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What Doing Door-to-Door Social Research Taught Me About Humanity

People are suspicious and impatient. Except for the elderly, who are starving for any kind of human contact.

Image by Flickr user Rexness

A classic young person job in Australia is doing social research over the phone. As work goes it's pretty easy. Sure, you have to irritate strangers all day long and you get told to fuck off a lot, but at least you're in the comfort of an air conditioned call center where there are dozens of other people, just like you, who are ostensibly all in it together.

Earlier this year I picked up a job with a different kind of social research company. The company (I won't bother naming it) had been commissioned by local governments to independently collect data. My job was to go door-to-door asking people what they thought about council programs and services. Later, someone from the office would compile that information into a set of statistics and write a report.


Each weekend for three months, I found myself in a different part of Melbourne—Maribyrnong, Yarra City, Stonnington, Mitchell Shire—with a quota of surveys and a lanyard displaying my dinky ID card. Forgetting the constant rejection and long commutes to out-of-the-way suburbs, listening to people whine about their lives in parts of the city I'd never seen was kind of interesting. In fact, for a few months it was interesting enough to keep getting up in the morning. Here are some things I learned.

People are Suspicious and Impatient

People in newer apartments protect themselves from people like me with locked gates and intercom systems, making them the hardest demographic to engage. The big houses in the outer suburbs, the ones inner-city Australians call McMansions, are the most likely to have signs at their doorsteps that say "No Unsolicited Salespeople." Other times they just say "No Door Knockers." These are some of the small but effective things people do to avoid strangers coming to their doorsteps.

If I managed to engage someone face-to-face, about two thirds of the time they would decline to do the survey, mostly in a polite way. Of the ones who agreed to do it, barely any would let me inside the house, which meant I'd have to ask the questions while standing on the front door step. Some people would even stay behind a locked gate. On the rare occasion that I was actually permitted entry into someone's home I was sometimes offered a glass of water, but never tea or coffee. Not even once.


Old People are Starving for Human Contact

I would often survey elderly people who seemingly hadn't spoken to another human in weeks. Often this was due to physical disabilities that made it too difficult to leave the house. These people relish any chance to chat. Sometimes I would listen to an old-lady talk for 25 minutes about her issues with the council, family dramas, or what's happening in the news. At times you'd get the feeling that they didn't want you to leave. This was a weird feeling that hit you at the base of the stomach. Sometimes it felt good to provide that social space for someone who needed it but in the end I'd have to excuse myself and get out of there. There are a lot of lonely people behind closed doors.

Sometimes People Will Give You Beer

One day in Maribyrnong I saw a man on a second story balcony with a beer in one hand and a length of PVC piping in the other. He leaned over the railing, put his lips to the piping, and shot a cardboard blow-dart at me. It missed by about a meter. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Wanna do a survey?

Him: Nah, not really… What's it for?

Me: Just for the council, you can rate their programs and services.

Him: (considering for a couple of seconds) All right, let yourself in, go to the fridge, grab a six-pack and bring it upstairs. Have a beer with me and I'll do your survey.

It turned out his name was Matt and he was celebrating his 24th birthday. He took me in, gave me beers, and did the survey. Then, when carloads of young men from country Victoria arrived with slabs of beer, he commanded them to do my surveys too. I fulfilled my quota and we had a good-old Aussie barbecue, complete with white bread, tomato sauce, processed meat, joints, whippits, and ecstasy. That was a really good day.


People Are Opinionated About Things like Parking

Along with the lonely old people, there are the ones who talk in detail about how they want the community to improve. Sometimes this will translate to clever and considered suggestions for the future of the community. Unfortunately though, most people just whine about little things. It was alarming how often—when asked an open question about the most important issue for the future—people settled on a trivial gripe about a parking ticket or an unpruned tree on their street.

Social Research Is Poorly Designed and Badly Carried Out

Although the research was independent, it was by no means objective. The questionnaire seemed designed to make it hard to criticize the council and its projects. For example, a question like: "What are some of the benefits you can envision for such-and-such-council-project?" carried the assumption that the project would actually have some benefit. This makes it difficult to respond negatively and I found people would sooner skip the question than deconstruct the assumption.

My last day on the job was in the outer suburbs where the urban sprawl thins out into bigger blocks and Melbourne comes to resemble a small country town. It was a particularly hot day, there was a lot of walking in between houses, and I was finding it hard to engage anyone.

Around lunchtime I went back to the company car, turned on the air conditioning and began filling in the surveys myself, repeating the data that I'd already gathered and throwing in some of my own opinions. Lazy and unethical as it was, it wasn't the first time I'd done it. When all but one survey was completed I decided I should cap off the day with a shred of honesty.

Twenty more minutes of door knocking was interspersed with "no thanks, mate," "no speak English," or no answer at all. Then, at the doorstep of a big house made from beige bricks, a man told me to "piss off" before I could finish my sentence. And that was when my job as a door-to-door social researcher abruptly ended.

I quit the job via text message. The boss didn't seem to mind. I got the feeling that staff came and went fairly regularly.

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