of economic growth. But some findings make it apparent that what "everybody knows" isn't always so. Germans have long been uneasy about new technologies, for instance. …

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