An Introduction to Survey Research Methods Hi, I’m Patrick Sturgis, and I’m Professor of Research Methods at the University of Southampton. Survey methods is the study of populations by means of drawing samples from populations.


Hi, I’m Patrick Sturgis, and I’m Professor of Research Methods at the University of Southampton. Survey methods is the study of populations by means of drawing samples from populations.

And populations can be very broadly defined. We tend to think of populations in terms of the population of people in a country, but it could be the population of fish in the sea, population of trees in a wood, pebbles on a beach, anything. But the big key principle is that we can draw smaller subgroups from the total population, which are then easier and more cost-effective to you measure. And we can then make what we call inferences. We can talk about the characteristics of the whole population just on the basis of this smaller sample. So that’s the kind of the key idea behind survey research. And the history of survey research goes back a long way. If you think of the Bible, Jesus was on his way, in his mother’s tummy, to be measured as part of a census. So if you like the idea of measuring populations systematically counting– and usually for the purposes of taxation– goes back a long, long way, even before the time of Jesus. But the more modern– how we think of surveys in the modern era probably can be traced to the sort of mid-late 19th century, when a lot of people were becoming interested, for a variety of reasons, in issues of poverty and equality and so on.

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There was a lot of concern with the situation of the working classes– particular in Britain, actually. And there were people like Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree, who were kind of dissatisfied with what you’d kind of think of as anecdotes about the poor and so on. And so what Booth, in particular, set out to do was to go out and actually make systematic measurements on whole tracts of London. And this is what he did. He sent out interviewers to knock on doors, ask people questions, and then recall this all systematically and produce these wonderful maps that you can still see in the British Library, political, economic, science. So these are kind of the pioneers, started systematically measuring things that characterized populations.

And then, following that sort of early development, there was growing interest– again, now moving over to the US particularly– in measuring audience perceptions of radio shows, of TV shows, cinema, and so on. Because, of course, there’s an advertising premium for getting audiences, getting particularly wealthy audiences, and so on.

So this became more and more important to understand who was listening and what they’re paying attention to– and so development further of polling methods. And this– in the early days– was quite rudimentary in terms of how we would do surveys now. But the– probably one of the most important developments was by a chap called George Gallup, who still has a polling company named after him now.

And he very famously got the election forecast right in the 1936, presidential election between the Landon and Roosevelt, where a very successful, at the time, magazine, called The Literary Digest had 13 million readers, and it sent out cards asking them to say who they were going to vote for. And they called the election heavily in favor of Landon. And Gallop, using a more systematic method of drawing a small sample, but one which kind of closely matches the population, called it for Roosevelt. And the rest is history. That was a very clear, prominent example about how it’s not so much the size of the sample, it’s how well it matches the population.

And so those were some of the key early developments. Well, if your target population is pebbles on the beach, it’s very easy. Because pebbles on the beach don’t say no when you pick them up– well, not in my experience, anyway. But where it’s much harder is in the real world, when your sample is of human beings, and they’re busy, they’re not in, they’ve got better things to do.

And so you do not get everyone who should be in the sample to give you an interview. So nonresponse is there a particular threat to being able to make accurate inferences. I actually am quite an advocate of not rushing into doing your own data collection as the first thing that you do, because I think you can learn a lot about how to do surveys, how not to do surveys, by looking at surveys that have already been done and done to a high quality.

So I think that’s one of the things that I would advise students to do who are interested in doing survey research would be, rather than rushing out– as I often see students do, sort of write the questionnaire and send it out as quickly as possible– is to spend time working with an existing survey, looking at the documentation. And it might sound a little boring, but it’s certainly good preparation if you are going to go and do your own data collection.

So what kind of surveys would you suggest people take a look at? Can you give– Well, I mean, surveys are quite country-specific, right, in terms of how we draw samples. I was talking earlier about drawing a random sample of people from the whole population. Now, how do you do that? Well, in some countries you’ve got lists of every individual. You’ve got a population register. We don’t have that in this country. We have a list of addresses that the post office puts letters through the mailboxes of. So we need to draw our samples differently, and that tends to be true in different countries.

