Understanding and Evaluating Survey Research

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A variety of methodologic approaches exist for individuals interested in conducting research. Selection of a research approach depends on a number of factors, including the purpose of the research, the type of research questions to be answered, and the availability of resources. The purpose of this article is to describe survey research as one approach to the conduct of research so that the reader can critically evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions from studies employing survey research.

Survey research is defined as “the collection of information from a sample of individuals through their responses to questions” (Check & Schutt, 2012, p. 160). This type of research allows for a variety of methods to recruit participants, collect data, and utilize various methods of instrumentation. Survey research can use quantitative research strategies (e.g., using questionnaires with numerically rated items), qualitative research strategies (e.g., using open-ended questions), or both strategies (i.e., mixed methods). As it is often used to describe and explore human behavior, surveys are therefore frequently used in social and psychological research (Singleton & Straits, 2009).

Information has been obtained from individuals and groups through the use of survey research for decades. It can range from asking a few targeted questions of individuals on a street corner to obtain information related to behaviors and preferences, to a more rigorous study using multiple valid and reliable instruments. Common examples of less rigorous surveys include marketing or political surveys of consumer patterns and public opinion polls.

Survey research has historically included large population-based data collection. The primary purpose of this type of survey research was to obtain information describing characteristics of a large sample of individuals of interest relatively quickly. Large census surveys obtaining information reflecting demographic and personal characteristics and consumer feedback surveys are prime examples. These surveys were often provided through the mail and were intended to describe demographic characteristics of individuals or obtain opinions on which to base programs or products for a population or group.

More recently, survey research has developed into a rigorous approach to research, with scientifically tested strategies detailing who to include (representative sample), what and how to distribute (survey method), and when to initiate the survey and follow up with nonresponders (reducing nonresponse error), in order to ensure a high-quality research process and outcome. Currently, the term “survey” can reflect a range of research aims, sampling and recruitment strategies, data collection instruments, and methods of survey administration.

Given this range of options in the conduct of survey research, it is imperative for the consumer/reader of survey research to understand the potential for bias in survey research as well as the tested techniques for reducing bias, in order to draw appropriate conclusions about the information reported in this manner. Common types of error in research, along with the sources of error and strategies for reducing error as described throughout this article, are summarized in the Table.