Survey methodology

Survey methodology

Survey methodology is the field that studies surveys, that is, the sample of individuals from a population with a view towards making statistical inferences about the population using the sample. Polls about public opinion, such as political beliefs, are reported in the news media in democracies. Other surveys are used for scientific purposes. Surveys provide important information for all kinds of research fields, e.g., marketing research, psychology, health professionals and sociology.[1] A survey may focus on different topics such as preferences (e.g., for a presidential candidate), behavior (smoking and drinking behavior), or factual information (e.g., income), depending on its purpose. Since survey research is always based on a sample of the population, the success of the research is dependent on the representativeness of the population of concern (see also sampling (statistics) and survey sampling).


Selecting samples

Survey samples can be broadly divided into two types: probability samples and non-probability samples. Stratified sampling is a method of probability sampling such that sub-populations within an overall population are identified and included in the sample selected in a balanced way.

Modes of data collection

There are several ways of administering a survey. The choice between administration modes is influenced by several factors, including 1) costs, 2) coverage of the target population, 3) flexibility of asking questions, 4) respondents' willingness to participate and 5) response accuracy. Different methods create mode effects that change how respondents answer, and different methods have different advantages. The most common modes of administration can be summarized as:[2]

  • Telephone
  • Mail (post)
  • Online surveys
  • Personal in-home surveys
  • Personal mall or street intercept survey
  • Hybrids of the above.

How to write good survey questions

Rules for writing good questions are given in classical survey books.[3] A summary of these rules was made by Ten Brink (1992).[4]

  • Rule 1. Use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar style .
  • Rule 2. Use specific questions. For example, "did you read a newspaper yesterday?", instead of "did you read a newspaper?".
  • Rule 3. Use a short introduction to question of behaviors. In this way you cannot only refresh the memory of the respondent, but also explain what you mean with the concept you are using. For example, with wines, you may not only mean red or white wine, but liqueurs, cordials, sherries, tables wines and sparkling wines.
  • Rule 4. Avoid the use of technical terms and jargon. An exception to this rule are questions that are made for a specific group of respondents, who regularly use jargon, e.g., doctors, lawyers and researchers.
  • Rule 5. Avoid questions that do not have a single answer. For example, "do you like to walk and ride to school?". Somebody who likes to walk, but does not like to cycle, cannot answer this question in the right way.
  • Rule 6. Avoid negative phrasing, e.g., "should the school not be improved?". This can lead to confusion and cost more effort to answer the question correctly.
  • Rule 7. Avoid words and expressions with multiple-meanings, like any and just.
  • Rule 8. Avoid stereotyping, offensive and emotionally loaded language. See also research ethics

Response formats

Usually, a survey consists of a number of questions that the respondent has to answer in a set format. A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question asks the respondent to formulate his own answer, whereas a closed-ended question has the respondent pick an answer from a given number of options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Four types of response scales for closed-ended questions are distinguished:

  • Dichotomous, where the respondent has two options
  • Nominal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two unordered options
  • Ordinal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two ordered options
  • (bounded)Continuous, where the respondent is presented with a continuous scale

A respondent's answer to an open-ended question can be coded into a response scale afterwards,[2] or analysed using more qualitative methods.

Advantages and disadvantages of surveys


  • As in sample study few units are to be examined detailed study of the survey can be done.
  • As few units are to be examined the survey work requires less time. Thus in this way sample survey saves time.
  • As few units are to be examined the survey work requires less money. Thus in this way sample survey saves lots of money.
  • In sample survey few persons are required for the survey work so experts can be appointed for the survey. This will increase the reliability of the survey results.
  • When the test is of destructive nature, sampling is only the way out. In such cases the population survey is not possible.
  • A large area can be covered under survey in the available time and money.
  • If proper method is employed under the survey the results obtained will represent the population adequately. Surveys are relatively inexpensive (especially self-administered surveys).
  • Surveys are useful in describing the characteristics of a large population. No other method of observation can provide this general capability.
  • They can be administered from remote locations using mail, email or telephone.
  • Consequently, very large samples are feasible, making the results statistically significant even when analyzing multiple variables.
  • Many questions can be asked about a given topic giving considerable flexibility to the analysis.
  • Sample survey make measurement more precise by enforcing uniform definitions upon the participants.
  • Sample survey means that similar data can be collected from groups then interpreted comparatively (between-group study).
  • Sample survey is also used to check the accuracy of the census data (population survey).
  • Surveys are an efficient way of collecting information from a large number of respondents. Very large samplings 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 behaviors.
  • 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.
  • Sample surveys are usually cheaper to conduct than a full census.


