Survey Essay

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Surveys are uniquely suited to the collection of knowledge, attitudes, and opinions. In political research, for example, there are many ways to obtain information about voter turnout, including official government statistics. But governments do not collect information on candidate or party preferences, and surveys are required to obtain such information, as well as on attitudes about issues of the day. In economic research, sales data indicate the preferences of consumers for products or their relative market share. But the only way to obtain systematic data on the nature of preferences underlying these purchases is through surveys.

Surveys represent a system for data collection that involves several steps. These include selection of a mode of interviewing, sampling, questionnaire design and pre-testing, training of interviewers, preparation of the final questionnaire, fieldwork for data collection, and data analysis.

The mode of data collection comes first because so many other issues follow as a result. Data can be collected through face-to-face interviews where the interviewer and the respondent meet. This is expensive because of travel costs. Data can also be collected on the telephone, which is generally less expensive. Telephone interviews are usually shorter and consist primarily of closedend questions, and they can usually be done in a shorter period of time. Pencil-and-paper surveys can be administered in person or by mail and are often employed because they are inexpensive and are sometimes preferred for asking about sensitive topics. Surveys on the Internet permit rapid data collection and are very amenable to the use of examples and illustrations, including embedded video and audio segments.

Mode of data collection is a primary concern because so many additional choices are affected by it. Sampling is a prime example. Face-to-face interviews employ multi-stage area probability samples based on geography in order to reduce travel costs. For telephone surveys, a list of phone numbers can be developed or purchased from a commercial vendor, often on the same day a decision is made to field a study. Thus they have true random dispersion across a nation. Procedures have to be followed to ensure that unlisted numbers are incorporated into the sample, as well as mobile phones for those who don’t have landlines. In mail surveys, lists of addresses sometimes have to be located and checked independently for currency. Specific procedures have been developed for pursuing mail surveys to maximize response rates.

Seeing a survey as a process provides the basis for reviewing and controlling potential data quality through a total survey error (TSE) perspective. The TSE approach acknowledges that errors derive from any stage of the process. This approach permits available resources to be invested effectively at different stages in order to reduce likely errors. As the preceding discussion suggests, the organization and management of surveys is a complex and expensive process. A researcher can construct a general design of all the elements of a survey and then put the study out for bids, eventually contracting with a firm that offers the best quality within the constraints of the available budget.


  1. Biemer, P. B. & Lyberg, L. E. (2003). Introduction to survey quality. New York: John Wiley.
  2. Groves, R. M., Fowler Jr., F. J., Couper, M. P., Lepkowski, J. M., Singer, E., & Tourangeau, R. (2004). Survey methodology. New York: John Wiley.
  3. Weisberg, H. (2005). The new science of survey research: The total survey error approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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