The Problem with Survey Research
The Problem with Survey Research makes a case against survey research as a primary source of reliable information. George Beam argues that all survey research instruments, all types of asking—including polls, face-to-face interviews, and focus groups—produce unreliable and potentially inaccurate results. Because those who rely on survey research only see answers to questions, it is impossible for them, or anyone else, to evaluate the results. They cannot know if the answers correspond to respondents’ actual behaviors (objective phenomena) or to their true beliefs and opinions (subjective phenomena). Reliable information can only be acquired by observation, experimentation, multiple sources of data, formal model building and testing, document analysis, and comparison.
In fifteen chapters divided into six parts—Ubiquity of Survey Research, The Problem, Asking Instruments, Asking Settings, Askers, and Proper Methods and Research Designs—The Problem with Survey Research demonstrates how asking instruments, settings in which asking and answering take place, and survey researchers themselves skew results and thereby make answers unreliable. The last two chapters and appendices examine observation, other methods of data collection and research designs that may produce accurate or correct information, and shows how reliance on survey research can be overcome, and must be.
“An unabashed. . . . spirited. . . . indictment of surveys. . . . 'The flaws of polls,' he writes, 'are so extensive and severe that survey research, as a method for finding out what’s really going on, should be abandoned'. . . . [T]he issues he raises are important. . . . For one thing, 'respondents lie' or 'do not have relevant and correct information.' For another, 'question wording skews results.' Those who sponsor research 'disguise, or hide' its 'actual or primary purpose.' Even location matters. The answers given in classrooms differ from those given in dormitories, even when both are anonymous. Beam’s advice: 'If you want to find out what’s really going on, don’t ask.'"
—Andrew Hacker, The New York Review of Books
“[P]resent[s] evidence . . . that the topic, the ways questions are worded, the mode of data collection, and . . . askers themselves, affect answers in ways that clearly imply error. . . . [C]riticizes researchers for ignoring or downplaying known sources of error such as biased and undefined sample frames and low response rates. . . . also criticizes researchers who use monetary incentives (“bribes”) to improve response rates. . . . [E]xtensively footnoted and referenced . . . No informed person would dispute his core premise that there is plenty of error in surveys that . . . can produce distorted results.”
—Floyd J. Fowler, Jr., Contemporary Sociology
“Scholarly and insightful, The Problem with Survey Research is a strong addition to any community or academic library collection, highly recommended.”
“A full-throated, high decibel, root and branch assault on surveys.”
—J. A. Davis, Choice
“George Beam has written an absorbing and highly readable book . . . about the subject of research methodology. . . . He asks some very interesting, thought-provoking questions about a central methodology within the social sciences, namely survey research. This well-researched and cogent book will certainly prod many social scientists not only to question their assumptions regarding survey research, but even more fundamentally to question its relevance and validity.”
—Lawrence D. Hubbell, University of Wyoming