  • 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.
  • Structured surveys, particularly those with closed ended questions, may have low validity when researching affective variables.
  • Although the individuals chosen to participate in surveys are often randomly sampled, errors due to nonresponse may exist (see also chapter 13 of Adér et al. (2008) for more information on how to deal with nonresponsonders and biased data) . That is, people who choose to respond on the survey may be different from those who do not respond, thus biasing the estimates. For example, polls or surveys that are conducted by calling a random sample of publicly available telephone numbers will not include the responses of people with unlisted telephone numbers, mobile (cell) phone numbers, people who are unable to answer the phone (e.g., because they normally sleep during the time of day the survey is conducted, because they are at work, etc.), people who do not answer calls from unknown or unfamiliar telephone numbers. Likewise, such a survey will include a disproportionate number of respondents who have traditional, land-line telephone service with listed phone numbers, and people who stay home much of the day and are much more likely to be available to participate in the survey (e.g., people who are unemployed, disabled, elderly, etc.).
  • Survey question answer-choices could lead to vague data sets because at times they are relative only to a personal abstract notion concerning "strength of choice". For instance the choice "moderately agree" may mean different things to different subjects, and to anyone interpreting the data for correlation. Even yes or no answers are problematic because subjects may for instance put "no" if the choice "only once" is not available.

Nonresponse reduction

The following ways have been recommended for reducing nonresponse in telephone and face-to-face surveys:[3]

  • Advance letter. A short letter is sent in advance to inform the sampled respondents about the upcoming survey. The style of the letter should be personalized but not overdone. First, it announces that a phone call will be made/ or an interviewer wants to make an appointment to do the survey face-to-face. Second, the research topic will be described. Last, it allows both an expression of the surveyor's appreciation of cooperation and an opening to ask questions on the survey.
  • Training. The interviewers are thoroughly trained in how to ask respondents questions, how to work with computers and making schedules for callbacks to respondents who were not reached.
  • Short introduction. The interviewer should always start with a short instruction about him or herself. She/he should give her name, the institute she is working for, the length of the interview and goal of the interview. Also it can be useful to make clear that you are not selling anything: this has been shown to lead led to a slightly higher responding rate.[5]
  • Respondent-friendly survey questionnaire. The questions asked must be clear, non-offensive and easy to respond to for the subjects under study.

Other methods to increase response rates

  • brevity – single page if possible
  • financial incentives
    • paid 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
  • emotional appeals
  • bids for sympathy
  • convince respondent that they can make a difference
  • guarantee anonymity
  • legal compulsion (certain government-run surveys)

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Mellenbergh, G.J. (2008). Chapter 9: Surveys. In H.J. Adèr & G.J. Mellenbergh (Eds.) (with contributions by D.J. Hand), Advising on Research Methods: A consultant's companion (pp. 183–209). Huizen, The Netherlands: Johannes van Kessel Publishing.
  3. ^ a b Dillman, D.A. (1978) Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. Wiley. ISBN 0471215554
  4. ^ Ten Brink (1992). Het schrijven van vragen[item writing]. Unpublished master's thesis, Vakgroep Psychologische Methodenleer, Department of Psychology,University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
  5. ^ De Leeuw, E.D. (2001). "I am not selling anything: Experiments in telephone introductions". Kwantitatieve Methoden, 22, 41–48.


  • Abramson, J.J. and Abramson, Z.H. (1999).Survey Methods in Community Medicine: Epidemiological Research, Programme Evaluation, Clinical Trials (5th edition). London: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier Health Sciences ISBN 0-443-06163-7
  • Groves, R.M. (1989). Survey Errors and Survey Costs Wiley. ISBN 0-471-61171-9
  • Ornstein, M.D. (1998). "Survey Research." Current Sociology 46(4): iii-136.
  • Shaughnessy, J. J., Zechmeister, E. B., & Zechmeister, J. S. (2006). Research Methods in Psychology (Seventh Edition ed.). McGraw–Hill Higher Education. ISBN 0-07-111655-9 (pp. 143–192)
  • Adèr, H. J., Mellenbergh, G. J., & Hand, D. J. (2008). Advising on research methods: A consultant's companion. Huizen, The Netherlands: Johannes van Kessel Publishing.
  • Dillman, D.A. (1978) Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471215554

Further reading

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