Survey research a research method involving the use of standardized questionnaires or interviews to collect data about people and their preferences, thoughts, and behaviors in a systematic manner. Although census surveys were conducted as early as Ancient Egypt, survey as a formal research method was pioneered in the 1930-40s by sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld to examine the effects of the radio on political opinion formation of the United States. This method has since become a very popular method for quantitative research in the social sciences.
The survey method can be used for descriptive, exploratory, or explanatory research. This method is best suited for studies that have individual people as the unit of analysis. Although other units of analysis, such as groups, organizations or dyads (pairs of organizations, such as buyers and sellers), are also studied using surveys, such studies often use a specific person from each unit as a “key informant” or a “proxy” for that unit, and such surveys may be subject to respondent bias if the informant chosen does not have adequate knowledge or has a biased opinion about the phenomenon of interest. For instance, Chief Executive Officers may not adequately know employee’s perceptions or teamwork in their own companies, and may therefore be the wrong informant for studies of team dynamics or employee self-esteem.
Survey research has several inherent strengths compared to other research methods. First, surveys are an excellent vehicle for measuring a wide variety of unobservable data, such as people’s preferences (e.g., political orientation), traits (e.g., self-esteem), attitudes (e.g., toward immigrants), beliefs (e.g., about a new law), behaviors (e.g., smoking or drinking behavior), or factual information (e.g., income). Second, survey research is also ideally suited for remotely collecting data about a population that is too large to observe directly. A large area, such as an entire country, can be covered using mail-in, electronic mail, or telephone surveys using meticulous sampling to ensure that the population is adequately represented in a small sample. Third, due to their unobtrusive nature and the ability to respond at one’s convenience, questionnaire surveys are preferred by some respondents. Fourth, interviews may be the only way of reaching certain population groups such as the homeless or illegal immigrants for which there is no sampling frame available. Fifth, large sample surveys may allow detection of small effects even while analyzing multiple variables, and depending on the survey design, may also allow comparative analysis of population subgroups (i.e., within-group and between-group analysis). Sixth, survey research is economical in terms of researcher time, effort and cost than most other methods such as experimental research and case research. At the same time, survey research also has some unique disadvantages. It is subject to a large number of biases such as non-response bias, sampling bias, social desirability bias, and recall bias, as discussed in the last section of this chapter.
Depending on how the data is collected, survey research can be divided into two broad categories: questionnaire surveys (which may be mail-in, group-administered, or online surveys), and interview surveys (which may be personal, telephone, or focus group interviews). Questionnaires are instruments that are completed in writing by respondents, while interviews are completed by the interviewer based on verbal responses provided by respondents. As discussed below, each type has its own strengths and weaknesses, in terms of their costs, coverage of the target population, and researcher’s flexibility in asking questions.
- 9.1: Questionnaire Surveys
- A questionnaire is a research instrument consisting of a set of questions (items) intended to capture responses from respondents in a standardized manner. Questions may be unstructured or structured. Unstructured questions ask respondents to provide a response in their own words, while structured questions ask respondents to select an answer from a given set of choices. Subjects’ responses to individual questions (items) on a structured questionnaire may be aggregated for statistical analysis.