Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how sociologists utilize surveys


As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviors and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire, but surveys can also take the form of interviews with open-ended questions and/or closed-ended questions. The survey is the most widely used scientific research method in sociology. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas. Surveys might seem innocuous. How could someone be harmed with a survey? However, as with all types of sociological research, sociologists must obtain approval from a review board (sometimes called an Internal Review Board or IRB) before they commence any type of sociological survey if it is to be used for research purposes. If a professor asks students to complete a survey that asks about previous experience in an online class for the purpose of understanding students’ prior knowledge, that would not be considered research and would not require IRB approval. If a faculty member wants to use the results of the research for a academic publication, it would require IRB approval as well as some additional precautions (i.e., a detailed informed consent) since the faculty member is utilizing current students for research purposes.

A photo of a person's hand filling in a survey check box labeled 'No' with a pen.
Figure 1. Questionnaires are a common research method; the U.S. Census is a well-known example. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Decker/flickr)

At some point, most people in the United States respond to some type of survey. The U.S. Census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Not all surveys are considered sociological research, however, and many surveys we encounter focus on identifying marketing needs and strategies rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing to social science knowledge. Questions such as, “How many hot dogs do you eat in a month?” or “Were the staff helpful?” are not usually designed as scientific research. Often, polls on television do not reflect a general population, but are merely answers from a specific show’s audience. Polls conducted by programs such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance represent the opinions of fans, but are not particularly scientific. A good contrast to these are the Nielsen Ratings, which determine the popularity of television programming through objective scientific market research.

Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are an effective method for discovering how people feel and think—or at least how they say they feel and think. Surveys can track political preferences, or patterns in reported individual behaviors (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits), or can gather factual information on subjects like employment status, income, and education levels.

A survey targets a specific population, people who are the focus of a study, such as college athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes. Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample: that is, a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample, every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. According to the laws of probability, random samples represent the population as a whole. For instance, a Gallup Poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion using a relatively small sample. For polls focused on U.S. issues, a random sample of 1,000 is representative of the opinions of 230 million adults with a +/- 4 percentage points of accuracy. For world polls, involving 180 countries and 160 different languages utilize similar sample sizes. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses. It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the study up front. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument, which is a means of gathering the information. A common instrument is a questionnaire, in which subjects answer a series of questions. For some topics, the researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question. These quantitative data—research collected in numerical form that can be counted—are easy to tabulate. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” responses or correct/incorrect answers, and chart them into percentages.

Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers. They can go beyond “yes” and “no,” or can offer a range of options next to a checkbox. In those cases, the answers are subjective and vary from person to person. How do you plan to use your college education? Why do you follow Jimmy Buffett around the country and attend every one of his concerts? Those types of questions require short essay responses, and participants willing to take the time to write those answers will convey personal information about religious beliefs, political views, and morals. Some topics that reflect internal thought are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of information is qualitative data—results that are subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and it is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. Interviews are similar to the short-answer questions on surveys in that the researcher asks subjects a series of questions. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often more complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly.

Questions such as “How did society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. And, obviously, a sociological interview is not an interrogation. The researcher will benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Try It

Think It Over

  • What type of data do surveys gather? For what topics would surveys be the best research method? What drawbacks might you expect to encounter when using a survey? To explore further, ask a research question and write a hypothesis. Then create a survey of about six questions relevant to the topic. Provide a rationale for each question. Now define your population and create a plan for recruiting a random sample and administering the survey.

Try It

Practice differentiating between qualitative and quantitative surveys in the following interactive.


a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject
a defined group serving as the subject of a study
quantitative data:
represent research collected in numerical form that can be counted
qualitative data:
comprise information that is subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting
random sample:
a study’s participants being randomly selected to serve as a representation of a larger population
small, manageable number of subjects that represent the population
collect data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviors and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire

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