11.2 Strengths and weaknesses of survey research

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and explain the strengths of survey research
  • Identify and explain the weaknesses of survey research

 

Survey research, as with all methods of data collection, comes with both strengths and weaknesses. We’ll examine both in this section.

Strengths of survey methods

 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. In a study of older people’s experiences in the workplace, researchers were able to mail a written questionnaire to around 500 people who lived throughout the state of Maine at a cost of just over $1,000. This cost included printing copies of a seven-page survey, printing a cover letter, addressing and stuffing envelopes, mailing the survey, and buying return postage for the survey. I realize that $1,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but just imagine what it might have cost to visit each of those people individually to interview them in person. You would have to dedicate a few weeks of your life at least, drive around the state, and pay for meals and lodging to interview each person individually. We could double, triple, or even quadruple our costs pretty quickly by opting for an in-person method of data collection over a mailed survey. Thus, surveys are relatively cost-effective.

 

a cartoon of a person choosing between a happy, neutral, and sad face

Related to the benefit of cost-effectiveness is a survey’s potential for generalizability. Surveys allow researchers to collect data from very large samples for a relatively low cost, therefore survey methods lend themselves to the probability sampling techniques discussed in Chapter 10. Of all the data collection methods described in this textbook, survey research is probably best to use when the researcher wishes 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 in that the same questions, phrased in exactly the same way, are posed to participants. Other methods like qualitative interviewing, which we’ll learn about in Chapter 13, do not offer the same consistency that a quantitative survey offers. 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. Assuming well-constructed questions and survey design, one strength of this methodology is its potential to produce reliable results.

The versatility of survey research is also an asset. Surveys are used by all kinds of people in all kinds of professions, which means that understanding how to construct and administer surveys is a useful skill to have. Lawyers might use surveys in their efforts to select juries. Social services and other organizations (e.g., churches, clubs, fundraising groups, activist groups) use them to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts. Businesses utilize surveys to inform marketing strategies for their products. Governments use surveys to understand community opinions and needs. Politicians and media outlets use surveys to understand their constituencies.

In sum, the following are benefits of survey research:

  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Generalizability
  • Reliability
  • Versatility

Weaknesses of survey methods

As with all methods of data collection, survey research comes with a few drawbacks. While some may argue that surveys are flexible because researchers can ask many different questions on a plethora of topics, survey researchers are generally confined to a single instrument for collecting data, the questionnaire. Surveys are in many ways rather inflexible. Let’s say 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’s too late for a do-over or to change the question for the respondents who haven’t yet returned their surveys. When conducting in-depth interviews, on the other hand, a researcher can provide respondents further explanation if they’re confused by a question and can tweak their questions as they learn more about how respondents seem to understand them.

Depth 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. Due to the general nature of questions, survey results may not be as valid as results obtained using other methods of data collection that allow a researcher to comprehensively examine the topic being studied. For example, let’s think back to the opening example of this chapter and say that you want to learn something about voters’ willingness to elect an African American president. General Social Survey respondents were asked, “If your party nominated an African American for president, would you vote for him if he were qualified for the job?” Respondents were then asked to respond either yes or no to the question. What if someone’s opinion was more complex than a simple yes or no? What if, for example, a person was willing to vote for an African American woman but not an African American man? [1]

In sum, potential drawbacks to survey research include the following:

  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of depth

 

Key Takeaways

  • Strengths of survey research include its cost effectiveness, generalizability, reliability, and versatility.
  • Weaknesses of survey research include inflexibility and lack of potential depth.

 

Image attributions

experience by mohamed_hassan CC-0

 


  1. I am not at all suggesting that such a perspective makes any sense.

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