Psephology – the study of elections: Ivor Crewe in conversation with Nigel Warburton for Social Science Bites

Psephology, a word both charming and antiquated, is the study of elections. Ivor Crewe, also charming but not so antiquated, is a studier of elections. The current president of Britain’s Academy of Social sciences and the master of Oxford’s University College, Crewe has long been a respected voice on politics in the UK, US and elsewhere, as evidenced by the acclaim his recent book with Anthony King, The Blunders of Our Governments, has received.

photo_opt1Here, in conversation with Nigel Warburton as part of the celebrated Social Science Bites podcast series on, Crewe marshals that scholarship to divine some salient facts about predicting elections — an exposition that comes post-Scotland’s IndyRef and pre-US midterms. He argues that while current polling attempts to pick a winner, current polling studies is looking for the reason for the result. “The main reason,” he explains, “for studying voting patterns – voting behaviour – is to provide a much more accurate account of why elections turned out in the way that they did: why did one party win rather than another?”

Crewe also knocks down a series of persistent myths surrounding elections: most pollsters aren’t trying to manipulate the results, most interviewees try to answer questions honestly (although minority views may get swallowed up by a caviling “I’m not sure”), and the weather isn’t a huge determinant to outcome (although it can dampen turnout). He also addresses how big decisions can be forecast by small samples, something completely reasonable is the sample is truly representative. “Where electoral studies have a difficulty, and where all social science based on surveys have a difficulty,” notes, “is in estimating the degree to which the sample is unrepresentative and then compensating for that by applying statistical weights to the responses they get from those who do answer the survey.

Crewe formerly served as vice chancellor of the University of Essex from 1995 to 2007; the Crewe Lecture Hall at Essex is named for him and he was the founding director of its Institute of Social and Economic Research. He also edited or co-edited the British Journal of Political Science for more than 15 years.

To hear Crewe or to read a transcript of the interview, click here.

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