This is “Types of Surveys”, section 8.3 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.
DonorsChoose.org helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

8.3 Types of Surveys

Learning Objectives

  1. Define cross-sectional surveys, provide an example of a cross-sectional survey, and outline some of the drawbacks of cross-sectional research.
  2. Describe the various types of longitudinal surveys.
  3. Define retrospective surveys, and identify their strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of the various methods of delivering self-administered questionnaires.

There is much variety when it comes to surveys. This variety comes both in terms of time—when or with what frequency a survey is administered—and in terms of administration—how a survey is delivered to respondents. In this section we’ll take a look at what types of surveys exist when it comes to both time and administration.

Time

In terms of time, there are two main types of surveys: cross-sectional and longitudinal. Cross-sectional surveysSurveys that are administered at one point in time. are those that are administered at just one point in time. These surveys offer researchers a sort of snapshot in time and give us an idea about how things are for our respondents at the particular point in time that the survey is administered. My own study of older workers mentioned previously is an example of a cross-sectional survey. I administered the survey at just one time.

Another example of a cross-sectional survey comes from Aniko Kezdy and colleagues’ study (Kezdy, Martos, Boland, & Horvath-Szabo, 2011)Kezdy, A., Martos, T., Boland, V., & Horvath-Szabo, K. (2011). Religious doubts and mental health in adolescence and young adulthood: The association with religious attitudes. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 39–47. of the association between religious attitudes, religious beliefs, and mental health among students in Hungary. These researchers administered a single, one-time-only, cross-sectional survey to a convenience sample of 403 high school and college students. The survey focused on how religious attitudes impact various aspects of one’s life and health. The researchers found from analysis of their cross-sectional data that anxiety and depression were highest among those who had both strong religious beliefs and also some doubts about religion. Yet another recent example of cross-sectional survey research can be seen in Bateman and colleagues’ study (Bateman, Pike, & Butler, 2011) of how the perceived publicness of social networking sites influences users’ self-disclosures.Bateman, P. J., Pike, J. C., & Butler, B. S. (2011). To disclose or not: Publicness in social networking sites. Information Technology & People, 24, 78–100. These researchers administered an online survey to undergraduate and graduate business students. They found that even though revealing information about oneself is viewed as key to realizing many of the benefits of social networking sites, respondents were less willing to disclose information about themselves as their perceptions of a social networking site’s publicness rose. That is, there was a negative relationship between perceived publicness of a social networking site and plans to self-disclose on the site.

Figure 8.2

Patrick Bateman and colleagues found a negative relationship between perceived publicness of a social networking site and plans to self-disclose on the site.

One problem with cross-sectional surveys is that the events, opinions, behaviors, and other phenomena that such surveys are designed to assess don’t generally remain stagnant. Thus generalizing from a cross-sectional survey about the way things are can be tricky; perhaps you can say something about the way things were in the moment that you administered your survey, but it is difficult to know whether things remained that way for long after you administered your survey. Think, for example, about how Americans might have responded if administered a survey asking for their opinions on terrorism on September 10, 2001. Now imagine how responses to the same set of questions might differ were they administered on September 12, 2001. The point is not that cross-sectional surveys are useless; they have many important uses. But researchers must remember what they have captured by administering a cross-sectional survey; that is, as previously noted, a snapshot of life as it was at the time that the survey was administered.

One way to overcome this sometimes problematic aspect of cross-sectional surveys is to administer a longitudinal survey. Longitudinal surveysSurveys that enable a researcher to make observations over some extended period of time. are those that enable a researcher to make observations over some extended period of time. There are several types of longitudinal surveys, including trend, panel, and cohort surveys. We’ll discuss all three types here, along with another type of survey called retrospective. Retrospective surveys fall somewhere in between cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys.

