Survey (human research)

In research of human subjects, a survey is a list of questions aimed at extracting specific data from a particular group of people. Surveys may be conducted by phone, mail, via the internet, and sometimes face-to-face on busy street corners or in malls. Surveys are used to increase knowledge in fields such as social research and demography.

Survey research is often used to assess thoughts, opinions, and feelings.[1] Surveys can be specific and limited, or they can have more global, widespread goals. Psychologists and sociologists often use surveys to analyze behavior, while it is also used to meet the more pragmatic needs of the media, such as, in evaluating political candidates, public health officials, professional organizations, and advertising and marketing directors. A survey consists of a predetermined set of questions that is given to a sample.[1] With a representative sample, that is, one that is representative of the larger population of interest, one can describe the attitudes of the population from which the sample was drawn. Further, one can compare the attitudes of different populations as well as look for changes in attitudes over time. A good sample selection is key as it allows one to generalize the findings from the sample to the population, which is the whole purpose of survey research.



A census is the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a specific given population. It is a regularly occurring and official count of a particular population.[2] The term is used mostly in connection with national population and housing censuses; other common censuses include agriculture, business, and traffic censuses. The United Nations defines the essential features of population and housing censuses as "individual enumeration, universality within a defined territory, simultaneity and defined periodicity", and recommends that population censuses be taken at least every 10 years.

Other household surveys

Other surveys than the census may explore characteristics in households, such as fertility, family structure, and demographics.

Household surveys with at least 10,000 participants include:

Opinion poll

An opinion poll is a survey of public opinion from a particular sample. Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by conducting a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities in ratio or within confidence intervals.


A single survey is made of at least a sample (or full population in the case of a census), a method of data collection (e.g., a questionnaire) and individual questions or items that become data that can be analyzed statistically. A single survey may focus on different types of topics such as preferences (e.g., for a presidential candidate), opinions (e.g., should abortion be legal?), behavior (smoking and alcohol use), or factual information (e.g., income), depending on its purpose. Since survey research is almost always based on a sample of the population, the success of the research is dependent on the representativeness of the sample with respect to a target population of interest to the researcher. That target population can range from the general population of a given country to specific groups of people within that country, to a membership list of a professional organization, or list of students enrolled in a school system (see also sampling (statistics) and survey sampling).


Correlation and causality

When two variables are related, or correlated, one can make predictions for these two variables.[1] However, it is important to note that this does not mean causality. At this point, it is not possible to determine a causal relationship between the two variables; correlation does not imply causality. However, correlation evidence is significant because it can help identify potential causes of behavior. Path analysis is a statistical technique that can be used with correlational data. This involves the identification of mediator and moderator variables. A mediator variable is used to explain the correlation between two variables. A moderator variable affects the direction or strength of the correlation between two variables. A spurious relationship is a relationship in which the relation between two variables can be explained by a third variable.

Moreover, in survey research, correlation coefficients between two variables might be affected by measurement error, what can lead to wrongly estimated coefficients and biased substantive conclusions. Therefore, when using survey data, we need to correct correlation coefficients for measurement error. The Survey Quality Predictor software (SQP) provides information about the quality of a survey question, i.e. the strength of the relationship between the latent concept of interest that the survey questions intends to measure, and the measured value given by the survey question and gives the necessary information to the user to correct their correlation coefficients for measurement error ([9][10])

Reported behavior versus actual behavior

The value of collected data completely depends upon how truthful respondents are in their answers on questionnaires.[1] In general, survey researchers accept respondents’ answers as true. Survey researchers avoid reactive measurement by examining the accuracy of verbal reports, and directly observing respondents’ behavior in comparison with their verbal reports to determine what behaviors they really engage in or what attitudes they really uphold.[1] Studies examining the association between self reports (attitudes, intentions) and actual behavior show that the link between them—though positive—is not always strong—thus caution is needed when extrapolating self-reports to actual behaviors,[11][12][13] Dishonesty is pronounced in some sex-related queries, with men often amplifying their number of sex partners, while women tend to downplay and slash their true number.[14]


