Surveys in Sociology Research
Ethical and practical considerations in applied research with human beings often mean that researchers are unable to experimentally manipulate independent variables to determine their effects. In such situations, survey research methodology allows researchers to gather and analyze data about phenomena of interest in order to help them better understand and explain the world around them. In survey research, participants are asked questions concerning their opinions, attitudes, or reactions through a structured data collection instrument for purposes of scientific analysis. These results are used to extrapolate the findings from the sample to the underlying population. Although there are a number of advantages to using survey research for data collection from human beings, there are also many disadvantages. Typically, survey research should be used only in those situations where data cannot be collected in other ways.
Applied research with human beings such as the kind that is done in many sociology studies precludes the manipulation of variables or random assignments to experimental groups for ethical reasons. For example, if one wanted to know the comparative effects of short-term and long-term unemployment on people, it would be unethical to randomly assign people to groups, fire one group from their jobs, and preclude from acquiring employment for a given period of time. Not only would such a study completely or partially stop the income for the persons in the experimental group, put their health and safety at risk due to potential inability to purchase food and shelter, and inversely impact their families, it would also result in various levels of psychological stress that could negatively impact them for the foreseeable future even once they were employed again. For this reason, survey research is often used to collect data from individuals already in whatever situation is of interest to the researcher. Survey research does not require the artificial external manipulation of variables (i.e., the experimenter has no control over who loses their job or how long they stay unemployed), but collects data from individuals who are already in the population of interest due to other factors (i.e., have already lost their jobs outside the scope of the research).
In general, a survey is a data collection instrument used to acquire information on the opinions, attitudes, or reactions of people. Examples of survey research are all around us and at some point in most of our lives we will participate in a study that uses surveys. The market research done at the mall where people are asked to participate in a blind taste test of two kinds of cola and answer a questionnaire specifying which they preferred and why, is a simple type of survey research. The survey run by the United States Census Bureau every 10 years to collect data about the homes and lifestyles of people across the country represents a more sophisticated type of survey research. Even the questionnaire "Is Your Spouse a Louse?" in a popular women's magazine is a type of survey (although it is not used as part of the survey research methodology and the research analysis and extrapolation is done just by the person responding to the instrument).
Survey research is a type of research in which data about the opinions, attitudes, or reactions of the members of a sample are gathered using a survey instrument. As opposed to experimental research, survey research does not allow for the manipulation of an independent variable. Survey research is a research study in which members of a selected sample are asked questions concerning their opinions, attitudes, or reactions are gathered using a survey instrument or questionnaire for purposes of scientific analysis; typically the results of this analysis are used to extrapolate the findings from the sample to the underlying population.
As shown in Figure 1, when used in scientific research, survey research follows the same general paradigm as any hypothesis testing or theory building process. Using the example above concerning the effects of unemployment on individuals and families, the researchers need to first determine what the goals of their study are. There are, for example, a wide range of consequences that someone may experience as a result of a period of unemployment and the concomitant lack of income, including inability to pay bills, loss of retirement savings and investments, change in diet (due to inability to buy the same types of food), loss of the esteem of others, feelings of inadequacy due to the inability to provide for one's family, and embarrassment from having to borrow money or sell possessions. Some of these results compound each other. The loss of self-esteem resulting from loss of employment, for example, may mean that the person has less self-confidence and does not present him/herself well in an interview, resulting in greater difficulty finding a job. The researchers need to determine which of these or other possible consequences of job loss they wish to investigate.
For example, the researchers may decide that they want to investigate both the physical and psychological consequences of unemployment. These terms, however, are rather nebulous and open-ended. The next step in the survey research methodology is to plan how the desired information will be collected. Specifically, in order to develop a good data collect instrument, they need to operationally define what they mean by "physical and psychological effects" of unemployment. They may start with their own knowledge and observations and add to these insights by interviewing people who have been unemployed to see what other effects might result from long-term unemployment. Based on this information, they would develop questions that would elicit the desired information from the survey participants. This means that they various factors in which they are interested need to be operationally defined and turned into unambiguous questions or items for inclusion on the survey. For example, survey items might include questions such as:
- "How often do you feel 'blue'?"
- "Do you have difficulty sleeping at night?"
- "Do you have difficulty getting up in the morning?"
- "Have you experienced any noticeable changes in your appetite since you lost your job?"
Using the principles of good psychometric question design, the researchers would then develop a survey instrument to be given to the sample that they have selected.
In addition to designing and developing the survey and selecting a sample, one must also determine how the survey will be delivered. Surveys can either be administered in written form through hard copy questionnaires that are mailed or given to prospective participants or administered by a trained interviewer in person or over the phone. Current survey methodology may also take advantage of newer technologies by administering the questionnaire over a cell phone, e-mail, or the Internet or by using a recording or using synthesized speech to administer the questions with respondents inputting their answers by punching in numbers on a telephone keypad or speaking the numbers which are then interpreted using voice recognition technology. Once survey data are collected, they are statistically analyzed to evaluate the responses and how they affect the researchers' theory. These results are then used to refine or expand the theory as necessary and as input...
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