The first type of longitudinal survey is called a trend surveyA type of longitudinal survey where a researcher examines changes in trends over time; the same people do not necessarily participate in the survey more than once.. The main focus of a trend survey is, perhaps not surprisingly, trends. Researchers conducting trend surveys are interested in how people’s inclinations change over time. The Gallup opinion polls are an excellent example of trend surveys. You can read more about Gallup on their website: http://www.gallup.com/Home.aspx. To learn about how public opinion changes over time, Gallup administers the same questions to people at different points in time. For example, for several years Gallup has polled Americans to find out what they think about gas prices (something many of us happen to have opinions about). One thing we’ve learned from Gallup’s polling is that price increases in gasoline caused financial hardship for 67% of respondents in 2011, up from 40% in the year 2000. Gallup’s findings about trends in opinions about gas prices have also taught us that whereas just 34% of people in early 2000 thought the current rise in gas prices was permanent, 54% of people in 2011 believed the rise to be permanent. Thus through Gallup’s use of trend survey methodology, we’ve learned that Americans seem to feel generally less optimistic about the price of gas these days than they did 10 or so years ago.You can read about these and other findings on Gallup’s gasoline questions at http://www.gallup.com/poll/147632/Gas-Prices.aspx#1. It should be noted that in a trend survey, the same people are probably not answering the researcher’s questions each year. Because the interest here is in trends, not specific people, as long as the researcher’s sample is representative of whatever population he or she wishes to describe trends for, it isn’t important that the same people participate each time.

Figure 8.3

Gallup found that Americans feel much less optimistic about the price of gas today than they did 10 years ago.

Next are panel surveysA type of longitudinal survey in which a researcher surveys the exact same sample several times over a period of time.. Unlike in a trend survey, in a panel survey the same people do participate in the survey each time it is administered. As you might imagine, panel studies can be difficult and costly. Imagine trying to administer a survey to the same 100 people every year for, say, 5 years in a row. Keeping track of where people live, when they move, and when they die takes resources that researchers often don’t have. When they do, however, the results can be quite powerful. The Youth Development Study (YDS), administered from the University of Minnesota, offers an excellent example of a panel study. You can read more about the Youth Development Study at its website: http://www.soc.umn.edu/research/yds. Since 1988, YDS researchers have administered an annual survey to the same 1,000 people. Study participants were in ninth grade when the study began, and they are now in their thirties. Several hundred papers, articles, and books have been written using data from the YDS. One of the major lessons learned from this panel study is that work has a largely positive impact on young people (Mortimer, 2003).Mortimer, J. T. (2003). Working and growing up in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Contrary to popular beliefs about the impact of work on adolescents’ performance in school and transition to adulthood, work in fact increases confidence, enhances academic success, and prepares students for success in their future careers. Without this panel study, we may not be aware of the positive impact that working can have on young people.

Figure 8.4

Findings from the longitudinal Youth Development Study show that adolescents who work have more confidence, have greater academic success, and are prepared for success in their future careers.

Another type of longitudinal survey is a cohort surveyA type of longitudinal survey where a researcher’s interest is in a particular group of people who share some common experience or characteristic.. In a cohort survey, a researcher identifies some category of people that are of interest and then regularly surveys people who fall into that category. The same people don’t necessarily participate from year to year, but all participants must meet whatever categorical criteria fulfill the researcher’s primary interest. Common cohorts that may be of interest to researchers include people of particular generations or those who were born around the same time period, graduating classes, people who began work in a given industry at the same time, or perhaps people who have some specific life experience in common. An example of this sort of research can be seen in Christine Percheski’s work (2008)Percheski, C. (2008). Opting out? Cohort differences in professional women’s employment rates from 1960 to 2005. American Sociological Review, 73, 497–517. on cohort differences in women’s employment. Percheski compared women’s employment rates across seven different generational cohorts, from Progressives born between 1906 and 1915 to Generation Xers born between 1966 and 1975. She found, among other patterns, that professional women’s labor force participation had increased across all cohorts. She also found that professional women with young children from Generation X had higher labor force participation rates than similar women from previous generations, concluding that mothers do not appear to be opting out of the workforce as some journalists have speculated (Belkin, 2003).Belkin, L. (2003, October 26). The opt-out revolution. New York Times, pp. 42–47, 58, 85–86.

All three types of longitudinal surveys share the strength that they permit a researcher to make observations over time. This means that if whatever behavior or other phenomenon the researcher is interested in changes, either because of some world event or because people age, the researcher will be able to capture those changes. Table 8.1 "Types of Longitudinal Surveys" summarizes each of the three types of longitudinal surveys.

Table 8.1 Types of Longitudinal Surveys

Sample type Description
Trend Researcher examines changes in trends over time; the same people do not necessarily participate in the survey more than once.
Panel Researcher surveys the exact same sample several times over a period of time.
Cohort Researcher identifies some category of people that are of interest and then regularly surveys people who fall into that category.

