54 11.1 Survey research: What is it and when should it be used?

Learning Objectives

  • Define survey research
  • Identify when it is appropriate to employ survey research as a data-collection strategy


Most of you have probably taken a survey at one time or another, so you probably have a pretty good idea of what a survey is. Sometimes students in my research methods classes feel that understanding what a survey is and   how to write one is so obvious there’s no need to dedicate any class time to learning about it. This feeling is understandable—surveys are very much a part of our everyday lives—we’ve probably all taken one, we hear about their results in the news, and perhaps we’ve even administered one ourselves. What students quickly learn is that there is more to constructing a good survey than meets the eye. Survey design takes a great deal of thoughtful planning and often a great many rounds of revision. But it is worth the effort. As we’ll learn in this chapter, there are many benefits to choosing survey research as one’s method of data collection. We’ll take a look at what a survey is exactly, what some of the benefits and drawbacks of this method are, how to construct a survey, and what to do with survey data once one has it in hand.


a person checking boxes in a paper survey with a pen

Survey research is a quantitative method in which a researcher poses a set of predetermined questions to an entire group, or sample, of individuals. Survey research is an especially useful approach when a researcher aims to describe or explain features of a very large group or groups. This method may also be used as a way of quickly gaining some general details about one’s population of interest to help prepare for a more focused, in-depth study using time-intensive methods such as in-depth. In this case, a survey may help a researcher identify specific individuals or locations from which to collect additional data.

As is true of all methods of data collection, survey research is better suited to answering some kinds of research questions more than others. In addition, as you’ll recall from Chapter 9, operationalization works differently with different research methods. If your interest is in political activism, for example, you likely operationalize that concept differently in a survey than you would for an experimental study of the same topic.


Key Takeaways

  • Survey research is often used by researchers who wish to explain trends or features of large groups. It may also be used to assist those planning some more focused, in-depth study.



  • Survey research- a quantitative method whereby a researcher poses some set of predetermined questions to a sample


Image attributions

survey by andibreit CC-0



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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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