Social surveys are a questionnaire-based method of research that can produce both qualitative and quantitative information depending on how they are structured and analysed. This section focuses on the use of surveys to collect and analyse qualitative data. Many of the issues and considerations are the same as for the quantitative use of surveys, and more detail can be found in the earlier section of this handbook.
When should it be used?
Questionnaire surveys can be used in a wide range of settings and to gather a variety of different types of information. You may be evaluating a programme in which a wide range of projects have been commissioned, and want to gather the views of a wide range of project managers, or you may be measuring the impact of an initiative on the business community in a specific geographical area. A small-scale qualitative survey may be conducted to explore in more detail the findings of qualitative research.
What do I need to consider?
Many of the considerations for a social survey are the same as for a quantitative survey, however we define a social survey as one where less statistical rigour is required, where sample sizes are not as large, and with results not expected to be significant of the wider population. A social survey may have a greater focus on collecting rich and detailed qualitative data.
A number of questions about the proposed population for a social survey need to be considered. Such as are there language issues? And what are the geographic restrictions? These are the same issues as for quantitative surveys.
The sample is the section of the wider population that will be engaged in the survey. Detailed consideration of sampling still needs to be made even when not striving for statistical significance. It is still important to understand who the respondent is and what your sampling frame is going to be.
A social survey will usually be a cross-sectional survey used to gather information on a small sample population at a single point in time.
An example of a cross-sectional survey would be a questionnaire that collects data on peoples’ experiences of a particular initiative. However, a qualitative survey could equally be used in a longitudinal study, perhaps returning to particular individuals over time to measure the impact of an intervention on the direction of someone’s life.
There are a whole range of questions to be asked in relation to survey design, such as: What types of questions can be asked? How complex will the questions be? Will screening questions be needed? Can question sequence be controlled? Will lengthy questions be asked? Will long response scales be used? A social survey will be more interested in qualitative findings, in recording peoples’ opinions and perceptions, and therefore will make more use of open questions where respondents can give their own responses to a set question. Open questions will begin with what, why, how, or describe, to elicit rich qualitative information.
The costs, required facilities, time, and personnel needed to conduct an effective survey are often underestimated, even when it is not on a large scale. There should be an administrative system in place to deal with the questionnaires for when they are returned/completed. This may include numbering the questionnaires, recording what action has been taken with them, entering the results into a spreadsheet/database etc.
How Should It Be Used?
Surveys can be carried out by phone, post, email, website or face-to- face, for detailed pros and cons of these delivery methods see the earlier section on qualitative surveys. In collecting rich qualitative survey data, the most effective method would be via face to face, administered surveys, as the researcher would be able to use prompts to encourage people to give more detailed answers. This does however introduce a bias, which needs to be understood and controlled as much as possible, i.e. by using standard prompts. In qualitative surveys, it is necessary that the interviewer conduct the interview with total objectivity, so that respondents are not influenced by any outside source in their responses. For this reason, interviews should be conducted by well- trained and qualified interviewers.
What is the output?
The data that a social survey can produce is very much dependent on how the questionnaire is constructed. However, the data can be very useful for providing an overall picture of the way in which a project or programme is being implemented and how effectively it is impacting upon its target audience. Qualitative data output will be in a text, audio or picture format, and each answer may be very different from another. This can make collection of data more difficult, and a way of collating data needs to be considered early in the process.
How should it be analysed?
The Quantification of Qualitative Survey Data
Surveys can be analysed by collating the frequency of responses to each of the questions on the survey form. This can be done manually using a “frequency table”, which can be easily set up on an Excel spreadsheet to analyse descriptive statistics.
QSR NUD*IST and NVIVO are qualitative data analysis packages, which enable non-statistical information from interviews, group work, observations, audio, video, pictures or documents to be analysed according to chosen criteria. For example, it is possible to use the package to ‘pull out’ all material relating to key words or phrases (e.g. neighbourhood renewal) and then sub-divide the data into more specific areas of analysis (e.g. statement of use, problems, projects). This is a powerful piece of software that can provide clarity to wide range of often complicated written or media materials.
Case study: Using surveys to evaluate a project
A programme targeted on helping young people back into work through training wants to evaluate how well it is achieving its objectives. It uses a survey to canvas the views of young people who have been on the programme to date. The survey asks them closed questions about what training they have attended and how useful they have found the training (on a scale of 1:4). The survey also uses open questions to ask young people about what their plans are for the future as a result of the training (i.e. has it helped them to consider applying for full time work? Or further education opportunities?). The qualitative data is analysed and this shows that the young people have gained in confidence, are looking to go into further education or training or have already secured job interviews in a range of occupational fields, however there is a distinct focus on work in the field of construction.
The results of the survey are analysed and this provides conclusions about overall success of the programme, which allows the programme manager to draw conclusions and consider design issues for making the programme more effective in the future.
See Question Bank for details of question design –
Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis (CAQDA) –
http://caqdas.soc.surrey.ac.uk/ – provides practical support, training and information in the use of a range of software programs designed to assist qualitative data analysis. Also provides various platforms for debate concerning the methodological and epistemological issues arising from the use of such software packages.
Research Observatory, University of the West of England – the site is divided into topic areas with each topic area containing a number of learning units and a collection of resources about a particular subject related to research.