Social Surveys – An Introduction to Structured Questionnaires and Structured Interviews

Social Surveys, conducted by various organizations, are standardized procedures to gather information from large populations. Using methods like questionnaires and structured interviews, they collect data on diverse topics. Prominent examples include the England and Wales Census and the British Social Attitudes Survey. These surveys can involve pre-coded or open-ended questions. While useful for broad social studies, surveys can impose researcher’s perspective or encounter interviewer bias, reducing their reliability and necessitating careful interview design and conduct.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023 by Karl Thompson

A Social Survey involves obtaining information in a standardised way from large groups of people. The main survey methods are questionnaires and structured interviews.

A wide range of organisations carry out surveys, such as government departments, schools and colleges, businesses, charities, 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.

PowerPoint slide showing definition of social survey.
  • surveys
  • basic definition surveys
  • two basic types of survey
  • administering surveys
  • interviewer bias

Examples of Social Surveys

Two well-known examples of Social Surveys in the United Kingdom include:

The England and Wales Census – The Census has taken place every ten years except for 1941. The sample for the Census is every household in England and Wales. The government conducted the last Census in 2021 and achieved a response rate of 97%. Most people completed it online during the Pandemic in the spring of 2021, but postal options were available. The Census asks basic information about who lives in the household, employment, education, religion, and health. You can find out more about the Census through the Office for National Statistics Census page.

First page of the England and Wales Census, 2021
The England and Wales Census

The British Social Attitudes Survey – started in 1983 and has now been tracking social attitudes for 40 years. The main method of the BSA is face to face household interviews. However, the latest survey round in 2022 used a slightly different method. Because of the Pandemic, respondents had the option to do the survey by phone following an initial house call. The survey asks respondents about attitudes to a range of social issues: immigration, politics, gender and sexuality, social class, vaping, and marriage, for example.  

Types of Social Survey

Social Surveys are typically questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form. Researchers prepare surveys 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. These ask respondents to either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement. This later form of scaling is referred to as a ‘Likert Scale’ (basically a strength of feeling scale).

Examples of Likert Scale questions from the 2021 Census
Examples of Likert Scale questions from the British Social Attitudes survey.

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 so that people can complete it.
  • 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 whereas thousands of people can complete a self completion questionnaire within minutes.

Structured Interviews 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. Such differences can make it difficult for another researcher to repeat the exact conditions under which previous interviews took place. This will reduce the reliability of the results.

Training interviewers is one way to reduce interviewer bias, which is quite easy with structured interviews. These problems are likely to be more exaggerated with more qualitative unstructured interviews.

Signposting and Related Posts

I usually teach this material as part of the research methods module within A-level sociology.

Positivists prefer this method 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.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the quality and methodology of the UK 2021 Census.

If you’re interested in seeing example of the British Social Attitudes survey questionnaire. NB the 2019 questionnaire contains 170 pages of instructions for interviewers. It also contains a self-completion questionnaire towards the back. The later has some good examples of Likert scale responses for questions.

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