Chimid and Paula outside his family's new dacha, 2003. Photo courtesy Paula Sabloff.

In looking for patterns, social scientists often slot people into demographic categories to see if and how these categories shape people’s thinking.  

The extent to which age, gender, geographic location, and education level determine how people think about democracy is the subject of a recent study by SFI External Professor Paula Sabloff and colleagues.

“We wanted to see if demography determines how people think about democracy,” Sabloff says. “And if these demographic categories do make a difference, why do they?”

The researchers conducted a network analysis on a rich database of 1,283 responses to the question: “What are the characteristics of a democratic country?” With the help of local research teams, Sabloff collected the responses during two periods of fieldwork in Mongolia in 1998 and in 2003. Though she had published an initial statistical analysis in 2013, Sabloff wanted to revisit the data to see if a network analysis could yield a more nuanced and accurate picture. With the help of external professors Stefan Thurner (Medical University of Vienna) and Hyejin Youn (Northwestern University), and also Rudolf Hanel (Medical University of Vienna), Sabloff recently re-analyzed the data using network analysis.

The new analysis shows that, despite a large overlap in responses amongst the relatively homogenous population (which was 80% Khalka Mongol), there exist notable differences across the demographic categories. In 1998, for example, older respondents showed an unanticipated level of enthusiasm for democracy. This directly countered assurances from Mongolian higher education officials that the older generation, educated during the Soviet regime, would never understand or embrace Western democracy.

The intelligentsia had also assured Sabloff that there would be no need to study gender differences because Mongolian men and women were “thought to think alike about democracy,” Sabloff recounts. Counter to these assumptions, the analysis of the networks representing men’s and women’s responses shows that the genders placed different priorities on various attributes of a demographic government, such as a democracy’s role in providing access to education.

“I think this analysis shows that demographics do affect how people think,” Sabloff says, “because these factors like gender and location and age and education level affect the particular way each group experienced Mongolia’s rapid change from Soviet-style socialism to Western democracy and capitalism. People over 55 so hated the restrictions of communist socialism that they eagerly embraced Western democracy.”

The study also revealed the passage of time to be the most influential factor on Mongolians’ conceptions of democracy. Across demographic categories, conceptions of democracy shifted dramatically between 1998 and 2003, though the demographic groups never converged on a uniform political outlook.

The findings affirm the utility of demographic analysis in revealing meaningful variations in life experience and cognitive diversity. According to Sabloff, this is because people experience changes in a society according to how they are perceived and the opportunities open to them. Gender, age, physical location, and education level all enter into this equation.

Read “Demographics and Democracy: A Network Analysis of Mongolians’ Political Cognition” in the Journal of Anthropological Research (Winter 2017)