Chapter 8: Data Collection Methods: Survey Research
Surveys vary not just in terms of when, but also how they are. One common way to administer surveys is in the form of self-administered questionnaires, in which a research participant is given a set of questions, in writing, to which he or she is asked to respond.
Hard copy self-administered questionnaires may be delivered to participants in person or via regular mail. Perhaps you have taken a survey that was given to you in person. If you are ever again 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 knowledge you are gaining about survey research in this chapter.
Researchers may also deliver surveys in person by going from 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.
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 would be to return a survey that did not 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. 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 the survey.
Often survey researchers who deliver their surveys via mail 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).
Online surveys are pretty common today. They are 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 free delivery. SurveyMonkey offers both free and paid online survey services (http://www.surveymonkey.com). One advantage to using a service like SurveyMonkey, aside from the already mentioned advantages of online delivery, 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 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 does not mean that online survey researchers cannot offer completion incentives to their respondents. Incentives can include a gift card or having your name entered into a draw for prize.
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 interview. In Chapter 10 “Qualitative Data Collection Approaches” we will examine interviews of the survey (or quantitative) type as well as qualitative interviews. Interview methodology differs from survey research in that data are collected via a personal interaction. Because asking people questions in person comes with guidelines and concerns that differ from those associated with asking questions on paper or online, we reserve our discussion of those guidelines and concerns for Chapter 10.
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, mailed surveys may be more likely to reach your entire sample, but also more likely to be lost and not returned. The choice of the best delivery mechanism depends upon 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. Understanding the characteristics of your study’s population is key to identifying the appropriate mechanism for delivering your survey.