Chapter 8: Data Collection Methods: Survey Research

8.3 Pros and Cons of Survey Research

Survey research, as with all methods of data collection, comes with both strengths and weaknesses. The following sections will examine both.

Strengths of survey method

Researchers employing survey methods to collect data enjoy a number of benefits. First, surveys are an excellent way to gather lots of information from many people, and they are relatively cost effective.

Related to the benefit of cost effectiveness is a survey’s potential for generalizability. Because surveys allow researchers to collect data from very large samples for a relatively low cost, survey methods lend themselves to probability sampling techniques, which we discussed in Chapter 7 “Sampling“. Of all the data-collection methods described in this text, survey research is probably the best method to use when you hope to gain a representative picture of the attitudes and characteristics of a large group.

Survey research also tends to be a reliable method of inquiry. This is because surveys are standardized; the same questions, phrased in exactly the same way, are posed to participants. Other methods, such as qualitative interviewing, which you will learn about in Chapter 10 “Qualitative Data Collection Methods”, do not offer the same level of consistency that a quantitative survey offers. One strength of survey methodology is its potential to produce reliable results. This is not to say that all surveys are always reliable. A poorly-phrased question can cause respondents to interpret its meaning differently, which can reduce that question’s reliability.

The versatility of survey research is also an asset. Surveys are used by all kinds of people in all kinds of professions. The versatility offered by survey research means that understanding how to construct and administer surveys is a useful skill to have for all kinds of jobs. For example, lawyers often use surveys in their efforts to select juries. Social service and other organizations (e.g., churches, clubs, fundraising groups, and activist groups) use them to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts. Businesses use them to learn how to market their products. Governments use them to understand community opinions and needs, and politicians and media outlets use surveys to understand their constituencies.

The following are benefits of survey research:

  1. Cost-effectiveness.
  2. Generalizability.
  3. Reliability.
  4. Versatility.

Weaknesses of survey method

As with all methods of data collection, survey research also comes with a few drawbacks. First, while one might argue that surveys are flexible in the sense that they can ask any number of questions on any number of topics, the fact that the survey researcher is generally stuck with a single instrument for collecting data (the questionnaire) means that surveys could also be described as inflexible. For example, suppose you mail a survey out to 1,000 people and then discover, as responses start coming in, that your phrasing on a particular question seems to be confusing a number of respondents. At this stage, it is too late to change the question for the respondents who have not yet returned their surveys (however, if you conduct a pilot study first, you should avoid such a situation). When conducting in-depth interviews, on the other hand, a researcher can provide respondents further explanation if they are confused by a question, and can tweak their questions as they learn more about how respondents seem to understand them.

Validity can also be a problem with surveys. Survey questions are standardized; thus, it can be difficult to ask anything other than very general questions that a broad range of people will understand. Because of this, survey results may not be as valid as results obtained using methods of data collection that allow a researcher to more comprehensively examine the topic being studied.

Potential drawbacks to survey research include:

  1. Inflexibility; and
  2. Validity.