Understanding Narratives from Demographic Survey Data: a Comparative Study with Multiple Neural Topic Models


Fertility intentions as verbalized in surveys are a poor predictor of actual fertility outcomes, the number of children people have. This can partly be explained by the uncertainty people have in their intentions. Such uncertainties are hard to capture through traditional survey questions, although open-ended questions can be used to get insight into people’s subjective narratives of the future that determine their intentions. An- alyzing such answers to open-ended questions can be done through Natural Language Process- ing techniques. Traditional topic models (e.g., LSA and LDA), however, often fail to do since they rely on co-occurrences, which are often rare in short survey responses. The aim of this study was to apply and evaluate topic models on demographic survey data. In this study, we applied neural topic models (e.g. BERTopic, CombinedTM) based on language models to responses from Dutch women on their fertil- ity plans, and compared the topics and their coherence scores from each model to expert judgments. Our results show that neural mod- els produce topics more in line with human interpretation compared to LDA. However, the coherence score could only partly reflect on this, depending on the method and corpus used for calculation. This research is important be- cause, first, it helps us develop more informed strategies on model selection and evaluation for topic modeling on survey data; and second, it shows that the field of demography has much to gain from adopting novel NLP methods.

Conference proceedings of Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing