A Social Survey involves obtaining information in a standardised from large groups of people. The main survey methods are questionnaires and structured interviews.
Surveys are carried out by a wide range of organisations such as government departments, schools and colleges, businesses, charities, and market research and consumer groups. You may well have been stopped in a high street by a market researcher asking your opinion about a new design of chocolate bar wrapper, or phoned by an independent polling company such as Mori asking you to do a brief survey on any number of social issues.
This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology studying the research methods module. It provides examples of surveys and covers the two main ways of administering surveys: structured questions and structured interviews.
Examples of Social Surveys
Two well-known examples of Social Surveys in the United Kingdom include:
The UK National Census – which used to be sent out to every UK household every ten years and asked basic information about who lives in the household, employment, education, religion and health. The last full set of Census data is from 2011, at time of writing it is not clear what’s happening with the 2021 Census.
The British Social Attitudes Survey – which has a sample of around 3000 and asks people a range of questions to measure opinions on a range of topics – such as family life, religious belief, immigration and environmental issues.
Types of Social Survey
Social Surveys are typically questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form. Surveys are prepared in advance of giving them to respondents, and so they have a ‘structure’ to them. Most questionnaires will have a high degree of structure, and it is difficult to see how one could have an ‘unstructured questionnaire’. Because of this questionnaires tend to be a very formal means of collecting data, allowing the researcher little freedom to ‘follow her nose’ unlike other methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation.
Pre-coded, or closed question questionnaires are those in which the respondent has to choose from a limited range of responses. Two of the most common types of closed questionnaire are the simply yes/no questionnaire and the scaled questionnaire, where respondents are asked to either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement. This later form of scaling is known as a ‘Likert Scale’ (basically a strength of feeling scale).
One of the main problems of this type of questionnaire is the imposition problem, which refers to the risk that the research might be imposing their view, or framework on respondents rather than getting at what they really think about the issue.
Open-ended question questionnaires are less structured than pre-coded questionnaires. Although open-ended questionnaires will still usually have set questions, there is no pre-set choice of answers. Open questions allow individuals to write their own answers or dictate them to interviewers.
Different ways of administering surveys
The researcher has a choice of administering her questionnaire in a number of different ways. The most obvious difference choice is between whether respondents complete the surveys themselves, making it a ‘self-completion questionnaire’, or whether the researcher fills in the information, effectively making it a structured interview.
Some of the more obvious choices for ‘administering’ questionnaires include:
- Sending questionnaires by post, or by email.
- Simply putting the questionnaire online and leaving it to be completed
- Doing a structured interview in person, either on the street, house to house.
- Doing the interview by phone.
Structured interviews with closed questions
One obvious way of improving the response rate to questionnaires is to conduct a face to face interview by paying a researcher to read out the questionnaire to the respondent and writing down their responses on their behalf. Having an interviewer present can also reduce misinterpretation of questions as respondents can ask for clarification where necessary and an interviewer can also target specific groups if necessary, as with much market research.
On the downside, structured interviews are more time consuming. One researcher can only do one interview at a time (although focus groups are an exception to this, they too are limited in terms of the amount of respondents one can deal with in one go) whereas a self completion questionnaire can be administered to hundreds of people within minutes.
Structured Questionnaires and Interviewer Bias
At a more theoretical level, having an interviewer present opens up the possibility of interviewer bias occurring, where the presence of the researcher interferes with the results obtained. The social characteristics of the interviewer may affect the responses, depending on the age, gender and ethnicity of the researcher in relation to the respondent. If one is researching the prevalence of domestic violence against women, for example, one might reasonably expect a female victim to give different responses to a female researcher rather than a male researcher.
Each interviewer will have their own style of interviewing; right from selecting who they ask questions to if they are on the street, to the tone of voice, facial expressions, and pacing of the interview. Each of these nuances may affect the results, meaning the reliability of the research is compromised because it is difficult for another researcher to repeat the exact conditions under which previous interviews took place. To be fair, with closed question, structured interviews, and with trained researchers, such interviewer bias should be kept to a minimum, and such problems are likely to be more exaggerated with more qualitative unstructured interviews, which we will come onto later.
Signposting and Related Posts
This topic is usually the first method taught as part of the research methods module within A-level sociology.
It is a method strongly favoured by Positivists and you might like to read this post for more details: Positivism and Social Research (Positivists like the survey method).
Immediately after reading this post you should read Social Surveys – Advantages and Disadvantages which is more evaluative.
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