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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches
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VISUAL PROPS AS SCALES

Several scales have been developed over the years with visual props. Four of them are the semantic differential, the ladder of life, the happiness stick, and the faces scale.

Semantic Differential

I’ve always liked the semantic differential scaling method. It was developed in the 1950s by Charles Osgood and his associates at the University of Illinois and has become an important research tool in cognitive studies, including psychology, anthropology, and sociology (Osgood et al. 1957; Snider and Osgood 1969). It has also been used by thousands of researchers across the social sciences, and with good reason: The semantic differential test is easy to construct and easy to administer.

Osgood was interested in how people interpret things—inanimate things (like artifacts or monuments), animate things (like persons or the self), behaviors (like incest, or buying a new car, or shooting a deer), and intangible concepts (like gun control or literacy). This is exactly what Likert scales are designed to test, but instead of asking people to rate questionnaire items about things, Osgood tested people’s feelings differently: He gave them a target item and a list of paired adjectives about the target. The adjective pairs could come from reading of the literature or from focus groups or from ethnographic interviews. Target items can be ideas (land reform, socialism, aggression), behaviors (smoking, running, collecting ground nuts), objects (the mall, a courtroom, horses), environmental conditions (rain, drought, jungle) . . . almost anything.

Figure 11.1 is an example of a semantic differential test. The target is ‘‘having a cold.’’ If you were taking this test right now, you’d be asked to place a check on each line, depending on your reaction to each pair of adjectives.

FIGURE 11.1.

A semantic differential scale to test how people feel about the concept of having a cold. The dimensions in this scale are useful for measuring how people feel about many different things.

With a Likert scale, you ask people a series of questions that get at the target concept. In a semantic differential scale, you name the target concept and ask people to rate their feelings toward it on a series of variables. The semantic differential is usually a 7-point scale, as I’ve indicated in the first adjective pair in figure 11.1. Your score on this test would be the sum of all your answers to the 13 adjective pairs.

Osgood and his associates did hundreds of replications of this test, using hundreds of adjective pairs, in 26 different cultures. Their analyses showed that in every culture, just three major kinds of adjectives account for most of the variation in people’s responses: adjectives of evaluation (good-bad, difficult-easy), adjectives of potency (strong-weak, dominant-submissive, etc.), and adjectives of activity (fast-slow, active-inactive, sedentary-mobile, etc.).

As the target changes, you have to make sure that the adjective pairs make sense. The adjective pair ethical-corrupt works for some targets, but you probably wouldn’t use it for having a cold.

Vincke et al. (2001) used the semantic differential scale to explore the meaning of 25 sex acts among gay men in Flanders, Belgium. Their informants scaled each act (anal insertive sex, anal receptive sex, insertive fellatio, receptive fellatio, interfemoral sex, and so on) on six paired dimensions: unsatisfying/satisfying, stimulating/dull, interesting/bor- ing, emotional/unemotional, healthy/unhealthy, and safety/danger. Vincke et al. then compared results on the semantic differential for men who practiced safe sex (with one partner or with a condom) and men who practiced unsafe sex (multiple partners and without a condom) to see which sex acts were more gratifying for high-risk-taking and low-risk-taking men (Further Reading: semantic differential).

 
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