Finally, retrospective surveysA type of survey in which participants are asked to report events from the past. are similar to other longitudinal studies in that they deal with changes over time, but like a cross-sectional study, they are administered only once. In a retrospective survey, participants are asked to report events from the past. By having respondents report past behaviors, beliefs, or experiences, researchers are able to gather longitudinal-like data without actually incurring the time or expense of a longitudinal survey. Of course, this benefit must be weighed against the possibility that people’s recollections of their pasts may be faulty. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked in a survey to respond to questions about where, how, and with whom you spent last Valentine’s Day. As last Valentine’s Day can’t have been more than 12 months ago, chances are good that you might be able to respond accurately to any survey questions about it. But now let’s say the research wants to know how last Valentine’s Day compares to previous Valentine’s Days, so he asks you to report on where, how, and with whom you spent the preceding six Valentine’s Days. How likely is it that you will remember? Will your responses be as accurate as they might have been had you been asked the question each year over the past 6 years rather than asked to report on all years today?

Figure 8.5

While you might remember how and with whom you spent last Valentine’s Day, how likely is it that you’ll recall how you spent the last six Valentine’s Days? Retrospective surveys rely on respondents’ abilities to recall past behaviors, beliefs, or experiences.

In sum, when or with what frequency a survey is administered will determine whether your survey is cross-sectional or longitudinal. While longitudinal surveys are certainly preferable in terms of their ability to track changes over time, the time and cost required to administer a longitudinal survey can be prohibitive. As you may have guessed, the issues of time described here are not necessarily unique to survey research. Other methods of data collection can be cross-sectional or longitudinal—these are really matters of research design. But we’ve placed our discussion of these terms here because they are most commonly used by survey researchers to describe the type of survey administered. Another aspect of survey administration deals with how surveys are administered. We’ll examine that next.

Administration

Surveys vary not just in terms of when they are administered but also in terms of how they are administered. One common way to administer surveys is in the form of self-administered questionnairesA set of written questions that a research participant responds to by filling in answers on her or his own without the assistance of a researcher.. This means that a research participant is given a set of questions, in writing, to which he or she is asked to respond. Self-administered questionnaires can be delivered in hard copy format, typically via mail, or increasingly more commonly, online. We’ll consider both modes of delivery here.

Hard copy self-administered questionnaires may be delivered to participants in person or via snail mail. Perhaps you’ve take a survey that was given to you in person; on many college campuses it is not uncommon for researchers to administer surveys in large social science classes (as you might recall from the discussion in our chapter on sampling). In my own introduction to sociology courses, I’ve welcomed graduate students and professors doing research in areas that are relevant to my students, such as studies of campus life, to administer their surveys to the class. If you are ever asked to complete a survey in a similar setting, it might be interesting to note how your perspective on the survey and its questions could be shaped by the new knowledge you’re gaining about survey research in this chapter.

Researchers may also deliver surveys in person by going door-to-door and either asking people to fill them out right away or making arrangements for the researcher to return to pick up completed surveys. Though the advent of online survey tools has made door-to-door delivery of surveys less common, I still see an occasional survey researcher at my door, especially around election time. This mode of gathering data is apparently still used by political campaign workers, at least in some areas of the country.

If you are not able to visit each member of your sample personally to deliver a survey, you might consider sending your survey through the mail. While this mode of delivery may not be ideal (imagine how much less likely you’d probably be to return a survey that didn’t come with the researcher standing on your doorstep waiting to take it from you), sometimes it is the only available or the most practical option. As I’ve said, this may not be the most ideal way of administering a survey because it can be difficult to convince people to take the time to complete and return your survey.

Often survey researchers who deliver their surveys via snail mail may provide some advance notice to respondents about the survey to get people thinking about and preparing to complete it. They may also follow up with their sample a few weeks after their survey has been sent out. This can be done not only to remind those who have not yet completed the survey to please do so but also to thank those who have already returned the survey. Most survey researchers agree that this sort of follow-up is essential for improving mailed surveys’ return rates (Babbie, 2010).Babbie, E. (2010). The practice of social research (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

In my own study of older workers’ harassment experiences, people in the sample were notified in advance of the survey mailing via an article describing the research in a newsletter they received from the agency with whom I had partnered to conduct the survey. When I mailed the survey, a $1 bill was included with each in order to provide some incentive and an advance token of thanks to participants for returning the surveys. Two months after the initial mailing went out, those who were sent a survey were contacted by phone. While returned surveys did not contain any identifying information about respondents, my research assistants contacted individuals to whom a survey had been mailed to remind them that it was not too late to return their survey and to say thank to those who may have already done so. Four months after the initial mailing went out, everyone on the original mailing list received a letter thanking those who had returned the survey and once again reminding those who had not that it was not too late to do so. The letter included a return postcard for respondents to complete should they wish to receive another copy of the survey. Respondents were also provided a telephone number to call and were provided the option of completing the survey by phone. As you can see, administering a survey by mail typically involves much more than simply arranging a single mailing; participants may be notified in advance of the mailing, they then receive the mailing, and then several follow-up contacts will likely be made after the survey has been mailed.

