Methods of Research – Surveys

Surveys involve collecting information, usually from fairly large groups of people, by means of questionnaires but other techniques such as interviews or telephoning may also be used. There are different types of survey. The most straightforward type (the “one shot survey”) is administered to a sample of people at a set point in time. Another type is the “before and after survey” which people complete before a major event or experience and then again afterwards.

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Questionnaires are a good way to obtain information from a large number of people and/or people who may not have the time to attend an interview or take part in experiments. They enable people to take their time, think about it and come back to the questionnaire later. Participants can state their views or feelings privately without worrying about the possible reaction of the researcher. Unfortunately, some people may still be inclined to try to give socially acceptable answers. People should be encouraged to answer the questions as honestly as possible so as to avoid the researchers drawing false conclusions from their study.

Questionnaires typically contain multiple choice questions, attitude scales, closed questions and open-ended questions. The drawback for researchers is that they usually have a fairly low response rate and people do not always answer all the questions and/or do not answer them correctly. Questionnaires can be administered in a number of different ways (e.g. sent by post or as email attachments, posted on Internet sites, handed out personally or administered to captive audience (such as people attending conferences). Researchers may even decide to administer the questionnaire in person which has the advantage of including people who have difficulties reading and writing. In this case, the participant may feel that s/he is taking part in an interview rather than completing a questionnaire as the researcher will be noting down the responses on his/her behalf.

  • Advantages: Ideal for asking closed-ended questions; effective for market or consumer research
  • Disadvantages: Limit the researcher’s understanding of the respondent’s answers; requires budget for reproduction of survey questionnaires


Interviews are usually carried out in person i.e. face-to-face but can also be administered by telephone or using more advance computer technology such as Skype. Sometimes they are held in the interviewee’s home, sometimes at a more neutral place. It is important for interviewees to decide whether they are comfortable about inviting the researcher into their home and whether they have a room or area where they can speak freely without disturbing other members of the household.

The interviewer (which is not necessarily the researcher) could adopt a formal or informal approach, either letting the interviewee speak freely about a particular issue or asking specific pre-determined questions. This will have been decided in advance and depend on the approach used by the researchers. A semi-structured approach would enable the interviewee to speak relatively freely, at the same time allowing the researcher to ensure that certain issues were covered.

When conducting the interview, the researcher might have a check list or a form to record answers. This might even take the form of a questionnaire. Taking notes can interfere with the flow of the conversation, particularly in less structured interviews. Also, it is difficult to pay attention to the non-verbal aspects of communication and to remember everything that was said and the way it was said. Consequently, it can be helpful for the researchers to have some kind of additional record of the interview such as an audio or video recording. They should of course obtain permission before recording an interview.

  • Advantages: Follow-up questions can be asked; provide better understanding of the answers of the respondents
  • Disadvantages: Time-consuming; many target respondents have no public-listed phone numbers or no telephones at all

According to the Span of Time Involved

The span of time needed to complete the survey brings us to the two different types of surveys: cross-sectional and longitudinal.

1. Cross-Sectional Surveys

Collecting information from the respondents at a single period in time uses the cross-sectional type of survey. Cross-sectional surveys usually utilize questionnaires to ask about a particular topic at one point in time. For instance, a researcher conducted a cross-sectional survey asking teenagers’ views on cigarette smoking as of May 2010. Sometimes, cross-sectional surveys are used to identify the relationship between two variables, as in a comparative study. An example of this is administering a cross-sectional survey about the relationship of peer pressure and cigarette smoking among teenagers as of May 2010.

2. Longitudinal Surveys

When the researcher attempts to gather information over a period of time or from one point in time up to another, he is doing a longitudinal survey. The aim of longitudinal surveys is to collect data and examine the changes in the data gathered. Longitudinal surveys are used in cohort studies, panel studies and trend studies.

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