Contributed by Chris Hampton and Marcelo Vilela

Edited by Phil Rabinowitz, Kate Nagy, and Jerry Schultz

When you want somebody’s opinion, you ask for it. Right? That’s easy enough when you’re just dealing with one or a few people. But what if you want to know the opinion of an entire town or an entire population? Getting an answer out of everyone in your town or every member of a particular group is nearly impossible. So how do you get an idea of what these folks think? You use a survey.

Conducting surveys can be done very simply, or it can be very complicated, depending on how much you want to ask on the survey and the number of people to whom it is administered. This section will mainly focus on doing surveys on a fairly small local scale, and we will give you some ideas about where to find information should you need to do a survey on a larger scale.

What are surveys?

A survey is a way of collecting information that you hope represents the views of the whole community or group in which you are interested.

There are three main ways of going about this:

1) Case study surveys, which collect information from a part of a group or community, without trying to choose them for overall representation of the larger population. You may need to conduct several of these before you get a sense of how the larger community would respond to your survey. Case study surveys only provide specific information about the community studied.

2) Sampled surveys, which are the type we’ll be focusing on in this section, ask a sample portion of a group to answer your questions. If done well, the results for the sample will reflect the results you would have gotten by surveying the entire group. For example, let’s say you want to know what percentage of people in your county would make use of an adult literacy program. Getting every person in a county with 10,000 people to fill out a survey would be a huge task. Instead you decide to survey a sample of 500 people and find out what they think. For the sample to accurately represent the larger group, it must be carefully chosen. We’ll speak to that later in this section.

3) Census surveys, in which you give your survey questionnaire to every member of the population you want to learn about. This will give you the most accurate information about the group, but it may not be very practical for large groups. A census is best done with smaller groups — all of the clients of a particular agency, for example, as opposed to all of the citizens of a city.

Surveys are usually written, although sometimes the surveyor reads the questions aloud and writes down the answers for another person; they can be distributed by mail, fax, e-mail, through a web page, or the questions can be asked over the phone or in person.

Surveys collect information in as uniform a manner as possible — asking each respondent the same questions in the same way so as to insure that the answers are most influenced by the respondents’ experiences, not due to how the interviewer words the questions.