A field of applied statistics, survey methodology studies the sampling of individual units from a population and the associated survey data collection techniques, such as questionnaire construction and methods for improving the number and accuracy of responses to surveys.
Statistical surveys are undertaken with a view towards making statistical inferences about the population being studied, and this depends strongly on the survey questions used. Polls about public opinion, public health surveys, market research surveys, government surveys and censuses are all examples of quantitative research that use contemporary survey methodology to answer questions about a population. Although censuses do not include a "sample", they do include other aspects of survey methodology, like questionnaires, interviewers, and nonresponse follow-up techniques. Surveys provide important information for all kinds of public information and research fields, e.g., marketing research, psychology, health professionals and sociology.
A single survey is made of at least a sample (or full population in the case of a census), a method of data collection (e.g., a questionnaire) and individual questions or items that become data that can be analyzed statistically. A single survey may focus on different types of topics such as preferences (e.g., for a presidential candidate), opinions (e.g., should abortion be legal?), behavior (smoking and alcohol use), or factual information (e.g., income), depending on its purpose. Since survey research is almost always based on a sample of the population, the success of the research is dependent on the representativeness of the sample with respect to a target population of interest to the researcher. That target population can range from the general population of a given country to specific groups of people within that country, to a membership list of a professional organization, or list of students enrolled in a school system (see also sampling (statistics) and survey sampling).
Survey methodology as a scientific field seeks to identify principles about the sample design, data collection instruments, statistical adjustment of data, and data processing, and final data analysis that can create systematic and random survey errors. Survey errors are sometimes analyzed in connection with survey cost. Cost constraints are sometimes framed as improving quality within cost constraints, or alternatively, reducing costs for a fixed level of quality. Survey methodology is both a scientific field and a profession, meaning that some professionals in the field focus on survey errors empirically and others design surveys to reduce them. For survey designers, the task involves making a large set of decisions about thousands of individual features of a survey in order to improve it.
Survey methodology topics
The most important methodological challenges of a survey methodologist include making decisions on how to:
- Identify and select potential sample members.
- Contact sampled individuals and collect data from those who are hard to reach (or reluctant to respond).
- Evaluate and test questions.
- Select the mode for posing questions and collecting responses.
- Train and supervise interviewers (if they are involved).
- Check data files for accuracy and internal consistency.
- Adjust survey estimates to correct for identified errors.
Survey samples can be broadly divided into two types: probability samples and non-probability samples. Stratified sampling is a method of probability sampling such that sub-populations within an overall population are identified and included in the sample selected in a balanced way.
Modes of data collection
There are several ways of administering a survey. The choice between administration modes is influenced by several factors, including
- coverage of the target population,
- flexibility of asking questions,
- respondents' willingness to participate and
- response accuracy.
- Mail (post)
- Online surveys
- Personal in-home surveys
- Personal mall or street intercept survey
- Hybrids of the above.
Cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys
There is a distinction between one-time (cross-sectional) surveys, which involve a single questionnaire or interview administered to each sample member, and surveys which repeatedly collect information from the same people over time. The latter are known as longitudinal surveys. Longitudinal surveys have considerable analytical advantages but they are also challenging to implement successfully.
Consequently, specialist methods have been developed to select longitudinal samples, to collect data repeatedly, to keep track of sample members over time, to keep respondents motivated to participate, and to process and analyse longitudinal survey data 
Usually, a survey consists of a number of questions that the respondent has to answer in a set format. A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question asks the respondent to formulate his or her own answer, whereas a closed-ended question has the respondent pick an answer from a given number of options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Four types of response scales for closed-ended questions are distinguished:
- Dichotomous, where the respondent has two options
- Nominal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two unordered options
- Ordinal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two ordered options
- (Bounded) continuous, where the respondent is presented with a continuous scale
A respondent's answer to an open-ended question can be coded into a response scale afterwards, or analysed using more qualitative methods.
- Advance letter. A short letter is sent in advance to inform the sampled respondents about the upcoming survey. The style of the letter should be personalized but not overdone. First, it announces that a phone call will be made/ or an interviewer wants to make an appointment to do the survey face-to-face. Second, the research topic will be described. Last, it allows both an expression of the surveyor's appreciation of cooperation and an opening to ask questions on the survey.
- Training. The interviewers are thoroughly trained in how to ask respondents questions, how to work with computers and making schedules for callbacks to respondents who were not reached.
- Short introduction. The interviewer should always start with a short instruction about him or herself. She/he should give her name, the institute she is working for, the length of the interview and goal of the interview. Also it can be useful to make clear that you are not selling anything: this has been shown to lead led to a slightly higher responding rate.
- Respondent-friendly survey questionnaire. The questions asked must be clear, non-offensive and easy to respond to for the subjects under study.
Brevity is also often cited as increasing response rate. A 1996 literature review found mixed evidence to support this claim for both written and verbal surveys, concluding that other factors may often be more important. A 2010 study looking at 100,000 online surveys found response rate dropped by about 3% at 10 questions and about 6% at 20 questions, with drop-off slowing (for example, only 10% reduction at 40 questions) Other studies showed that quality of response degraded toward the end of long surveys.
Survey methodologists have devoted much effort to determining the extent to which interviewee responses are affected by physical characteristics of the interviewer. Main interviewer traits that have been demonstrated to influence survey responses are race, gender, and relative body weight (BMI). These interviewer effects are particularly operant when questions are related to the interviewer trait. Hence, race of interviewer has been shown to affect responses to measures regarding racial attitudes, interviewer sex responses to questions involving gender issues, and interviewer BMI answers to eating and dieting-related questions. While interviewer effects have been investigated mainly for face-to-face surveys, they have also been shown to exist for interview modes with no visual contact, such as telephone surveys and in video-enhanced web surveys. The explanation typically provided for interviewer effects is social desirability bias: survey participants may attempt to project a positive self-image in an effort to conform to the norms they attribute to the interviewer asking questions.
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- Surveys at DMOZ
- Nonprofit Research Collection on the Use of Surveys in Nonprofit Research Published on IssueLab