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Summary Article: Survey from Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods

Survey is a ubiquitous term that is used and understood differently depending on the context. Its definition is further complicated because it is used interchangeably as a synonym for other topics and activities listed under the broad classification of survey research or survey methods. There are multiple uses of the term survey that are relevant to particular linguistic applications. Survey is used as a noun when it refers to a document (e.g., fill out this survey) or a process (e.g., to conduct a survey); as an adjective (e.g., to use survey methods); or as a verb (e.g., to survey a group of people). Survey is used interchangeably with and strongly associated with the terms poll and public opinion polling, and survey methods are used to conduct a census—an enumeration of the total population. In addition to being used to identify a type of research tool, survey research is a subject that can be studied in an educational course or workshop, and it is an academic discipline for undergraduate and graduate degrees. This entry focuses on the basic definition from which these other uses of the term survey have evolved by outlining the essential elements of this term as it relates to the scientific study of people.

A survey is a research method used by social scientists (e.g., economists, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists) to empirically and scientifically study and provide information about people and social phenomena. A survey is scientific because there is an established process that can be followed, documented, and replicated. This process is rigorous and systematic. The typical steps in the survey process are (a) problem formation, (b) hypothesis development, (c) research design, (d) sample design and selection, (e) questionnaire development, (f) data collection, (g) data analysis, (h) reporting and dissemination, and (i) application of information. Underscoring the complexity of a survey, each of these steps in the process also has a set of essential and accepted practices that is followed, documented, and replicated, and specific professional training is required to learn these practices. The documentation that accompanies a survey provides the information necessary to evaluate the survey results and to expand the understanding and analysis of the information provided from the survey. Sampling error and nonsampling error are two dimensions of survey error. Most scientific surveys could more accurately be called “sample surveys” because probability theory is used to scientifically select subgroups of the population to study, and there is a body of knowledge on acceptable statistical procedures for sampling and for calculating sampling error. Quantifying the nonsampling error associated with other steps in the survey process (e.g., question wording, interviewer effects, and item and unit non-response) is more challenging. Total survey error incorporates the error possible in any of the steps in the survey process. When the results of a survey are reported and, particularly, when people use survey results to make decisions, it is very important to review the documentation that describes how the survey was conducted so the quality of the data can be assessed.

A survey can be used to find out the opinions, attitudes, and behaviors of persons who are contacted to participate in the survey and to obtain other factual information about members of this population. (Surveys also can be conducted to study animals other than humans, such as buffalo in a game preserve; crops in a field; or inanimate objects, such as books in a library collection.) The information from individuals is then aggregated to provide a statistical profile of the survey population. Surveys are conducted by many types of organizations and researchers. Federal, state, and local government surveys are conducted to obtain information to guide public policy decisions, and some surveys are legislatively mandated to evaluate social programs. A well-known government survey is the U.S. Census, which attempts to collect information about every person in the United States. More typically, the government conducts sample surveys to learn about and monitor topics such as employment trends (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and health issues (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics). Surveys are used by academic researchers to test hypotheses such as those related to social behaviors (e.g., marriage and families, alcohol and drug consumption, preparation for retirement) and to conduct social experiments (e.g., cost-effectiveness of different interventions to prevent obesity). Corporations use surveys to make decisions about the products they invest in and bring into the marketplace and to determine customer satisfaction with these products after they have been purchased. Familiar to many households is the Nielsen TV Ratings survey, which monitors the public’s use of television. The Gallup Poll and the Pew Research Center, as well as electronic and print news organizations (e.g., New York Times/ CBS News poll; ABC News/Washington Post poll) use surveys to provide timely profiles and to track public opinion about current issues. A prominent use of surveys is the pre-election polls that inform candidates and the public about important campaign issues.

    See also
  • Complex Sample Surveys; Poll; Research Design; Response Rates; Standard Definitions; Total Survey Error (TSE)

Further Readings
  • American Statistical Association, (n.d.). What is a survey? Retrieved April 19, 2008, from
  • Converse, J. M. (1987). Survey research in the United States: Roots and emergence 1890-1960. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Turner, C. F.; Martin, E. (Eds.). (1984). Survey subjective phenomena (Vol. 1). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Janice Ballou
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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