Figure 8.6

Administering a survey by mail usually involves more than just mailing a survey; it may include sending some advance notification and following up by phone or mail after the survey has been mailed.

Earlier I mentioned online delivery as another way to administer a survey. This delivery mechanism is becoming increasingly common, no doubt because it is easy to use, relatively cheap, and may be quicker than knocking on doors or waiting for mailed surveys to be returned. To deliver a survey online, a researcher may subscribe to a service that offers online delivery or use some delivery mechanism that is available for free. SurveyMonkey offers both free and paid online survey services (http://www.surveymonkey.com). One advantage to using a service like SurveyMonkey, aside from the advantages of online delivery already mentioned, is that results can be provided to you in formats that are readable by data analysis programs such as SPSS, Systat, and Excel. This saves you, the researcher, the step of having to manually enter data into your analysis program, as you would if you administered your survey in hard copy format.

Many of the suggestions provided for improving the response rate on a hard copy questionnaire apply to online questionnaires as well. One difference of course is that the sort of incentives one can provide in an online format differ from those that can be given in person or sent through the mail. But this doesn’t mean that online survey researchers cannot offer completion incentives to their respondents. I’ve taken a number of online surveys; many of these did not come with an incentive other than the joy of knowing that I’d helped a fellow social scientist do his or her job, but on one I was given a printable $5 coupon to my university’s campus dining services on completion, and another time I was given a coupon code to use for $10 off any order on Amazon.com. I’ve taken other online surveys where on completion I could provide my name and contact information if I wished to be entered into a drawing together with other study participants to win a larger gift, such as a $50 gift card or an iPad.

Sometimes surveys are administered by having a researcher actually pose questions directly to respondents rather than having respondents read the questions on their own. These types of surveys are a form of interviews. We discuss interviews in Chapter 9 "Interviews: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches", where we’ll examine interviews of the survey (or quantitative) type and qualitative interviews as well. Interview methodology differs from survey research in that data are collected via a personal interaction. Because asking people questions in person comes with a set of guidelines and concerns that differ from those associated with asking questions on paper or online, we’ll reserve our discussion of those guidelines and concerns for Chapter 9 "Interviews: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches".

Whatever delivery mechanism you choose, keep in mind that there are pros and cons to each of the options described here. While online surveys may be faster and cheaper than mailed surveys, can you be certain that every person in your sample will have the necessary computer hardware, software, and Internet access in order to complete your online survey? On the other hand, perhaps mailed surveys are more likely to reach your entire sample but also more likely to be lost and not returned. The choice of which delivery mechanism is best depends on a number of factors including your resources, the resources of your study participants, and the time you have available to distribute surveys and wait for responses. In my own survey of older workers, I would have much preferred to administer my survey online, but because so few people in my sample were likely to have computers, and even fewer would have Internet access, I chose instead to mail paper copies of the survey to respondents’ homes. Understanding the characteristics of your study’s population is key to identifying the appropriate mechanism for delivering your survey.

Key Takeaways

  • Time is a factor in determining what type of survey researcher administers; cross-sectional surveys are administered at one time, and longitudinal surveys are administered over time.
  • Retrospective surveys offer some of the benefits of longitudinal research but also come with their own drawbacks.
  • Self-administered questionnaires may be delivered in hard copy form to participants in person or via snail mail or online.

Exercises

  1. If the idea of a panel study piqued your interest, check out the Up series of documentary films. While not a survey, the films offer one example of a panel study. Filmmakers began filming the lives of 14 British children in 1964, when the children were 7 years old. They have since caught up with the children every 7 years. In 2012, the eighth installment of the documentary, 56 Up, will come out. Many clips from the series are available on YouTube.
  2. For more information about online delivery of surveys, check out SurveyMonkey’s website: http://www.surveymonkey.com.