Multiple choice questions necessarily limit the possible answers to those given to the applicant by the questioner.
They are questions to which only certain answers are legitimate.
The simplest form of multiple choice question isn’t a question and doesn’t really look like a choice at all. At the end of the above ‘destitution message’ there is only one box to tick. But there is a choice. The applicant can tick the box to show that they have ‘read and understood the destitution message’, or they can leave the box blank. But if they don’t tick the box, their application will be disregarded. This is a choice that is not a choice. It gets to the heart of the multiple choice question as a format for collecting data, by ticking a box (however many boxes there are), the claimant legitimises the format. By ticking any box in a multiple choice question, the applicant tacitly agrees that the choices laid out on the form are adequate to the complexity of their situation.
The next level of sophistication in the world of multiple choice questions is the yes/no question. This can function in a similar way to the single tick box. In the above question about destitution, there is only one correct answer, because destitution support is only given to people who will become destitute or street homeless in the next 14 days. If the applicant ticks yes, they can carry on with the form, filling in details about their situation. If they tick no, then they may as well stop writing, because this form is not going to help them.
Here we have a different kind of yes/no question. In the above question about assets, both answers are valid responses, and can be accommodated by the form. Ticking no allows the applicant to move on to the next question. But ticking yes requires the applicant to fill in more details. ‘Currency?’, ‘Value?’. It also leads you to another yes/no question, ‘Can you liquidate this asset?’. This question seems to spill the bounds of the tick box. Ticking yes may well invalidate the applicant’s claim to be destitute, so we’re back to a choice that is not a choice. Ticking no leads the applicant to a more open question, ‘Why not?’, but the space given over on the form for explaining what sounds like a very complex situation is very small.
Let’s take a moment to consider the idea of a text box. It is a designated space next to a question on a form, within which the applicant can write their answer. The text box lets them know where to write their answer, and also lets them know how long an answer the institution that designed the form desires them to give. When it comes to the length and complexity of the given answer, the size of the text box expresses the tensions between the expected, the possible and the desirable. The text box we can see besides the ‘Why not?’ question is very small. This makes me think that in the design process for this form, the mediation between expected, possible and desirable was more of a battle, and the winner was desirability. If this text box had a voice it would say, ‘Let’s keep this brief.’
Finally the most commonly understood form of the multiple choice question. In the above section, the applicant is asked if there are, ‘additional reasons why we should prioritise’ their application. They tick the box that applies to them, and are asked for a brief description.
From what we’ve learned elsewhere in our research into the immigration system, the choices offered by this question suggest a history of changes to the form. Changes that might have come from legal challenges by unsuccessful applicants who were then found to be eligible for support or from legislation that redefined who should be prioritised for support, changes that left their mark on a pre-existing form. Each change adding a new pathway along which applicants might move towards a successful application.
The minimal language of the question is a feature of all applications, but it means in this case that it doesn’t explain the rights offered to applicants who can tick one of these boxes. For example, the question simply lists pregnancy as a reason why an application should be prioritised, whereas in fact, if the applicant is pregnant then the local council is obliged to provide money, healthcare and housing under different legislation entirely. The question does not lie, but it does not explain the way things are.
I’m not suggesting that the question should supply this information, rather, I’m pointing out that the multiple choice format allows certain information to remain hidden, even if it doesn't actively hide it.