Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

8. Surveys

8.1 Introduction to surveys
8.2 Methodological approaches
8.3 Doing survey research

8.3.1 Aims and purpose
8.3.2 Background to the research
8.3.3 Feasibility
8.3.4 Hypotheses
8.3.5 Operationalisation
8.3.6 How will data be collected and what are the key relationships?
8.3.7 Designing the research instrument
8.3.8 Pilot survey
8.3.9 Sampling

8.3.10 Questionnaire distribution and interviewing Questionnaires distribution Paper questionnaires handed to the respondent by the researcher Mailed questionnaires Electronic questionnaires Group-administered questionnaires Interviews

8.3.11 Coding data
8.3.12.Response rate

8.4 Statistical analysis
8.5 Summary and conclusion

8.3.10 Interviewing or questionnaire distribution
Surveys can be given to respondents in the form of a questionnaire for them to complete or be administered by the researcher in the form of an interview Questionnaire distribution
There are four broad types of questionnaires:

  • paper questionnaires handed to the respondent by the researcher
  • paper questionnaires mailed to the respondent
  • virtual questionnaires completed electronically
  • group administered questionnaires. Paper questionnaires handed to the respondent by the researcher
In some studies questionnaires are handed directly to the respondent by the researcher. The respondent then completes the survey (either immediately or at their convenience) and returns it to the researcher by some agreed mechanism.

Although this is generally a more expensive method than mailing questionnaires, it is a necessary approach when there is no mailing list for potential respondents.

For example, Farley and Barkan (1998) handed out questionnaires in their study of people working as prostitutes in San Francisco (see CASE STUDY Prostitution).

In many instances, surveys of student views involve questionnaires being handed to students in classrooms (and usually completed straight away); and market researchers undertaking a survey of passers-by in the street sometimes hand out questionnaires for completion (usually involving completion in a nearby location) rather than undertaking interviews in the street.

Not only is this form of distribution of questionnaires necessary when no mailing list or sampling frame is available it is also more personal, researchers are in contact with respondents; they do not just send an impersonal survey instrument. Further, the respondent can ask questions about the study and get clarification on what is to be done. Generally, this would be expected to increase the percent of people who are willing to respond. Farley and Barkan's (1998) study had very few refusals (see CASE STUDY Prostitution).

A variant on this is the household drop-off survey. In this approach, a researcher goes to the respondent's home or business and hands the respondent the instrument. In some cases, the respondent is asked to mail it back, in the attached prepaid envelope, or the interview returns to pick it up. In the past, this has, for example, been the mechanism for the decennial Census of population in the United Kingdom.

Top Mailed questionnaires
Mailed questionnaires were a widely used form of data collection for social and market researchers. They continue to be used and most people would have experienced receiving a questionnaire in the mail. Compared to interviewing and researcher distributed questionnaires, mailed surveys are inexpensive to administer (if one has an appropriate mailing list) and they can be administered to large numbers geographically widely dispersed. They allow respondents to complete the questionnaire at their own convenience.

The disadvantages are that response rates from mail surveys are often very low and mail questionnaires are not the best vehicles for seeking detailed written responses.

Simone Dohle and Michael Siegrist (2013) undertook a random postal survey on generic drug use in Switzerland. Generic drugs are unbranded, unadvertised versions of drugs. Their consumption is Switzerland is very low (12% of the drug market), much lower than most other European countries and this increases the cost of health services in Switzerland. The study, which received 668 responses, examined knowledge and beliefs about drugs (cognitive predictors) and general affect and sacred values (affective predictors) to explain generic drug acceptance and use.

The aims of the study were threefold. The first aim of the present study was to estimate if generic drug acceptance and use could be explained by cognitive determinants, affective determinants, or both. For this purpose, we constructed an experimental choice task in which people had the choice between a branded and a generic drug, and we also varied the seriousness of the illness. A second aim of the present study was to develop a psychometrically sound knowledge scale to assess knowledge about generic drugs in a more detailed manner. This will allow disentangling the influence of knowledge from commonly held beliefs about generic drugs. Third, by the use of affective imagery, this research sought to explore the core affective images that are most frequently connected with generic drugs. (Dohle and Siegrist, 2013, p. 7)

The sample of respondents, who were selected at random from 'the telephone book', were sent a questionnaire and an accompanying letter. 'The household member over 18 years of age whose birthday was closest to the date that the questionnaire was received was asked to fill out the survey' (Dohle and Siegrist, 2013, p. 7). Non-respondents were sent up to two reminders and the final response rate was 37% (N = 668).

