Survey Research Essay

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Survey research refers to systematic investigations designed to gather information from populations or samples for the purposes of describing, comparing, or explaining phenomena. Survey research involving samples often is distinguished from census surveys, which involve the study of populations.

Several types of research approaches are described in the survey methodology literature. Descriptive or status survey research focuses on accurately characterizing information about defined units of analysis, such as individuals, social groups, geographic areas, or organizations. In descriptive research applications, surveys are used to quantify phenomena such as unemployment rates in a state, the health status of citizens of the USA, or the number of certified teachers in a school district. Public opinion surveys or polls (e.g., Gallup Poll or Harris Survey) are a type of status survey designed to quantify information from defined samples about their subjective preferences, beliefs, or attitudes. Correlational survey research is directed toward examining interrelationships among variables. An example of correlational survey research might involve using surveys to examine familial and community factors associated with juvenile delinquency. Explanatory survey research typically involves hypotheses testing to explicate relationships between attribute or predictor variables and criterion variables of interest.

Commonly employed survey research designs include cross-sectional and longitudinal designs. In cross-sectional designs, information is collected at a single point in time from a sample of respondents. Three common types of longitudinal designs include panel, trend, and cohort. Panel designs involve data collected at different points in time from the same sample. In trend designs, different samples from the same general population are used at each measurement occasion. Cohort designs involve identifying a specific population who share a common attribute, such as infants born in the USA in 2005 or those who graduated from high school in Texas in 2004. The same specific population is involved in the cohort study over time, but a new sample from this population is selected each time survey data are gathered.

Sampling decisions are important in survey research, particularly when the intent is to evaluate the precision of sample estimates in relation to population characteristics. Three interrelated processes are associated with sampling decisions: defining the sample frame, determining sample size, and choosing a sampling method. The sample frame is the list of people or objects that comprise the accessible population. Survey samples are selected from the frame by specifying sample size and determining whether probability or nonprobability sampling methods will be used to select units. Probability sampling permits use of statistical tools to estimate the amount of sampling error. Random sampling error occurs due to chance variations in different samples drawn from the same population. Systematic sampling error occurs when inadequate sampling procedures are used. Coverage error is a form of systematic sampling error. An example of coverage error would be surveying only individuals with access to computers when the variables of interest are related to having or not having computer access. Errors in sampling also can arise from poor definitions of the sampling frame and the use of small sample sizes.

Modes of survey administration involve face-to-face, telephone, mail, and web-based formats. Use of computers in survey research is becoming commonplace, including laptops and personal data assistant (PDA) devices. Each mode has its strengths and limitations. Decisions related to the mode of administration to be used typically involve considerations of the characteristics of the sample to be surveyed, the types of questions to be asked, the response rate desired, and time and cost considerations.


  1. Alreck, P. L. & Settle, R. B. (1994) The Survey Research Handbook, 2nd edn. McGraw Hill, New York.
  2. Fowler, F. J. (1993) Survey Research Methods, 2nd edn. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.

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