Surveys can be used to provide descriptive statistics for national, regional, or local populations; to examine the clustering of social phenomena; to identify the social location and characteristics of subgroups for more intensive follow-up case-study research; and to analyse causal processes and test explanations. In recent years sociological survey analysis has been greatly extended to include the sophisticated multivariate modelling techniques that are common in econometrics. One of the main attractions of the sample survey for both policy research and theoretical research is its transparency and accountability: methods and procedures can be made visible and accessible to other parties, unlike research designs that depend heavily on the contribution of individual researchers. The key disadvantage is that surveys normally use structured questionnaires, which constrain an enquiry to paths fixed at the start of fieldwork. Other criticisms which are sometimes levelled at surveys are that numerical variables rarely provide adequate operationalizations of sociological constructs; the highly asymmetric power relation between researcher and interviewee is detrimental to the quality of the data collected; they provide a false aura of objectivity which makes their results vulnerable to political manipulation. Many of these criticisms can be overcome by good survey design and implementation.
Surveys can collect information on individuals, roles, social networks, social groups such as households or families, organizations such as schools, workplaces, or companies. In most cases the information is provided by individuals, but the information collected may be about any social unit of interest, with larger and more complex units requiring multiple interviews to avoid the information limitations or bias of a single informant. Surveys are used to study poverty, social stratification, social mobility, political orientations and participation, work and employment, and virtually all the issues addressed by sociologists and other social scientists.
Survey interviews may be personal, postal, or conducted by telephone. Telephone surveys are particularly common in the United States, where most households have telephones, and the size of the country makes face-to-face interviewing of a nationally representative sample of the population prohibitively expensive (see P. J. Lavrakas , Telephone Survey Methods, 1987
). Major surveys, especially national surveys, are now carried out by specialist fieldwork agencies or national research institutes that have the necessary resources for questionnaire design, sample design, sample selection from available registers or other sampling frames, fieldwork planning and supervision, training and debriefing of interviewers, coding of completed questionnaires, consistency checks, and editing of the resulting data-tape. Such agencies often become centres for methodological research on sampling, survey techniques, and design.
CAPI (Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing) and CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) techniques are increasingly used. These involve the interviewer in coding the answers given by each respondent directly on to a data-tape or file, using a personal or laptop computer, at the time of interview. This saves both time and money in the overall survey process, but does mean that particular care must be taken over matters of questionnaire design at the outset, to ensure that there are no filtering or other errors in the final interview schedule.
Most academic research consists of ad hoc surveys, carried out on a one-off basis, to address defined theoretical and other issues. Ad hoc surveys often employ the smallest sample size necessary to achieve representativeness, typically 2,000 respondents for a national survey, relying heavily on statistical inference to generalize the results to the target population. National opinion polls are carried out on a regular basis, but again employ the smallest sample size necessary to achieve representativeness, and necessitate the use of tests of statistical significance. With the change of emphasis from administrative records and registers to interview surveys as the basis of official statistics, a great variety of regular surveys are also carried out by national governments. These involve quite different orders of magnitude to the typical ad hoc survey, with national samples of 5,000–250,000 per year; samples as large as this begin to make tests of statistical significance as redundant as they are with census data, except when data subsets are analysed. In effect, the variety of surveys is now so wide that it ceases to be a homogeneous category of social research. Regular surveys may involve repeat cross-sectional surveys at defined intervals, such as annually every spring, or be carried out on the basis of continuous year-round interviewing so as to smooth out any seasonal variations in the activities covered. The USA Current Population Survey (CPS) and some equivalent Labour Force Surveys (LFS) employ rotating sample designs which offer many of the advantages of data from panel studies for measuring changes over time in the phenomena under study.
Surveys make demands on respondents and require their active co-operation to be successful. They require that respondents adopt the role of interviewee, in effect the role of citizen and commentator on their own lives, and the lives of those around them. This interviewee role has developed over decades in Western industrial societies, and there is increasing recognition that it is not universally understood or accepted in other cultures. For example, in some cultures it would be impolite to express open disagreement with the perceived or expected views of an interviewer, thus invalidating the invitation for respondents to express their own views. Surveys also make information demands that can be difficult to meet in societies where literacy and personal record-keeping are less widespread–so that even dates of birth may be difficult to recall accurately. New techniques of data collection are being developed for surveys in Third World countries and societies with different cultures and social conventions.
There are numerous textbooks on how to design and conduct surveys. Catherine Marsh's The Survey Method (1982) stands out as an elegant defence of the technique against critics who object that surveys are invariably superficial and merely descriptive.
Social scientists investigate people who lived in the past or are living in the present. Surveys are one tool they use to gather information about a population of interest. Social scientists use surveys to assess people’s behavior, knowledge, opinions, attitudes, or abilities. Surveys can be conducted orally or in written form, and they can be administered to individuals or groups. Group surveys offer an advantage over other methods of investigation, such as interviews or observation, in that they can collect sensitive data while keeping participants’ identities confidential. In addition a large amount of data can be collected at once, rather than collecting data from each participant individually. Edward Laumann and colleagues (1994) designed and administered a survey to assess the sexual behavior of American adults. The survey was administered nationwide to over 3,000 men and women, addressing such sensitive topics as typical sex practices, number of sex partners, and contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. Tw o of the most important properties that must be assessed in the development and use of a survey are its reliability and validity.
