This is “Survey Research: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?”, section 8.1 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (84 MB) or just this chapter (2 MB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

8.1 Survey Research: What Is It and When Should It Be Used?

Learning Objectives

  1. Define survey research.
  2. Identify when it is appropriate to employ survey research as a data-collection strategy.

Most of you have probably taken a survey at one time or another, so you probably have a pretty good idea of what a survey is. Sometimes students in my research methods classes feel that understanding what a survey is and how to write one is so obvious, there’s no need to dedicate any class time to learning about it. This feeling is understandable—surveys are very much a part of our everyday lives—we’ve probably all taken one, we hear about their results in the news, and perhaps we’ve even administered one ourselves. What students quickly learn is that there is more to constructing a good survey than meets the eye. Survey design takes a great deal of thoughtful planning and often a great many rounds of revision. But it is worth the effort. As we’ll learn in this chapter, there are many benefits to choosing survey research as one’s method of data collection. We’ll take a look at what a survey is exactly, what some of the benefits and drawbacks of this method are, how to construct a survey, and what to do with survey data once one has it in hand.

Survey researchA quantitative method for which a researcher poses the same set of questions, typically in a written format, to a sample of individuals. is a quantitative method whereby a researcher poses some set of predetermined questions to an entire group, or sample, of individuals. Survey research is an especially useful approach when a researcher aims to describe or explain features of a very large group or groups. This method may also be used as a way of quickly gaining some general details about one’s population of interest to help prepare for a more focused, in-depth study using time-intensive methods such as in-depth interviews or field research. In this case, a survey may help a researcher identify specific individuals or locations from which to collect additional data.

As is true of all methods of data collection, survey research is better suited to answering some kinds of research question more than others. In addition, as you’ll recall from Chapter 6 "Defining and Measuring Concepts", operationalization works differently with different research methods. If your interest is in political activism, for example, you likely operationalize that concept differently in a survey than you would for a field research study of the same topic.

Key Takeaway

  • Survey research is often used by researchers who wish to explain trends or features of large groups. It may also be used to assist those planning some more focused, in-depth study.


  1. Recall some of the possible research questions you came up with while reading previous chapters of this text. How might you frame those questions so that they could be answered using survey research?