Sense and Nonsense About Surveys

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SOAN 201 – Introduction to Sociology
Article: “Sense and Nonsense About Surveys” by Howard Schuman It is rare to watch television news or read the paper without learning the results of a recent survey. Given the proliferation of surveys, it is important to know more about their characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Surveys involve two distinct steps: selecting cases (most typically people) and then presenting those cases with a predetermined set of questions. The first step, often called "sampling," is critical. In most situations, we want to be able to make generalizations about a "population" (all the cases of interest) based on a subset of that population, our "sample." How we choose cases for our sample determines the confidence with which we can make statements about what is likely to be true of the population. It is also important to attend to the questions that are asked in surveys. It is emphasized in the article that word choice matters, often in surprising ways.

"Surveys draw on two human propensities that have served us well from ancient times," says Howard Schuman. "One is to gather information by asking questions. The other is to learn about one's environment by examining a small part of it which is the basis of sampling."

In this selection, Howard Schuman provides insights into how survey researchers try to assess and improve the quality of surveys. It talks about the history of surveys and the right and wrong way to collect them. Surveys are a form of research that involves asking a series of questions to get a greater understanding of how a certain demographic of people feels about various issues. They can be conducted using two different approaches: an inductive approach and a deductive approach. This article evaluates how popular media often misleads the audience with certain survey results because the media does not provide guidance on how to evaluate those results.  The concepts of sample size, sampling process, question wording,...
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