August 18, 2013

Much has been made of the dramatic growth in social support for same-sex marriage in the United States. Such trends have been noted by many polling organizations, and there is no reason to think that popular sentiment has done anything but change toward that of growing support. Or has it?

rice study fig1


A new study from Rice University sociologists Michael Emerson and Laura Essenburg curiously went unnoticed recently amid a series of media releases from the university in late June. It is, however, worth your attention because one of the Rice study’s unique contributions is that it asked the same question to the same set of persons—six years apart.

What’s the advantage to querying the same people? Rather than simply mapping trends in the overall population, you can discern internal movement within people. Attitudes change, and they don’t always move in the direction of greater openness to same-sex marriage.

The Portraits of American Life Study (PALS), a random sample of American adults, asked over 1,300 people—on two different occasions—for their level of agreement to this statement: “The only legal marriage should be between one man and one woman.” Here is what the authors say it revealed: no change in overall sentiment on same-sex marriage (despite appearances, the differences in Figure 1 are not statistically significant). But some things did change—minds—and not all of them toward favoring same-sex marriage:

rice study fig 2“…when we look behind the overall numbers, we find that many people did indeed change their minds over the 6-year period. The most stable category was among Americans who agreed in 2006 that the only legal marriage should be between one man and one woman. About three-quarters (74%) who agreed with the statement in 2006 also agreed with it in 2012. Among those who disagreed with the statement in 2006, 61% also disagreed in 2012. What is surprising in light of other polls and the dominant media reports that Americans are moving in droves from defining marriage as one man and one woman to an expanded definition is the movement of people in the other direction as well, a fact missed by surveys that do not follow the same people over time.”

Some take-home conclusions:

First, this survey reveals less support for same-sex marriage than most polls of late. Why? We’ll cover this in an upcoming post, but it may have to do with the manner in which the question is asked. Second, the most consistent group is those who oppose same-sex marriage: 74% of them did not change their minds. Third, many people are changing their minds on the matter, especially those previously on the fence: 43% of people who didn’t take a position in 2006 disagreed with the traditional-marriage-only definition in 2012, compared with 23% who moved off the fence to support it. Fourth and finally, when summed together overall, it appears there was not much change in the entire sample. But a closer look reveals it is an appearance only, and not a reality.