Mapping Divisions and Debates in Modern American Values

As I grow older, my awareness of my own values and how they compare to other people’s has become much more acute. In my mind, it is crucial that citizens are aware of their own values, but also of the values around them. And, it is therefore even more crucial that we have resources to educate us about the values around us. Maps are particularly helpful resources for this. The American Values Atlas (AVA), created by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in 2014, uses a simple yet interactive map of the United States to show the distribution of values in the United States. On a familiar projection of the continental United States, the AVA displays survey results on political and social attitudes by year, from each state, region, and 30 metropolitan areas. This interactive map is a tool for representing and tracking the intricacies and changes in attitudes in our society. Furthermore, the AVA is a live map—it changes annually. To ensure the map shows an accurate study of America’s political and cultural climate from year to year, the PRRI annually samples 50,000 random Americans. To activate the map, you select a topic from the sidebar and a question to explore. Then, you click on any state, region, or city to compare results.

It is imperative that people track diversity in a society with increasingly diverse attitudes, biases, and beliefs, so that they are aware of how many perspectives there are and know why different people react differently to politics. The American Values Atlas makes this possible.  It is a portrayal of modern, meaningful relationships in American society, while also a guide to tracking the changes in those relationships. For instance, the map shows that in 2015, 25 percent of Mississippi respondents favored same-sex marriage.  And, in 2016, 37 percent of Mississippi respondents favored same-sex marriage. That is a fairly abrupt change. And shows that, even in the state most reluctant to accept the idea of same-sex marriage, people’s values are changing. Further, the data of the map details America for what it is: a dynamic encounter of cultures, religions, and political ideologies. Yet, the view of an isolated United States projects the message that we are all Americans. The map says, “Look, these are the states, these are the people who make up the states, look at all this difference, yet we are the United States of America.” It identifies the diversity, and solidifies debate as American.

Moreover, the map shows the views on immigration, religion, and a variety of social issues associated with different geographic regions. Americans want to understand the demographics of their state. They want to know where their state sits on the political spectrum. And they want to know what direction their state is headed. For someone foreign to the United States, this map shows the distribution of demographics and ideologies throughout the nation. The map’s interactivity gives it an advantage over non-interactive maps because it allows the user to select the information they need to see and suppress the information they don’t need to see. In other words, the map can contain a lot of information while not showing it all at once. Because the map is digital, the authors can update it whenever they need to without having to create an entirely new map.

What this map fails to show, however, is each state’s population. Especially with the context of the map, one would think that the creators would offer each state’s population as a context for comparisons between states. This failure fosters a perception bias that the relative size of the state is more significant than the relative population. But, in truth, the population, and the demographics, are far more significant factors to be concerned with than the spatial projection. My home state of Iowa, for instance, appears equal in size, if not slightly bigger, than New York, which may be true spatially, but, what the map fails to convey is that New York has nearly seven times as many people than Iowa, and therefore carries greater influence.

I chose this map because of my interest in American politics and social issues, more specifically, social discrimination. This map showed me something I knew, but with greater precision: in the United States today, there is a profoundly deceitful claim that social discrimination does not exist in our American society. For example, if you look at each state’s response to the question, “Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against blacks, or not?”, (which can be found under the sidebar topic “discrimination”) it is evident that a substantial number of Americans are unaware of the social discrimination in American society. But, the survey question is ambiguous, it asks people to measure “a lot” but, as the map shows, “a lot” is measured differently by different people. The map also fails to represent indicators of social inequality in each state, which can lead people to assume that the factors perpetuating social discrimination are consistent across the nation. Yes, social discrimination in the United States has improved in the past 100 years; still, the extent to which our improvements have met our generation’s cries is unsatisfactory.

Values make us human. And it’s important to remember that the contrasts between our values do not have to separate us, but can bring us together in a society that fosters independent growth, and encourages new perspectives. We, the United States, need to do a better job to ensure that our society lives up to the values we proclaim to hold. The American Values Atlas, although lacking a few specifications, delivers what it is intended to deliver: insight into the distribution of values in America. And, in doing so, it reminds us that the United States still has a lot of work to do before we can identify social equity as a common value of American society.

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