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Encyclopedia > Survey research

Statistical surveys are used to collect quantitative information in the fields of marketing, political polling, and social science research. A survey may focus on opinions or factual information depending on its purpose, but all surveys involve administering questions to individuals. When the questions are administered by a researcher, the survey is called an interview or a researcher administered survey. When the questions are administered by the respondent, the survey is referred to as a questionnaire or a self-administered survey.


Structure and standardization

The questions are usually structured and standardized. The structure is intended to reduce bias (see questionnaire construction). For example, questions should be ordered in such a way that a question does not influence the response to subsequent questions. Surveys are standardized to ensure reliability, generalizability, and validity (see quantitative marketing research). Every respondent should be presented with the same questions and in the same order as other respondents.

In organizational development, carefully constructed survey instruments are often used as the basis for data gathering, organizational diagnosis, and subsequent action planning. Some OD practitioners (e.g. Fred Nickols) even consider survey guided development as the sine qua non of OD.

Advantages of surveys

The advantages of survey techniques include:

  • It is an efficient way of collecting information from a large number of respondents. Very large samples are possible. Statistical techniques can be used to determine validity, reliability, and statistical significance.
  • Surveys are flexible in the sense that a wide range of information can be collected. They can be used to study attitudes, values, beliefs, and past behaviours.
  • Because they are standardized, they are relatively free from several types of errors.
  • They are relatively easy to administer.
  • There is an economy in data collection due to the focus provided by standardized questions. Only questions of interest to the researcher are asked, recorded, codified, and analyzed. Time and money is not spent on tangential questions.

Disadvantages of surveys

Disadvantages of survey techniques include:

  • They depend on subjects’ motivation, honesty, memory, and ability to respond. Subjects may not be aware of their reasons for any given action. They may have forgotten their reasons. They may not be motivated to give accurate answers, in fact, they may be motivated to give answers that present themselves in a favorable light.
  • Surveys are not appropriate for studying complex social phenomena. The individual is not the best unit of analysis in these cases. Surveys do not give a full sense of social processes and the analysis seems superficial.
  • Structured surveys, particularly those with closed ended questions, may have low validity when researching affective variables.
  • Survey samples are usually self-selected, and therefore non-probability samples from which the characteristics of the population sampled cannot be inferred.

Advantages of self-administered questionnaires

Advantages of self-administered questionnaires include:

  • They are less expensive than interviews.
  • They do not require a large staff of skilled interviewers.
  • They can be administered in large numbers all at one place and time.
  • Anonymity and privacy encourage more candid and honest responses.
  • Lack of interviewer bias.
  • Speed of administration and analysis.
  • Suitable for computer based research methods.
  • Less pressure on respondents

Advantages of researcher administered interviews

Advantages of researcher administered interviews include:

  • Fewer misunderstood questions and inappropriate responses.
  • Fewer incomplete responses.
  • Higher response rates.
  • Greater control over the environment that the survey is administered in.

Survey Methods

There are several ways of administering a survey, including:

  • Telephone
    • response rate 40% - 60%
    • fairly cost efficient, depending on local call charge structure
    • good for large national (or international) sampling frames
    • cannot be used for non-audio information (graphics, demonstrations, taste/smell samples)
    • three types:
      • traditional telephone interviews
      • computer assisted telephone dialing
      • computer assisted telephone interviewing
  • Mail
    • response rate 5% - 30%
    • the questionnaire may be handed to the respondents or mailed to them, but in all cases they are returned to the researcher via mail.
    • cost is very low, since bulk postage is cheap in most countries
    • long time delays, often several months, before the surveys are returned and statistical analysis can begin
    • not suitable for very complex issues
    • no interviewer bias introduced
    • large amount of information can be obtained: some mail surveys are as long as 50 pages
    • response rates can be improved by using mail panels
      • members of the panel have agreed to participate
      • panels can be used in longitudinal designs where the same respondents are surveyed several times
  • Online Surveys
    • can use web or e-mail
      • web is preferred over e-mail because interactive HTML forms can be used
    • response rates almost 90% before 2000, but have been dropping fast since then (now 30% - 60%)
    • very inexpensive to administer
    • very fast results
    • easy to modify
    • response rates can be improved by using panels - members of the panel have agreed to participate
  • Personal in-home survey
    • respondents are interviewed in person, in their homes (or at the front door)
    • very high cost
    • response rate 40% - 50%
    • suitable when graphic representations, smells, or demonstrations are involved
    • suitable for long surveys
  • Personal mall intercept survey
    • shoppers at malls are intercepted - they are either interviewed on the spot, taken to a room and interviewed, or taken to a room and given a self-administered questionnaire
    • response rate about 50%
    • socially acceptable - people feel that a mall is a more appropriate place to do research than their home
    • potential for interviewer bias
    • fast
    • east to manipulate by completing multiple times to skew results

Tactics used to increase response rates

  • brevity - single page if possible
  • financial incentives
    • prepaid in advance
    • paid at completion
  • non-monetary incentives
    • commodity giveaways (pens, notepads)
    • entry into a lottery, draw or contest
    • discount coupons
    • promise of contribution to charity
  • preliminary notification
  • foot-in-the-door techniques - start with a small inconsequential request
  • personalization of the request - address specific individuals
  • follow-up requests - multiple requests
  • claimed affiliation with universities, research institutions, or charities
  • emotional appeals
  • bids for sympathy

External links

See also

Lists of related topics

  Results from FactBites:
Survey - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (600 words)
Surveying is the science of measuring positions and distances on Earth.
A mark and recapture effort surveys the population by capturing, marking and releasing animals, and recapturing random animals.
Survey Research and Methodology - University of Nebraska-Lincoln
CASRO - Code of Standards and Ethics for Survey Research (2930 words)
Researchers have professional and legal responsibilities to their respondents that are embodied in the procedures of a research study.
Survey Research Organizations have a responsibility to strike a proper balance between the needs for research in contemporary American life and the privacy of individuals who become the Respondents in the research.
Research Organizations are responsible for weighing the research need against the length of the interview and Respondents must not be enticed into an interview by a misrepresentation of the length of the interview.
  More results at FactBites »



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