The Statistical Society of London pioneered the questionnaire in 1838.[15]

The most famous public survey in the United States of America is the national census. Held every ten years since 1790, the census attempts to count all persons, and also to obtain demographic data about factors such as household income, ethnicity, and religion. The results of the 2010 US census appear online at

Nielsen ratings (carried out since 1947) provide another example of public surveys in the United States. Nielsen ratings track media-viewing habits (radio, television, internet, print) the results of which are used to make decisions by and about the mass media. Some Nielsen ratings localize the data points to give marketing firms more specific information with which to target customers. Demographic data is also used to understand what influences work best to market consumer products, political campaigns, etc.

Following the invention of the telephone survey (used at least as early as the 1940s[16]), the development of the Internet in the late-20th century fostered online surveys and web surveys.

See also


  1. Shaughnessy, J.; Zechmeister, E.; Jeanne, Z. (2011). Research methods in psychology (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill. pp. 161–175.
  2. Baffour, Bernard; King, Thomas; Valente, Paolo (2013). "The Modern Census: Evolution, Examples and Evaluation" (PDF). International Statistical Review. 81 (3): 407–425. doi:10.1111/insr.12036. ISSN 0306-7734.
  3. Demographic Research, Volume 17, Book 1. BoD – Books on Demand. 2008. ISBN 9783837031959.
  4. "About the Generations and Gender Programme". Archived from the original on 2016-02-06. Retrieved 2016-02-05.
  5. Integrated Household Survey
  6. "National Survey of Family Growth". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 22, 2014.
  7. "PSID - Studies". University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.
  9. DeCastellarnau, A. and Saris, W. E. (2014). A simple procedure to correct for measurement errors in survey research. European Social Survey Education Net (ESS EduNet). Available at:
  10. Saris, W. E.; Revilla, M. (2015). "Correction for measurement errors in survey research: necessary and possible". Social Indicators Research. 127 (3): 1005–1020. doi:10.1007/s11205-015-1002-x. hdl:10230/28341.
  11. Morwitz, Vicki G., and David Schmittlein. "Using segmentation to improve sales forecasts based on purchase intent: Which" intenders" actually buy?." Journal of Marketing Research (1992): 391-405.
  12. Chandon, Pierre, Vicki G. Morwitz, and Werner J. Reinartz. "Do intentions really predict behavior? Self-generated validity effects in survey research." Journal of Marketing 69.2 (2005): 1-14.
  13. Ajzen, Icek, and Martin Fisbbein. "Factors influencing intentions and the intention-behavior relation." Human Relations 27.1 (1974): 1-15.
  14. Wiederman, Michael W. "The truth must be in here somewhere: Examining the gender discrepancy in self‐reported lifetime number of sex partners." Journal of Sex Research 34.4 (1997): 375-386.
  15. Gault, Robert H. (1907). "A History of the Questionnaire Method of Research in Psychology". The Pedagogical Seminary. 14 (3): 366–383. doi:10.1080/08919402.1907.10532551.
  16. Bethlehem, Jelke; Biffignandi, Silvia (2011). "The Road to Web Surveys". Handbook of Web Surveys. Wiley Handbooks in Survey Methodology. 567. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 9. ISBN 9780470603567. Retrieved 2018-07-20. The first telephone survey in the Netherlands [...] The first telephone survey was conducted in the Netherlands on June 11, 1946.

Further reading

  • Schaff, Philip, The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. III (2006)
  • Wilbur Schramm, "The Beginnings of Communication Study in America: A Personal Memoir", ed. Steven H. Chaffee and Everett M. Rogers. (1997) Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  • Sunstein, Cass, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge.(2006) Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.
  • Tapscott, Don & Anthony Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. (2006) Penguin, New York.
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