Surveys: Questionnaires, Interviews, and Telephone Polls

A Brief Overview of Three Types of Survey Methods

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Surveys are valuable research tools within sociology and are commonly used by social scientists for a wide variety of research projects. They are especially useful because they enable researchers to collect data on a mass scale, and to use that data to conduct statistical analyses that reveal conclusive results about how the variety of variables measured interact.

The three most common forms of survey research are the questionnaire, interview, and telephone poll 


Questionnaires, or printed or digital surveys, are useful because they can be distributed to many people, which means they allow for a large and randomized sample--the hallmark of valid and trustworthy empirical research. Prior to the twenty-first century it was common for questionnaires to be distributed through the mail. While some organizations and researchers still do this, today, most opt for digital web-based questionnaires. Doing so requires less resources and time, and streamlines the data collection and analysis processes.

However they are conducted, a commonality among questionnaires is that they feature a set list of questions for participants to respond to by selecting from a set of provided answers. These are closed-ended questions paired with fixed categories of response.

While such questionnaires are useful because they allow for a large sample of participants to be reached at low cost and with minimal effort, and they yield clean data ready for analysis, there are also drawbacks to this survey method.

In some cases a respondent may not believe that any of the offered responses accurately represents their views or experiences, which may lead them to not answer, or to select an answer that is inaccurate. Also, questionnaires can typically only be used with people who have a registered mailing address, or an email account and access to the internet, so this means that segments of the population without these cannot be studied with this method.


While interviews and questionnaires share the same approach by asking respondents a set of structured questions, they differ in that interviews allow researchers to ask open-ended questions that create more in-depth and nuanced data sets than those afforded by questionnaires. Another key difference between the two is that interviews involve social interaction between the researcher and the participants, because they are either conducted in person or over the phone. Sometimes, researchers combine questionnaires and interviews in the same research project by following up some questionnaire responses with more in-depth interview questions.

While interviews offer these advantages, they too can have their drawbacks. Because they are based on social interaction between researcher and participant, interviews require a fair degree of trust, especially regarding sensitive subjects, and sometimes this can be difficult to achieve. Further, differences of race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture between researcher and participant can complicate the research collection process. However, social scientists are trained to anticipate these kinds of problems and to deal with them when they arise, so interviews are a common and successful survey research method.

Telephone Polls

A telephone poll is a questionnaire that is done over the telephone. The response categories are typically pre-defined (closed-ended) with little opportunity for respondents to elaborate their responses. Telephone polls can be very costly and time-consuming, and since the introduction of the Do Not Call Registry, telephone polls have become harder to conduct. Many times respondents are not open to taking these phone calls and hang up before responding to any questions. Telephone polls are used often during political campaigns or to get consumer opinions about a product or service.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.