The questionnaire was designed to measure, on a Likert scale, various constructs related to generic drugs.

Exactly fifty per cent (n = 332) of the respondents were women (four participants (0.6%) did not report their gender). The mean age was 55 years (SD = 16); six participants (0.9%) did not report their age. The self-reported education level included 33.8% higher education; 55.9% upper secondary and 8.3% below that; thirteen respondents (1.9%) did not indicate their education level.

Generic drug acceptance as well as drug choices were influenced by knowledge, beliefs, and affect. It was also found that generic substitution is chosen less frequently for a more severe illness. Key insights could be used for developing information material or interventions aimed at increasing the substitution of generic drugs in order to make health care more affordable. (Dohle and Siegrist, 2013, p. 5)

Top Electronic questionnaires
Increasingly, mailed questionnaires are being replaced by electronic questionnaires f one sort or another adminstered on-line. Electronic questionnaires might be attachments to emails or links to an online survey.

Sometimes emails might come with an attached questionnaire that the respondent fills in on screen and emails back. Sometimes it requires the questionnaire to be printed, completed and returned either by mail or scanned and attached to a return email.

In some cases, the email itself may contain questions and the respondent emails back answers; this mainly occurs where the questions are more qualitative (and few in number) and the researcher is seeking detailed views on a specific topic.

More often, the respondent is directed to an on-line survey, which usually involves clicking on pre-coded answers with, in some cases, space to provide the respondent's own views.

On-line surveys may ask for classificatory data or may use pre-existing data linked to the email address or IP address of the computer. For example, online surveys in universities sent to student university email accounts may link the responses to the student email address, which links to the student record.

Virtual surveys tend to be quicker to administer, there is no distribution and return time lag. They are cheaper as there is no postage or printing costs. They are often linked to automatic analysis programs (at least at the level of basic descriptive statistics). They do, however, suffer from very low response rates. Partly this is a result of several factors.

  1. Overuse: particularly by market researchers the consequences of which are that substantive social research gets 'lost' in the plethora of market research surveys.
  2. Indiscriminate distribution: because there is no cost associated with the distribution of online surveys, there tends to be a scattergun approach to distribution so that an organisation will send questionnaires (such as 'feedback on how we did' questionnaires) to every email address they have on their database irrespective of relevance.
  3. Poor design: many on-line surveys are poorly designed, as they often do not take account of the respondent's perspective but reproduce the concerns of the researcher or company employing the questionnaire designer. While this provides responses (usually pre-coded) that fit the intended actions (if any) of the originator of the questionnaire, it often fails to correspond to the perceptions and concerns of the respondent, resulting in a frustrating experience of not being able to say what is wanted.
  4. Forced response and inadequate pre-coded categories: frustration with poorly designed questionnaires is exacerbated by being forced to answer every question, even if the question is not applicable, a situation made more intolerable when the categories of a pre-coded question are not exhaustive: lacking, for example, 'don't know', 'not applicable' or 'choose not tot to say' options. The latter being particularly irksome with classificatory questions. Being forced to answer inappropriately often leads to the online questionnaire not being completed, or worse, completed but incorrectly.

Another major problem with on-line surveys, especially those using a scatter-gun approach, is that it is difficult to identify response rates when the initial sample is unspecified. There is also very little likelihood in many on-line surveys of being able to identify bias in responses.

On-line surveys are also a poor choice when asking complex or 'deep' questions. The generic on-line survey templates that are frequently are used often do not have the subtlety to ask complex or multi-layered questions. Further, on-line surveys are not a good medium for detailed qualitative responses as respondents tend to fill such surveys in quickly and provide minimum qualitative information.

Top Group-administered questionnaires
Group administered questionnaires are used when a sample of respondents is brought together and asked to respond to a structured sequence of questions. This tends to occur where respondents are easily assembled such as in a classroom or an office setting.

A group administered questionnaire differs from a group interview or focus group? In the group-administered questionnaire, each respondent is handed an instrument and asked to complete it (usually individually) while in the room. In the group interview or focus group, the interviewer facilitates the session. People work as a group, listening to each other's comments and answering the questions. Someone takes notes for the entire group; people do not complete an interview individually.

Questionnaires are usually administered in group settings as a matter of convenience. The researcher can give the questionnaire to those who were present and be fairly sure that there would be a high response rate. If the respondents were unclear about the meaning of a question they could ask for clarification.

The problem with this approach is that the sample tends to be those who were present on the specific day. There is also a high likelihood that some respondents are not interested in the questionnaire and will fill it in thoughtlessly just to get the task finished quickly.


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