Social Research

Fourth edition

by Sotirios Sarantakos

Chapter 11 - Surveys: Questionnaires

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Educational objectives
After completing this chapter, you will:
  1. have become familiar with the nature and complexities of survey research;
  2. have an understanding of the distinction between the various types of questionnaires and their relevance to social research;
  3. have gained an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of questionnaires as methods of data collection and their relevance to social research;
  4. have developed skills that will help with the construction and administration of questionnaires in a professional manner;
  5. have a critical understanding and appreciation of the place of questionnaires in quantitative and qualitative research, and of their limitations.


  1. Questionnaire structure
  2. Questionnaire format
  3. Questionnaire size
  4. Types of questions
  5. Open-ended and pre-coded questions
  6. Response format
  7. Question content
  8. Rules of questionnaire construction
  9. Steps in questionnaire construction
  10. Pre-tests and pilot studies
  11. Reviewing the questionnaire
  12. Relevance of the questionnaire
  13. Non-response in mail questionnaires
  14. Questionnaires in feminist research
  15. Strengths and weaknesses of questionnaires
  16. Questionnaires in the computer age
  17. Main points

Points to remember

The following are the major points introduced in this chapter. Ensure that you are very confident with their meaning, content, context and significance.
  1. Questionnaires are a form of survey: a written survey.
  2. Questionnaires have many advantages over other methods of data collection.
  3. Questionnaires have many limitations of which the researcher must be aware.
  4. The main elements of a questionnaire are the cover letter, instructions and main body.
  5. The cover letter contains, among other things, information about the objectives and significance of the study, about the research team and the sponsors, about why the respondent should complete the questionnaire, about assurance of anonymity and confidentiality, and about other parameters.
  6. The main body of the questionnaire contains the questions to be answered.
  7. The questionnaire format can be one of the following: funnel format, inverted funnel format, diamond format, X-format, box format and mixed format.
  8. The questionnaire usually contains primary, secondary and/or tertiary questions.
  9. Padding questions are 'breathers' set before or after sensitive questions.
  10. Probes are questions that are employed to encourage the respondent to complete, expand or amplify information already given during the study.
  11. Filter questions are general in nature and inquire about issues that will be taken up by later questions.
  12. Contingency questions ask for specific information on matters addressed by filter questions.
  13. Fixed-alternative questions are closed or pre-coded questions that offer a set of possible answers for the respondent to choose from.
  14. Open-ended questions offer no response options to choose from but space for the respondent to write down the answer.
  15. Open-ended and fixed-alternative questions have their advantages and limitations.
  16. Fixed-alternative questions contain accurate, exhaustive, uni-dimensional response sets that contain mutually exclusive categories.
  17. Particular attention must be given to the nature and structure of response sets.
  18. Special consideration is to be given to the question content and especially to composition, relevance, clarity and simplicity, level and type of language, and to the attitude conveyed through the question.
  19. Particular attention must be given to the questionnaire format.
  20. Questions are the last step in a series of translations, leading from the definition of the research topic to indicators and to question wording.
  21. Pre-tests are small tests of single elements of the research instruments, aiming to check their soundness and relevance.
  22. Pilot study is a small-scale replica of the main study including a fraction of the sample.
  23. Pre-tests mainly address research instruments, pilot studies mainly address research process and outcomes.

Short-answer questions

Answer each question carefully (there is no need to write down the answer). Consult your Social Research text when your memory fails you or when you are in doubt about the accuracy of your responses.
  1. What are the advantages and limitations of questionnaires?
  2. What are the main points that are expected to be included in a cover letter?
  3. Describe briefly the structure and types of questionnaire formats.
  4. Explain the nature and purpose of primary, secondary and tertiary questions.
  5. What is the purpose of indirect questioning?
  6. Explain the nature and purpose of suggestive questioning.
  7. What are the differences between fixed-alternative and open-ended questions?
  8. When are open-ended questions usually employed?
  9. When are fixed-alternative questions normally used?
  10. What are filter questions and when are they used?
  11. What are contingency questions?
  12. What are the three basic standards of constructing a response set in a questionnaire?
  13. List five common types of response employed in questionnaires with fixed-alternative questions.
  14. Describe five criteria that are important in defining the content of questions.
  15. What are the rules of questionnaire construction that pertain to questionnaire layout?
  16. Describe the main rules related to the construction of the content of questionnaires.
  17. Describe the main rules related to the construction of the questionnaire format.
  18. What are the most common steps of questionnaire construction?
  19. What are the points that are commonly considered when reviewing a questionnaire?
  20. Which aspects of questionnaires are incompatible with the principles of qualitative research and why?
  21. What are pre-tests and pilot studies and how do they differ from surveys?
  22. What are the major differences between pre-tests and pilot studies?
  23. When are pre-tests and pilot studies employed?

Fill-in questions

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Practical exercises

  1. You have designed a quantitative investigation to study the effects of depression on the dropout rate of tertiary students. The method of data collection is a self-administered questionnaire. Explain how you will plan a pilot study and what information such a study will be able to offer.
  2. You have been working on a study of domestic violence in a small country town and wish to use home-delivered questionnaires for the collection of the data. The issue is interesting and topical but very sensitive.
    a) Devise a cover letter to accompany the questionnaire and explain and justify its main elements.
    b) Devise a questionnaire and explain the reason for including each of the questions considered.
  3. Explain where and how ethical standards can be violated in both studies.