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


Students in my research methods classes often feel that surveys are self-explanatory and that there is no need to dedicate any class time to learning about it. This feeling is understandable, as surveys are part of our everyday lives. We’ve probably all taken one, heard about their results in the news, and perhaps we’ve even administered one ourselves. Students quickly learn that there is more to constructing a good survey than meets the eye. Survey design takes a great deal of thoughtful planning and often 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 your data collection method. We’ll discuss what a survey is, their potential benefits and drawbacks, how to construct a survey, and what to do with survey data.


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 multiple groups. This method may also be used to quickly gain general details about the population of interest to help prepare for a more focused, in-depth study using time-intensive methods. 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 researchers who are planning to conduct a more focused, in-depth study in the future.



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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