# 8.3: Types of Surveys

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Learning Objectives

• Explain the following laws within the Ideal Gas Law
• Define cross-sectional surveys, provide an example of a cross-sectional survey, and outline some of the drawbacks of cross-sectional research.
• Describe the various types of longitudinal surveys.
• Define retrospective surveys, and identify their strengths and weaknesses.
• Discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of the various methods of delivering self-administered questionnaires.

There is much variety when it comes to surveys. This variety comes both in terms of time—when or with what frequency a survey is administered—and in terms of administration—how a survey is delivered to respondents. In this section we’ll take a look at what types of surveys exist when it comes to both time and administration.

## Time

In terms of time, there are two main types of surveys: cross-sectional and longitudinal. Cross-sectional surveys are those that are administered at just one point in time. These surveys offer researchers a sort of snapshot in time and give us an idea about how things are for our respondents at the particular point in time that the survey is administered. My own study of older workers mentioned previously is an example of a cross-sectional survey. I administered the survey at just one time.

One way to overcome this sometimes problematic aspect of cross-sectional surveys is to administer a longitudinal survey. Longitudinal surveys are those that enable a researcher to make observations over some extended period of time. There are several types of longitudinal surveys, including trend, panel, and cohort surveys. We’ll discuss all three types here, along with another type of survey called retrospective. Retrospective surveys fall somewhere in between cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys.

Another type of longitudinal survey is a cohort survey. In a cohort survey, a researcher identifies some category of people that are of interest and then regularly surveys people who fall into that category. The same people don’t necessarily participate from year to year, but all participants must meet whatever categorical criteria fulfill the researcher’s primary interest. Common cohorts that may be of interest to researchers include people of particular generations or those who were born around the same time period, graduating classes, people who began work in a given industry at the same time, or perhaps people who have some specific life experience in common. An example of this sort of research can be seen in Christine Percheski’s work (2008)Percheski, C. (2008). Opting out? Cohort differences in professional women’s employment rates from 1960 to 2005. American Sociological Review, 73, 497–517. on cohort differences in women’s employment. Percheski compared women’s employment rates across seven different generational cohorts, from Progressives born between 1906 and 1915 to Generation Xers born between 1966 and 1975. She found, among other patterns, that professional women’s labor force participation had increased across all cohorts. She also found that professional women with young children from Generation X had higher labor force participation rates than similar women from previous generations, concluding that mothers do not appear to be opting out of the workforce as some journalists have speculated (Belkin, 2003).Belkin, L. (2003, October 26). The opt-out revolution. New York Times, pp. 42–47, 58, 85–86.

All three types of longitudinal surveys share the strength that they permit a researcher to make observations over time. This means that if whatever behavior or other phenomenon the researcher is interested in changes, either because of some world event or because people age, the researcher will be able to capture those changes. Table 8.1 summarizes each of the three types of longitudinal surveys.

Table 8:1 Types of Longitudinal Surveys
Sample type Description
Trend Researcher examines changes in trends over time; the same people do not necessarily participate in the survey more than once.
Panel Researcher surveys the exact same sample several times over a period of time.
Cohort Researcher identifies some category of people that are of interest and then regularly surveys people who fall into that category.

Finally, retrospective surveys are similar to other longitudinal studies in that they deal with changes over time, but like a cross-sectional study, they are administered only once. In a retrospective survey, participants are asked to report events from the past. By having respondents report past behaviors, beliefs, or experiences, researchers are able to gather longitudinal-like data without actually incurring the time or expense of a longitudinal survey. Of course, this benefit must be weighed against the possibility that people’s recollections of their pasts may be faulty. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked in a survey to respond to questions about where, how, and with whom you spent last Valentine’s Day. As last Valentine’s Day can’t have been more than 12 months ago, chances are good that you might be able to respond accurately to any survey questions about it. But now let’s say the research wants to know how last Valentine’s Day compares to previous Valentine’s Days, so he asks you to report on where, how, and with whom you spent the preceding six Valentine’s Days. How likely is it that you will remember? Will your responses be as accurate as they might have been had you been asked the question each year over the past 6 years rather than asked to report on all years today?

In sum, when or with what frequency a survey is administered will determine whether your survey is cross-sectional or longitudinal. While longitudinal surveys are certainly preferable in terms of their ability to track changes over time, the time and cost required to administer a longitudinal survey can be prohibitive. As you may have guessed, the issues of time described here are not necessarily unique to survey research. Other methods of data collection can be cross-sectional or longitudinal—these are really matters of research design. But we’ve placed our discussion of these terms here because they are most commonly used by survey researchers to describe the type of survey administered. Another aspect of survey administration deals with how surveys are administered. We’ll examine that next.

Surveys vary not just in terms of when they are administered but also in terms of how they are administered. One common way to administer surveys is in the form of self-administered questionnaires. This means that a research participant is given a set of questions, in writing, to which he or she is asked to respond. Self-administered questionnaires can be delivered in hard copy format, typically via mail, or increasingly more commonly, online. We’ll consider both modes of delivery here.

Hard copy self-administered questionnaires may be delivered to participants in person or via snail mail. Perhaps you’ve take a survey that was given to you in person; on many college campuses it is not uncommon for researchers to administer surveys in large social science classes (as you might recall from the discussion in our chapter on sampling). In my own introduction to sociology courses, I’ve welcomed graduate students and professors doing research in areas that are relevant to my students, such as studies of campus life, to administer their surveys to the class. If you are ever asked to complete a survey in a similar setting, it might be interesting to note how your perspective on the survey and its questions could be shaped by the new knowledge you’re gaining about survey research in this chapter.

