Professional opinions

Last Thursday, social research buffs roamed around the National Opinion Research Center’s “Campus Open House,” admiring the tri-fold posters displaying their peers’ work. The National Opinion Research Center has been contracted by everyone from the New York Times to the World Bank. Collecting opinions through phone calls and in-person interviews conducted around the country, the center is an influential bellwether of American perspectives. Yet while the organization’s findings diffuse across the world, very little light shines on the individuals and institutions behind that research. This science fair for grown-ups intended to do just that.

The posters on display showed diversity in content but unity in style and color scheme, NORC’s signature orange hue apparent on each display–popping out against the gray walls where presenters eagerly stood. NORC recently embarked on a rebranding project, reflected in the center’s new logo and color scheme. Event organizer Greg Lanier admitted with a smirk that the event was also an opportunity “to showcase our recently renovated offices,” another part of the rejuvenation. Smiling and handing out programs to guests, he was visibly pleased with the event’s turnout.

Presenters gestured enthusiastically to sleek diagrams and statistical data while onlookers asked questions and tried to keep up. While some presenters appeared thoroughly calm and confident; others got flustered by the presence of high-profile academics lurking in the crowd. The event was geared toward faculty and grad students, but they weren’t the only ones in attendance: a few casual spectators stood out, their jeans and T-shirts accenting the business-casual landscape.

Lanier emphasized that the open house was a major opportunity for NORC to demonstrate its “broad range of work.” And “broad range” was no exaggeration: posters spanned the gamut of social sciences, with topics varying from economic infrastructure to the prevention of dating violence. “The Dynamics of Methamphetamine Markets” exemplified the cutting-edge survey design NORC prides itself on. Investigators focused on interviews with police and ex-meth makers to learn about the market rather than traditional quantitative data. “We totally took the opposite approach from what you’re supposed to do,” laughed researcher Tim Mulcahy, addressing half a dozen captivated onlookers.

A young female grad student had been eagerly nodding along to Mulcahy’s speech. “Well,” she said afterwards, cocking her head, “I, uh, wasn’t expecting to learn about meth labs today!” She smiled whimsically and thanked the presenters before wandering off to the next display.