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Social scientists investigate people who lived in the past or are living in the present. Surveys are one tool they use to gather information about a population of interest. Social scientists use surveys to assess people’s behavior, knowledge, opinions, attitudes, or abilities. Surveys can be conducted orally or in written form, and they can be administered to individuals or groups. Group surveys offer an advantage over other methods of investigation, such as interviews or observation, in that they can collect sensitive data while keeping participants’ identities confidential. In addition a large amount of data can be collected at once, rather than collecting data from each participant individually. Edward Laumann and colleagues (1994) designed and administered a survey to assess the sexual behavior of American adults. The survey was administered nationwide to over 3,000 men and women, addressing such sensitive topics as typical sex practices, number of sex partners, and contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. Two of the most important properties that must be assessed in the development and use of a survey are its reliability and validity.
Reliability and Validity
Reliability is the extent to which a survey is accurate, meaning that it is free of measurement error. While this psychometric property can be calculated using a variety of methods, reliability is theoretically the ratio of true score variance to observed score variance. It is determined by calculating a correlation coefficient on relevant data. Common methods of determining reliability include the test-retest method, in which scores from two different administrations of the same test are correlated to detect error from time sampling, and the split-half method, in which a correlation coefficient is calculated between two halves of the survey in order to determine internal consistency (Kaplan and Saccuzzo 2005).
Validity is the extent to which the survey measures what it is intended to measure or gathers the information it is designed to gather. A psychometrically sound survey is one that has been shown, through empirical research, to have several kinds of evidence for validity, such as con-struct-related evidence (the extent to which the instrument measures what it is claimed to measure) and content-related evidence (the extent to which the instrument includes content representative of the construct being investigated) (Mitchell and Jolley 2004). In addition to these types of evidence for validity, a survey is said to have face validity if it is obvious from the questions what the survey is designed to measure. Face validity may or may not be a desired quality for a given survey, depending on the nature of the research. That is, some surveys, particularly those addressing controversial or sensitive issues, are more effective when questions address the central topic in a covert manner. This reduces the probability of response bias, a potential disadvantage of the survey method discussed below.
Once a valid and reliable survey has been designed, social scientists must administer it to people. In some situations it is possible to survey all members of the population in question. However, more often researchers are interested in a large population for which it is impossible to survey everyone. In that case, the researcher must acquire a sample of people from the population who are willing to complete the survey. To ensure the accuracy of the data, the sample should be representative, meaning it adequately reflects the actual population with regard to variables that are related to the construct(s) in question. For example, the proportion of women and men in the sample should be similar to the proportion in the population, particularly if there is reason to believe that men and women would respond differently to the survey.
There are many sampling strategies aimed at ensuring a representative sample. With the random sampling method, the sample is acquired in such a way that each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected, and the selection of each respondent is independent of the selection of all other respondents. A representative sample is important to protect research from sampling bias, the tendency for a sample to systematically exclude certain members of the population while overrep-resenting others.
Advantages And Disadvantages
The survey method has advantages and disadvantages when compared to other methods of investigation. The greatest advantage of this method is the ability to collect a large amount of information from many people simultaneously. Surveys can be administered to a room full of people, a mass e-mail list, or a large telephone pool with relatively little work on the part of the researcher. A second advantage of this method is its ability to gather the exact information that is sought, since researchers write the questions they want answered. However, this advantage assumes that respondents do all of the following when completing a survey: (1) read or hear the question and interpret it as it was meant to be interpreted; (2) reflect on their personal experiences related to the question; and (3) answer the question honestly. The latter is most likely to be a problem, particularly with surveys that ask about sensitive or controversial topics. In such cases, respondents may practice impression management, wherein they answer questions so as to present themselves in a particular way. Giving socially desirable responses is a common type of impression management in which respondents present themselves in an unrealistically favorable or virtuous light. In addition to impression management, the validity of survey data may be reduced by response bias, in which respondents tend to respond to questions in a certain way (e.g., in the affirmative or negative) regardless of the actual content of the questions. Finally, because surveys are voluntary, they are subject to the willingness of respondents to complete them. Thus the response rate, or the percentage of individuals contacted who complete the survey, is important, particularly since survey response rates have declined since the early 1990s (Tourangeau 2004).
- Kaplan, Robert M., and Dennis P. Saccuzzo. 2005. Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications, and Issues. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Laumann, Edward, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Mitchell, Mark, and Janina Jolley. 2007. Research Design Explained. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Tourangeau, Roger. 2004. Survey Research and Societal Change. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 775–801.
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