8.2.1 Types of surveys Survey of the social world tend to be of three types. First, social surveys that describe the world. Second, social policy surveys that focus on the extent and nature of social problems and policy initiatives to deal with them. Third, sociological surveys that attempt to find out why the social world is as it is.
Social surveys essentially collect information on the way society is with a view to providing an account of what the social world looks like. The British Social Attitudes survey is an example of a social survey. It takes place annually (since 1983) and around 3000 people are asked about what it is like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run. Despite some new questions each year, many questions recur enabling the charting of changes over time. This survey provides an annual snapshot of public perceptions but does not attempt to explain or otherwise theorise the results, despite breaking down the results into different classificatory categories.
Social policy surveys focus on the extent and nature of social problems. For example the Breadline Britain 1990 survey sought to establish what the public thought were minimum standards to which everyone was entitled, and who fell below these standards. A representative sample of 1,319 adults throughout Britain was asked about their views on what constituted an unacceptably low standard of living and their own standard of living. It ws compared to a similar survey in 1983 and showed that Britain during the 1980s, under a right-wing Conservative government, had become a more unequal society and the poor had not shared in the rising prosperity of the country. As a consequence, their standards of living were increasingly not meeting the minimum standards set by society.
Surveys are also used to explore not just what people do, think and say but also why they act as they do. While social surveys essentially collect information on the way society is, sociological surveys attempt to find out why the social world is as it is. Sociological surveys explore not just what people do, think and say but also why they act as they do. They are designed to address a specific social issue, usually with a view to exploring how society functions; specifically trying to establish the cause or likely causes of a social phenomenon.
However, there is a fine line between collecting information to describe the world and collecting data to explain it. In essence, the methods used are much the same for social and sociological surveys; it is the purpose that varies.