Section 6.4: Surveys and Interviews

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Surveys represent one of the most common types of social scientific research.  Because survey data is usually coded in terms of numbers, it is usually considered a type of quantitative research.  Most often, survey research is conducted using a sample rather than the entire population of interest. The survey instrument is often called a questionnaire.  A closely related data-gathering technique commonly used by social scientists is the interview.  

Interviews in Social Science Research

Interviews are a fundamental tool in social science research. They are like the bridges that connect researchers to the rich experiences and insights of individuals. Let’s explore the different types of interviews and see how they fit into the world of research.

Structured Interviews: The Organized Approach

Think of structured interviews as a well-organized list. In these interviews, the researcher has a clear set of questions prepared in advance. Much like following a specific lesson plan in class, the interviewer sticks to these questions without deviation, ensuring that each person is asked the exact same thing in the same way.

Semi-Structured Interviews: Flexibility Within Framework

Semi-structured interviews offer a bit more room to breathe. Researchers have key themes and topics they intend to cover, but how they get there can vary. These interviews are open-ended, allowing the researcher to follow interesting paths that emerge during the conversation, much like choosing a project topic within a certain subject area.

Unstructured Interviews: The Free-Flowing Conversation

Unstructured interviews are the most casual and free-form. They’re like open-ended discussions where the conversation is allowed to develop naturally. Both the researcher and the participant understand the purpose of the chat is to gather information, but there are no scripted questions, resembling a class discussion that evolves based on students’ contributions.

Questionnaires in Social Science Research

Questionnaires are a key instrument in gathering data for social science research. They serve as a guide to understanding people’s thoughts, experiences, and opinions.

Mailed and Online Questionnaires: Reaching Out Far and Wide

Think of mailed questionnaires as sending out a bunch of letters asking for feedback—they have been around for a long time and are quite familiar in research. But as technology has advanced, these questionnaires have moved online. They are especially useful when the people you want to hear from are tech-savvy. Whether on paper or a screen, these questionnaires can efficiently collect information from many individuals, like a survey asking about community services or a feedback form after a workshop.

Face-to-Face Questionnaires: A Personal Touch

When questionnaires are conducted in person, they start to resemble structured interviews. It’s like having a conversation where the researcher is asking the same questions to everyone, one person at a time. This method is personal and interactive, ensuring that each participant fully understands the questions.

Group Questionnaires: The Collective Voice

Sometimes, researchers need to hear from a bunch of people at the same time, like after a group activity or training. That’s where group questionnaires come in handy. Everyone in the group gets the same questionnaire to fill out. It’s an efficient way to gauge the group’s overall perspective on an experience they shared.

Reflect:  Think about the pros and cons of using questionnaires for research. How might the setting—mail, online, face-to-face, or in a group—affect the responses and the quality of information gathered?

Crafting Effective Survey Tools

Creating a survey is a bit like building a bridge—you need to plan carefully to make sure it stands strong and gets you where you need to go. Before even starting, it’s crucial to consider several key points to ensure the survey is successful.

Understanding Participant Attitudes

First up, think about how people will feel about taking your survey. If you’re sending it through the mail, remember it could end up unread in the trash like unwanted flyers. That’s why the number of people who actually complete your survey, known as the response rate, can be pretty low with mail. But if the participants feel they have a duty to answer, like professionals in a certain field, you might get more responses.

Crafting the Questions

Just like each subject in school requires different study methods, each survey question might need its own approach. Long, open-ended questions probably won’t work well in a mail-in survey where people have to write a lot. These types of questions are better suited for interviews where you can talk it out and the interviewer can jot down the details.

Budgeting the Costs

Surveys can also be a bit like a school project—they can take up more time and resources than you expect. Sure, sending surveys out is cheaper than ever with all our tech, but the real investment is in handling all the responses. Analyzing all that information takes a lot of effort, and if you need to hire more people to help, the costs can add up.

Choosing the Right Tool

Finally, it’s essential to pick the right tool for the job. Surveys are awesome at capturing what people think and feel, but they have their limits. If you need to know the actual facts, not just perceptions, be careful. For instance, how scared people are of crime in their area doesn’t always match up with the real crime rates—it’s often more about how tidy or untidy the neighborhood looks.

Reflect:  Consider how the design of a survey can influence its effectiveness. What strategies might you employ to ensure your survey accurately captures the information you need?

Designing Effective Survey Questions

Creating survey questions is a lot like writing a good essay: you need the right structure, clear language, and a logical flow. A well-crafted questionnaire is the backbone of any successful survey research.

Open vs. Closed-Ended Questions

The first big choice in survey design is deciding between open or closed-ended questions. Some researchers mix both types, but let’s see what each one brings to the table.

Closed-Ended Questions: Quick and Clear

Closed-ended questions are like multiple-choice tests – you have a set of fixed answers to choose from. They can be simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘true’ or ‘false,’ or they can offer a range of options. Likert scales are a common type, where you rate your agreement with a statement from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree.’ These questions are great for sorting answers into neat categories, which makes analyzing the data a lot easier.