Reliability is the extent to which a survey is accurate, meaning that it is free of measurement error. While this psychometric property can be calculated using a variety of methods, reliability is theoretically the ratio of true score variance to observed score variance. It is determined by calculating a correlation coefficient on relevant data. Common methods of determining reliability include the test-retest method, in which scores from two different administrations of the same test are correlated to detect error from time sampling, and the split-half method, in which a correlation coefficient is calculated between two halves of the survey in order to determine internal consistency (Kaplan and Saccuzzo 2005).
Validity is the extent to which the survey measures what it is intended to measure or gathers the information it is designed to gather. A psychometrically sound survey is one that has been shown, through empirical research, to have several kinds of evidence for validity, such as construct-related evidence (the extent to which the instrument measures what it is claimed to measure) and content-related evidence (the extent to which the instrument includes content representative of the construct being investigated) (Mitchell and Jolley 2004). In addition to these types of evidence for validity, a survey is said to have face validity if it is obvious from the questions what the survey is designed to measure. Face validity may or may not be a desired quality for a given survey, depending on the nature of the research. That is, some surveys, particularly those addressing controversial or sensitive issues, are more effective when questions address the central topic in a covert manner. This reduces the probability of response bias, a potential disadvantage of the survey method discussed below.
Once a valid and reliable survey has been designed, social scientists must administer it to people. In some situations it is possible to survey all members of the population in question. However, more often researchers are interested in a large population for which it is impossible to survey everyone. In that case, the researcher must acquire a sample of people from the population who are willing to complete the survey. To ensure the accuracy of the data, the sample should be representative, meaning it adequately reflects the actual population with regard to variables that are related to the construct(s) in question. For example, the proportion of women and men in the sample should be similar to the proportion in the population, particularly if there is reason to believe that men and women would respond differently to the survey.
There are many sampling strategies aimed at ensuring a representative sample. With the random sampling method, the sample is acquired in such a way that each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected, and the selection of each respondent is independent of the selection of all other respondents. A representative sample is important to protect research from sampling bias, the tendency for a sample to systematically exclude certain members of the population while overrep-resenting others.
The survey method has advantages and disadvantages when compared to other methods of investigation. The greatest advantage of this method is the ability to collect a large amount of information from many people simultaneously. Surveys can be administered to a room full of people, a mass e-mail list, or a large telephone pool with relatively little work on the part of the researcher. A second advantage of this method is its ability to gather the exact information that is sought, since researchers write the questions they want answered. However, this advantage assumes that respondents do all of the following when completing a survey: (1) read or hear the question and interpret it as it was meant to be interpreted; (2) reflect on their personal experiences related to the question; and (3) answer the question honestly. The latter is most likely to be a problem, particularly with surveys that ask about sensitive or controversial topics. In such cases, respondents may practice impression management, wherein they answer questions so as to present themselves in a particular way. Giving socially desirable responses is a common type of impression management in which respondents present themselves in an unrealistically favorable or virtuous light. In addition to impression management, the validity of survey data may be reduced by response bias, in which respondents tend to respond to questions in a certain way (e.g., in the affirmative or negative) regardless of the actual content of the questions. Finally, because surveys are voluntary, they are subject to the willingness of respondents to complete them. Thus the response rate, or the percentage of individuals contacted who complete the survey, is important, particularly since survey response rates have declined since the early 1990s (Tourangeau 2004).
SEE ALSO Methods, Quantitative; Observation, Participant; Panel Studies; Random Samples; Reliability, Statistical; Social Science; Statistics; Surveys, Sample; Validity, Statistical
Kaplan, Robert M., and Dennis P. Saccuzzo. 2005. Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications, and Issues. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Mitchell, Mark, and Janina Jolley. 2007. Research Design Explained. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Tourangeau, Roger. 2004. Survey Research and Societal Change. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 775–801.
Angela K. Fournier
sur·vey • v. / sərˈvā/ [tr.] 1. (of a person or their eyes) look carefully and thoroughly at (someone or something), esp. so as to appraise them: her green eyes surveyed him coolly I surveyed the options. ∎ investigate the opinions or experience of (a group of people) by asking them questions: 95% of patients surveyed were satisfied with the health service. ∎ investigate (behavior or opinions) by questioning a group of people: the investigator surveyed the attitudes and beliefs held by residents. 2. examine and record the area and features of (an area of land) so as to construct a map, plan, or description: he surveyed the coasts of New Zealand. • n. / ˈsərˌvā/ 1. a general view, examination, or description of someone or something: the author provides a survey of the relevant literature. ∎ an investigation of the opinions or experience of a group of people, based on a series of questions. 2. an act of surveying an area of land: the flight involved a detailed aerial survey of military bases. ∎ a map, plan, or detailed description obtained in such a way. ∎ a department carrying out the surveying of land: the U.S. Geological Survey.