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I am conducting a case study on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers. My particular interest is: How aware is my test subject of the reasons (political persecution, famine, war, ...) why these people are leaving their home country?

I would like to avoid asking explicit questions like "How often do you think about the political situation in Syria?"

So, is there any standardized or way of investigating awareness (not knowledge) of a certain topic?

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  • $\begingroup$ At the moment, your question is difficult to understand, because it is unclear what you mean by "awareness of a topic" and how it differs from knowledge. Are you assuming that everybody knows the reasons? Are you interested in how much importance people give to these reasons? The strength of their own convictions about these reasons? The ease with which they can come up with these reasons? $\endgroup$ – user7759 Aug 20 '15 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MaríaAnt: I just wanted to make clear that I'm not interested in the actual knowledge (e.g. there are 14.3m refugees worldwide) but rather the person's general interest in the topic. Is it something the person thinks about from time to time without being reminded? Or are they rather indifferent about these things? $\endgroup$ – Stefan Surkamp Aug 20 '15 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ You can look at the use of certain words in writing or spoken conversation to indicate that the person is thinking or aware of the subject. For writing, look for tools that can make a "tag cloud" out of a piece of text, and see if the words you are interested in appear there. For example, there was a very long suicide note which I examined this way a few years ago. Out of 100 or so pages, words like Nazis and Jews were on the top of the tag cloud list, meaning that person was aware and thinking about the subject. $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Aug 20 '15 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Nice idea! Unfortunately, I'm only investigating this topic in a very short amount of time. So, I need to get this information directly from the person (interview or questionnaire). $\endgroup$ – Stefan Surkamp Aug 20 '15 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ How long are we talking? Ecological momentary assessment might be an option, otherwise you pretty much just have to ask them to estimate directly. $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr Aug 21 '15 at 17:21
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I think what you may be after is the accessibility of people's attitudes. The idea is that people not only have different attitudes, but that they also differ whether these attitudes are on top of their minds (or how easy it is for them to retrieve them, when they are prompted to indicate an attitude). If an attitude is subjectively important or often thought about, it should be highly accessible. On the other hand, for other things, people may have a very negative or positive attitude, that is, nevertheless, relatively inaccessible to them. Accessible attitudes have been shown to guide behavior more strongly (there is a higher correspondence between attitudes and behavior). The classic paper is by Fazio and colleagues (1989).

Attitude accessibility can be measured by measuring the reaction time to attitudes questions. If people are faster in answering an attitude question, this is taken as an indicator of a highly accessible attitude. This would also be the kind of indirect measure that you might have in mind.

So in your example, you could ask participants to agree or disagree whether certain reasons for seeking asylum are important, and measure the reaction time of their answers. Quicker answers would indicate that these reasons are more accessible to them.

References

Fazio, R. H., Powell, M. C., & Williams, C. J. (1989). The role of attitude accessibility in the attitude-to-behavior process. Journal of consumer research, 280–288.

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