So what I say is really based on what you are doing in the UK, and most of the big surveys will be done, broadly, along the same procedures, in drawing the sample broadly in the same way. So you could go to the UK Data Service and download a survey data set and all the documentation, and you’d probably get it a good idea of how to do a survey to high standard.

I think, having said that, there are surveys that perhaps have more engaging content than others. You might be more interested in something like the British Social Attitudes survey, which asks a random sample of the British population their views about kind of contemporary issues and questions that are kind of political controversy, like immigration and attitutes to gay and lesbian people and so on, how that is changing over time.

So I think a lot of students, especially in social sciences, would find that particular survey quite interesting. And, of course, many others.


An Overview of Survey Methods: From Population Sampling to Inferences


Survey methods play a crucial role in studying populations by drawing representative samples. Although populations can encompass diverse entities like humans, animals, trees, or even pebbles, the core principle remains the same. By sampling smaller subgroups, researchers can efficiently and cost-effectively measure and make inferences about the entire population. This essay explores the history and development of survey research, emphasizing significant milestones and highlighting the importance of learning from existing surveys before conducting one’s own research. Furthermore, it suggests several surveys, particularly in the United Kingdom, that offer engaging content for students interested in social sciences.

Historical Origins of Survey Research

The origins of survey research can be traced back to ancient times, with the concept of systematically measuring and counting populations. Historical examples include the census mentioned in the Bible, where populations were measured for taxation purposes. However, the modern understanding of surveys emerged in the mid-late 19th century (Ponto, 2015). Concerns about poverty and inequality in Britain prompted pioneers like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree to embark on systematic measurements of London’s population. Through interviews and meticulous data collection, they produced detailed maps that shed light on political, economic, and social characteristics of the population.

Development of Polling Methods

Survey research gained further momentum as interest grew in measuring audience perceptions of media, such as radio, TV, and cinema. Understanding the preferences of different demographics became vital for advertising purposes (Isaac & Isaac, 2022). Although early polling methods were rudimentary compared to contemporary practices, one crucial development came with George Gallup. In the 1936 US presidential election, Gallup accurately predicted the outcome by using a small sample that closely resembled the population. This landmark event demonstrated that sample representativeness mattered more than sample size—a pivotal lesson for the field of survey research.

Challenges in Survey Research

While sampling pebbles on a beach poses minimal challenges, human populations present unique difficulties due to nonresponse. Obtaining interviews from every individual in a sample is practically unfeasible, given the busyness and varied priorities of people. Nonresponse introduces potential biases that threaten the accuracy of inferences. Acknowledging these challenges, it is advisable for researchers, especially students, to refrain from rushing into data collection. Instead, they can learn valuable lessons by studying existing surveys and their documentation, providing essential preparation for conducting their own research.

Exploring Existing Surveys

For students interested in survey research, it is beneficial to examine surveys that have been conducted to a high standard. While surveys vary by country, the procedures for drawing representative samples often follow similar principles. In the United Kingdom, the UK Data Service offers a wide range of survey datasets and accompanying documentation, providing valuable insights into conducting surveys with excellence (T. K. Jones et al., 2013). One prominent survey worth exploring is the British Social Attitudes survey, which captures the British population’s views on contemporary issues and politically contentious topics like immigration and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. This survey, along with numerous others, caters to students’ interests across various social science disciplines.


Survey methods have a rich history and have evolved over time to enable researchers to study populations efficiently and make accurate inferences. Understanding the origins of survey research, learning from past successes and failures, and exploring existing surveys are vital steps for aspiring researchers. By leveraging available resources and studying well-designed surveys, students can acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to conduct their own high-quality survey research.


Isaac, & Isaac. (2022, August 29). Why audience research is crucial for Media Viability – The Media Innovation Center. The Media Innovation Center – Aga Khan University.

Jones, T. K., Baxter, M. G., & Khanduja, V. (2013). A quick guide to survey research. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 95(1), 5–7.×13511609956372 

Ponto, J. (2015, April 1). Understanding and Evaluating Survey Research. PubMed Central (PMC). 



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