Analysing National Phenomena from a Cross-National Perspective
The Church Research Institute, funded by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland,
conducts research into religious life, church issues and various trends in contemporary
society. The institute makes good use of cross-national comparative surveys in its own
research and funds data collection for surveys in Finland. Kati Niemelä and Kimmo Ketola,
researchers at the institute, think cross-national surveys are very useful for placing Finnish national phenomena and culture in the international context.
Kati Niemelä says cross-national surveys are used in many publications of the institute.
Particularly the World Values Survey (WVS), European Values Study (EVS) and International
Social Survey Programme (ISSP) are used extensively.
– The religion module of the ISSP contains more questions on religion and
religiosity than the WVS survey. The ISSP is also conducted in more countries than the WVS, compares Kimmo Ketola
The WVS and EVS, collected roughly every five years, have their origins in catholic countries. Each wave contains data that are interesting to researchers of religion and religiosity, though the data contain attitudinal questions on other issues as well. The ISSP is collected annually but each wave concentrates on one theme at a time. Religion was the main theme in 1991, 1998 and 2008. Finland began collecting data for the ISSP in 2000, so the earlier waves do not contain Finnish data.
Cross-national comparisons arouse interest
Using well-know cross-national surveys has other benefits in addition to placing Finnish attitudes and phenomena in context.
– The surveys provide a good channel for discussion at international conferences. People
feel that it is 'proper, trustworthy research' when the analysis is based on widely known
cross-national data. Conference participants tend to be more interested in comparisons than
in research focusing on Finland alone, Ketola explains.
The lure of numbers
Kati Niemelä reveals that she likes numbers and enjoys 'messing about' with fresh data such as the ISSP 2008.
– It is fascinating! The data contain many successful questions that are not asked in other surveys, providing new and unique information.
Kimmo Ketola says that particularly comparing Finns and Finland to other countries provides
a lot to analyse, often with somewhat unexpected results. In some issues Finland resembles
catholic countries and in others adheres more to the Nordic patterns.
– Even though Finland is generally grouped with the other Nordic countries,
looking at statistical analysis results it is easy to see that in some aspects Finnish religiosity differs significantly from that of other Lutheran countries. This is reflected in the data.
More variety in cultural coverage
Ketola says that people doing research on religion and using comparative surveys may encounter two problems. First, there should be a wider coverage of different types of cultures.
– Unfortunately, African and Asian cultures are not very well represented. And even in the case where they are represented, there is some doubt as to whether the data are truly representative.
Ketola takes as an example Nigeria which in one cross-national survey showed much more positive responses than the average.
– It may be that Nigeria is indeed a very religious country but at the same time one wonders whether the fact that there are not so many surveys conducted in Nigeria may have affected the respondents and made them give more positive responses, he ponders.
– In another case, a question had very many "Cannot say" responses in Japan which
made us wonder whether the question text had been incorrectly translated into Japanese.
In spite of such problems Ketola hopes that more Asian and African countries would participate in cross-national surveys. It would be interesting to see how the main religion(s) of a country affect results.
– At the moment, one can compare protestant and catholic countries but it is difficult to study how these would differ from muslim countries since Turkey is the only muslim country currently participating in the ISSP.
Scope for further analysis
Ketola believes that cross-national surveys are not used as much as they could be in
research on religion. Knowledge of statistical methods is not that wide-spread among researchers of religion which in part explains the lack of interest.
– Existing data offer interesting areas for study, for instance, for theses work. There is no need to master the most sophisticated statistical methods, even cross-tabulations can provide useful material for study.