Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Surveys of the social world (including politics, psychology, business, health) are essentially enquiries that attempt to elicit an account of some phenomenon (phenomena) at a given time and place.

explanatory context

Such enquiries may also seek out some kind of explanation (more rarely understanding) of the phenomena. Sometimes such studies are undertaken on a longitudinal basis (usually through a series of surveys periodically over time) in order to monitor and analyse changes in the phenomena under study.


Surveys are non-experimental enquiries that collect and analyse information (data) from or about a set of 'objects'. The data so collected is intended as a basis for describing that set of objects or elaborating connections (or relationships) between the elements in the data set.

Surveys are mostly conducted on samples rather than populations. Where possible random samples are used.


The set of objects may be people (as in social surveys) in which case the survey will be designed to collect information from people relating to a specific area of investigation (for example, voting preference) with a view to describing the sample characteristics (e.g. preferred political party). The survey may also elaborate these results by seeking out connections between different components of the data (e.g. the relationship between gender and voting preference).

In most usages of the term, a survey is an explanatory device to reveal causal relationships. The preferred methodology is, then, one that is ammenable to statistical analysis. In the social sciences this usually a large-scale study using structured interviews or mailed questionnaires. The emphasis tends to be on the positivistic criteria of reliability and validity.

Surveys are non-experimental in the sense that there is usually no attempt to control the social survey environment (i.e. they are ex-post facto). The normal approach in explanatory (as opposed to descriptive) surveys is to establish hypotheses to be tested and to subject data to multivariate analysis in order to show correlations between variables and to discount spurious relationships.


There is an implicit distinction between sociological survey and social survey (and by social survey and social research).

Social survey

A social survey tends to be characterised by two things.

First, it is reserved for those enquiries that adopt a large-scale, fixed and repeatable method; usually structured interviews or questionnaires. Participant observation may be a suitable tool for social research but most commentators would not tend to include it as a social survey method.

Second, social surveys are usually those enquiries that are concerned to reveal the extent of a specific social phenomenon with a view to policy implications. Unlike sociological surveys that are empirical enquiries linked directly to the elaboration of sociological theory.

The term social survey could thus refer to enquiries that adopt more-or-less any kind of methodology provided their object of attention is social phenomena.


Social surveys first came to prominence in the Victorian era, Rowntree's survey of York and Booth's survey of London are the classic references.

Social surveys normally include attitudinal as well as 'factual' questions and are usually sample surveys rather than population censuses.

Although there is no overall agreement about it, most commentators tend to see social surveys as aimed at (a sample of) individual people rather than institutions, or groups.

Social surveys, like surveys in general, are ex post facto and usually subject to statistical analysis.

Sociological surveys

Sociological surveys are empirical enquiries linked directly to the elaboration of sociological theory. There are two meanings for the term.

The broad meaning refers to any kind of empirically grounded enquiry, using any methodology, that is designed with the explicit aim of refining sociological theory.

The narrower meaning adopts the essentials of the notion of survey and refers to forms of enquiry that attempt to develop causal explanations of social phenomena usually by means of large-scale question and answer type research (for example, by means of structured interviews or questionnaires). In this case the theoretical model will have been used to generate specific hypotheses to be tested, usually statistically. The 'classic' approach is middle-range theorising.

Sociological surveys are virtually always sample surveys. Sociological surveys will make use of any kind of question that helps the analysis of the theoretical model (factual, attitudinal, hypothetical, etc.)

analytical review

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines survey as:

A questionnaire or interview.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Survey: A study, generally in the form of interviews or questionnaires, that provides sociologists and other researchers with information concerning how people think and act.

associated issues


related areas

See also


multivariate analysis



Researching the Real World Section 8


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R.T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, 'not found' 1 June 2014.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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