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8.1: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?

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    Why Survey Research?

    In 2008, the voters of the United States elected our first African American president, Barack Obama. It may not surprise you to learn that when President Obama was coming of age in the 1970s, one-quarter of Americans reported that they would not vote for a qualified African American presidential nominee. Three decades later, when President Obama ran for the presidency, fewer than 8% of Americans still held that position, and President Obama won the election (Smith, 2009).Smith, T. W. (2009). Trends in willingness to vote for a black and woman for president, 1972–2008. GSS Social Change Report No. 55. Chicago, IL: National Opinion Research Center. We know about these trends in voter opinion because the General Social Survey (, a nationally representative survey of American adults, included questions about race and voting over the years described here. Without survey research, we may not know how Americans’ perspectives on race and the presidency shifted over these years.


    • Explain the following laws within the Ideal Gas Law
    1. Define survey research.
    2. Identify when it is appropriate to employ survey research as a data-collection strategy.

    Most of you have probably taken a survey at one time or another, so you probably have a pretty good idea of what a survey is. Sometimes students in my research methods classes feel that understanding what a survey is and how to write one is so obvious, there’s no need to dedicate any class time to learning about it. This feeling is understandable—surveys are very much a part of our everyday lives—we’ve probably all taken one, we hear about their results in the news, and perhaps we’ve even administered one ourselves. What students quickly learn is that there is more to constructing a good survey than meets the eye. Survey design takes a great deal of thoughtful planning and often a great many rounds of revision. But it is worth the effort. As we’ll learn in this chapter, there are many benefits to choosing survey research as one’s method of data collection. We’ll take a look at what a survey is exactly, what some of the benefits and drawbacks of this method are, how to construct a survey, and what to do with survey data once one has it in hand.

    Survey research is a quantitative method whereby a researcher poses some set of predetermined questions to an entire group, or sample, of individuals. Survey research is an especially useful approach when a researcher aims to describe or explain features of a very large group or groups. This method may also be used as a way of quickly gaining some general details about one’s population of interest to help prepare for a more focused, in-depth study using time-intensive methods such as in-depth interviews or field research. In this case, a survey may help a researcher identify specific individuals or locations from which to collect additional data.

    As is true of all methods of data collection, survey research is better suited to answering some kinds of research question more than others. In addition, as you’ll recall from Chapter 6 "Defining and Measuring Concepts", operationalization works differently with different research methods. If your interest is in political activism, for example, you likely operationalize that concept differently in a survey than you would for a field research study of the same topic.


    • Survey research is often used by researchers who wish to explain trends or features of large groups. It may also be used to assist those planning some more focused, in-depth study.


    1. Recall some of the possible research questions you came up with while reading previous chapters of this text. How might you frame those questions so that they could be answered using survey research?