Researchers may also deliver surveys in person by going door-to-door and either asking people to fill them out right away or making arrangements for the researcher to return to pick up completed surveys. Though the advent of online survey tools has made door-to-door delivery of surveys less common, I still see an occasional survey researcher at my door, especially around election time. This mode of gathering data is apparently still used by political campaign workers, at least in some areas of the country.

If you are not able to visit each member of your sample personally to deliver a survey, you might consider sending your survey through the mail. While this mode of delivery may not be ideal (imagine how much less likely you’d probably be to return a survey that didn’t come with the researcher standing on your doorstep waiting to take it from you), sometimes it is the only available or the most practical option. As I’ve said, this may not be the most ideal way of administering a survey because it can be difficult to convince people to take the time to complete and return your survey.

Often survey researchers who deliver their surveys via snail mail may provide some advance notice to respondents about the survey to get people thinking about and preparing to complete it. They may also follow up with their sample a few weeks after their survey has been sent out. This can be done not only to remind those who have not yet completed the survey to please do so but also to thank those who have already returned the survey. Most survey researchers agree that this sort of follow-up is essential for improving mailed surveys’ return rates (Babbie, 2010).Babbie, E. (2010). The practice of social research (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

In my own study of older workers’ harassment experiences, people in the sample were notified in advance of the survey mailing via an article describing the research in a newsletter they received from the agency with whom I had partnered to conduct the survey. When I mailed the survey, a $1 bill was included with each in order to provide some incentive and an advance token of thanks to participants for returning the surveys. Two months after the initial mailing went out, those who were sent a survey were contacted by phone. While returned surveys did not contain any identifying information about respondents, my research assistants contacted individuals to whom a survey had been mailed to remind them that it was not too late to return their survey and to say thank to those who may have already done so. Four months after the initial mailing went out, everyone on the original mailing list received a letter thanking those who had returned the survey and once again reminding those who had not that it was not too late to do so. The letter included a return postcard for respondents to complete should they wish to receive another copy of the survey. Respondents were also provided a telephone number to call and were provided the option of completing the survey by phone. As you can see, administering a survey by mail typically involves much more than simply arranging a single mailing; participants may be notified in advance of the mailing, they then receive the mailing, and then several follow-up contacts will likely be made after the survey has been mailed. Earlier I mentioned online delivery as another way to administer a survey. This delivery mechanism is becoming increasingly common, no doubt because it is easy to use, relatively cheap, and may be quicker than knocking on doors or waiting for mailed surveys to be returned. To deliver a survey online, a researcher may subscribe to a service that offers online delivery or use some delivery mechanism that is available for free. SurveyMonkey offers both free and paid online survey services (http://www.surveymonkey.com). One advantage to using a service like SurveyMonkey, aside from the advantages of online delivery already mentioned, is that results can be provided to you in formats that are readable by data analysis programs such as SPSS, Systat, and Excel. This saves you, the researcher, the step of having to manually enter data into your analysis program, as you would if you administered your survey in hard copy format. Many of the suggestions provided for improving the response rate on a hard copy questionnaire apply to online questionnaires as well. One difference of course is that the sort of incentives one can provide in an online format differ from those that can be given in person or sent through the mail. But this doesn’t mean that online survey researchers cannot offer completion incentives to their respondents. I’ve taken a number of online surveys; many of these did not come with an incentive other than the joy of knowing that I’d helped a fellow social scientist do his or her job, but on one I was given a printable$5 coupon to my university’s campus dining services on completion, and another time I was given a coupon code to use for $10 off any order on Amazon.com. I’ve taken other online surveys where on completion I could provide my name and contact information if I wished to be entered into a drawing together with other study participants to win a larger gift, such as a$50 gift card or an iPad.

Sometimes surveys are administered by having a researcher actually pose questions directly to respondents rather than having respondents read the questions on their own. These types of surveys are a form of interviews. We discuss interviews in Chapter 9, where we’ll examine interviews of the survey (or quantitative) type and qualitative interviews as well. Interview methodology differs from survey research in that data are collected via a personal interaction. Because asking people questions in person comes with a set of guidelines and concerns that differ from those associated with asking questions on paper or online, we’ll reserve our discussion of those guidelines and concerns for Chapter 9.

Whatever delivery mechanism you choose, keep in mind that there are pros and cons to each of the options described here. While online surveys may be faster and cheaper than mailed surveys, can you be certain that every person in your sample will have the necessary computer hardware, software, and Internet access in order to complete your online survey? On the other hand, perhaps mailed surveys are more likely to reach your entire sample but also more likely to be lost and not returned. The choice of which delivery mechanism is best depends on a number of factors including your resources, the resources of your study participants, and the time you have available to distribute surveys and wait for responses. In my own survey of older workers, I would have much preferred to administer my survey online, but because so few people in my sample were likely to have computers, and even fewer would have Internet access, I chose instead to mail paper copies of the survey to respondents’ homes. Understanding the characteristics of your study’s population is key to identifying the appropriate mechanism for delivering your survey.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Time is a factor in determining what type of survey researcher administers; cross-sectional surveys are administered at one time, and longitudinal surveys are administered over time.
• Retrospective surveys offer some of the benefits of longitudinal research but also come with their own drawbacks.
• Self-administered questionnaires may be delivered in hard copy form to participants in person or via snail mail or online.

Exercises

1. If the idea of a panel study piqued your interest, check out the Up series of documentary films. While not a survey, the films offer one example of a panel study. Filmmakers began filming the lives of 14 British children in 1964, when the children were 7 years old. They have since caught up with the children every 7 years. In 2012, the eighth installment of the documentary, 56 Up, will come out. Many clips from the series are available on YouTube.