Notes on how questionnaires work in the research process

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  • Created on: 25-03-10 11:09
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What are questionnaires?
Questionnaires are lists of questions they are the main method for gathering data in social
surveys. They are sometimes handed to or posted to the respondent ­ the person answering
the questions ­ and he or she is asked to fill them in. This is known as
SELFCOMPLETION QUESTIONAIRE. They are sometimes read out by an interviewer
who records the answers. This is known as an INTERVIEW QUESTIONAIRE or a
Comparable data In theory questionnaires produce data which can be directly compared.
Everybody is answering exactly the same questions and therefore responding to the same
thing. Any differences in the answers will therefore reflect real differences between the
This is fine in theory. However, It's easier said than done. As we shall see the same
questions worded in exactly the same way can mean different things to different people. And
in the case of the structured interview there is the problem of interviewer bias ­ the effect an
interviewer may have on respondents' answers. Imagine how the age, gender and
personality of an interviewer might affect your answers on a sensitive subject such as sexual
Quantifiable data Questionnaires are usually designed to generate data which can be easily
quantified ­ put into numbers. Here is an example from British Social Attitudes: the 17th
Report (Source: UK Data Archive, 2000). It shows the percentage of respondents who
choose each option. Constructing questions in this way makes it easy to quantify the results.
Numerical data lends itself to statistical techniques. It makes it possible to discover whether
or not there is a correlation ­ a statistical link ­ between two or more variables.
Operationalising concepts Questionnaires are designed to measure things. And to do this,
those `things' must be operationalised, ie put in a form which allows them to be measured.
How, for example, do you measure the strength of religious belief? The example below is
from the 1998 British Social Attitudes Survey. It is an attempt to measure people's belief in
God. Respondents were asked to choose the statement which best fits their beliefs.
Operationalising concepts is difficult, especially when sociologists themselves cannot agree
on their meaning. For example, how do we operationalise concepts such as poverty and
social class? Often concepts are operationalised in different ways in different studies which
means the results are difficult, if not impossible, to compare. And the problem of
comparability becomes even greater when we attempt to discover what respondents really
mean when they answer questions. This problem will be looked at shortly.
Coding answers Answers to questions are coded. This means they are classified into
various categories. When concepts, such as belief in God, are operationalised, the
questionnaire can be precoded. The responses to the Belief in God questionnaire are
precoded into seven categories. The researcher simply has to count the number of people
who choose each category. Quantifying the data is easy.
It is more difficult to code a written answer. Consider the following:
Question Do you believe in God?

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Answer It depends what you mean by God. Do you mean a God that just exists apart
from this world? Or, do you mean a God that controls what happens in this world?
Sometimes, I think I believe in the first type of God.
This answer is difficult to code. Researchers usually have a list of categories in terms of
which written answers are coded. Often, however, written answers don't fit neatly into a
particular category.…read more

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Self completion questionnaires can be left with respondents either to be picked up later or
posted back to the researcher. Usually most of the questions in selfcompletion
questionnaires are closed and precoded.
Selfcompletion questionnaires have the following advantages and disadvantages.
Inexpensive ­ no interviews to pay, cheap to classify results.
As a result, often possible to survey a large sample.
Fat and efficient analysis possible with precoded closed questions. Answers can
easily be quantified and entered straight on to computers.…read more

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Do respondents' answers reflect their behaviour in everyday life? Maybe. Given all this,
what appears to be a precise, reliable and efficient research method ­ the social survey ­
may be nothing of the sort.
Creating an impression Everybody plays the game of `impression management'. They try
to manage the impression of themselves which others form. This can shape their responses
to a questionnaire and more particularly to a structured interview. Consider the following
example.…read more


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