Open-Ended Questions: Rich and Detailed

Open-ended questions are like short-answer questions on a test. There are no suggested answers, and you write what you think or feel in your own words. These can give you more detailed insights because they don’t restrict people’s responses, but they’re also trickier to analyze since the answers can vary so much.

Survey Question Formats

Now, how should these questions be formatted? Quality data is always the goal, and here are a few formats to consider:

  • Rating Scales: These ask people to score something on a scale. For example, ‘On a scale from 1 to 10, how much do you enjoy science class?’
  • Ranking Scales: With these, you put a list of things in order of preference. They’re great for finding out what a group considers most important.
  • Magnitude Estimation Scales: These are all about measuring the size or importance of something. A classic example is the pain scale doctors use, from ‘no pain’ to ‘worst pain imaginable.’
  • Split Questions: Start with a broad question and follow up with more specific ones to clarify the answer.
  • Funneling Questions: Begin with a wide, open-ended question and narrow down to more precise, closed-ended ones.

Reflect:  When designing a survey, how might you decide which types of questions to use? What factors could influence whether you choose open or closed-ended questions, or a mix of both?

Crafting Clear and Effective Survey Questions

Writing questions for a survey is like trying to explain a new game to friends; you need to be clear, direct, and avoid any confusing terms. Here’s how to make survey questions that everyone can understand, even if they’re not experts in the subject.

Using Plain Language

Researchers often know a lot about their topic, but the people answering the survey might not. To avoid confusion, questions should be in simple English. It’s like avoiding complex math formulas when you’re just trying to explain how to add numbers.

Tailoring Questions to the Audience

It’s important to think about who will be answering these questions. If the survey is for students, the questions should be something they can relate to and understand. It’s a bit like making sure the questions in a history quiz are about the topics you’ve actually studied in class.

Keeping Questions Short and Direct

Long and complicated questions can be confusing, like a puzzle with too many pieces. Survey questions should be short and to the point, which makes them easier to answer.

Being Specific

Specific questions help narrow down the answers you get. Instead of asking “Do you like school?” which is very broad, you could ask “Do you enjoy your science class?” which gives you a more precise answer.

Being Sensitive with Personal Topics

When asking about personal or sensitive topics, it’s crucial to be respectful and considerate. You wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, just like you’d be discreet when asking a friend about something private.

Reflect:  Why is it important to use plain language and be specific when crafting survey questions? How can careful wording impact the quality and reliability of the survey data collected?

Navigating Challenges in Survey Research

Surveys are a snapshot of what a group of people think or feel, but they need to accurately reflect the larger population they represent. Here’s how researchers can avoid common pitfalls and make sure their surveys give a true picture.

Ensuring a Representative Sample

For a survey to really capture what a whole group thinks, the people taking the survey need to be a mini-version of the entire group. It’s like if you wanted to know what all students in your school think about the new cafeteria menu, you wouldn’t just ask the soccer team. Researchers use special sampling methods to make sure they’re hearing from all parts of the group.

Avoiding Nonresponse Bias

Sometimes, the people who don’t answer the survey can skew the results. For instance, if a survey is about park usage and only people who love the outdoors respond, the results might show a much higher interest in park activities than is actually the case. This is nonresponse bias, and it happens when the views of the non-responders are different from those who do respond. To fix this, researchers can’t just rely on volunteers; they need to reach out in a way that gives everyone a fair chance to participate.

Tackling Response Set Bias

Have you ever taken a quiz and kept choosing ‘C’ for multiple questions in a row? That’s similar to response set bias in surveys, where people might keep choosing ‘strongly agree’ for every question. One way to help prevent this is to mix up the questions—some positive and some negative about the topic. This encourages people to really think about each answer rather than going on autopilot.

Reflect:  How can understanding these potential survey problems help in designing better research studies? What steps might you take to avoid these biases and ensure a survey’s results are valid?


Interview Formats

Interviews in social science research are tailored to the needs of the study, ranging from highly structured to free-flowing conversations. Structured interviews have a fixed set of questions, offering consistency across responses. Semi-structured interviews combine a guided framework with the flexibility to explore topics more deeply as they emerge. Unstructured interviews are informal and adaptive, without predetermined questions, allowing natural dialogue to shape the discussion.

Designing Survey Instruments

Effective survey design requires consideration of participant attitudes, the nature and phrasing of questions, cost implications, and the overall suitability of the survey tool. Researchers must balance the need for comprehensive data with the ease and cost-effectiveness of data collection. The use of mailed and online questionnaires, as well as in-person and group formats, depends on the target audience and the research objectives.

Crafting Questions and Addressing Biases

Clear, simple, and direct questions are key to crafting a successful survey, avoiding technical jargon to ensure respondents fully understand them. The choice between open and closed-ended questions is influenced by the desired depth of response and data analysis needs. Surveys must also navigate potential pitfalls like nonresponse bias, where the absence of responses from certain segments distorts the data, and response set bias, where participants may habitually choose the same type of answer. Employing varied question phrasing and ensuring a representative sample are critical steps in mitigating these issues.

By meticulously designing interviews and surveys, social scientists can obtain high-quality data that accurately reflects the opinions and behaviors of the population under study, leading to more reliable and actionable research findings.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  11/06/2023

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