In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Development of Survey Research

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Political Science Development of Survey Research
Richard Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0019


Survey research and empirical political science grew up together. Although the bills for commercial survey fieldwork are mainly paid for nonpolitical purposes, early surveys were justified publicly for their contribution to a deepened understanding of the electorate. Even today, polls on political questions are the loss leader for many high-profile firms. On the academic side, systematic quantitative investigation of political phenomena began with the Erie County Study (Lazarsfeld, et al. 1968, cited under Based on Purpose-Built Academic Data Sets), and academic and commercial practices intersected with controversies over quota versus probability sampling in the 1940s (Converse 1987). Survey research on public opinion and elections was the central force in shaping empirical methods for the discipline as a whole. Whereas survey research was initially a path along which insights from sociology and psychology were imported into political science, in time political scientists came to dominate the trade. Also with time, survey analysts were forced to acknowledge the limitations of their own method, for causal inference in general but also for historical and institutional nuance. As an expression of a scientific temperament, survey research thus yielded ground to other techniques, most notably statistical analysis of archival data on one hand and experimentation on the other. But these challenges arguably have forced the sample survey to reveal its versatility. Cross-level analyses are increasingly common—all the more so as our understanding of the statistical foundations of multilevel modeling has grown. In addition, surveys are serving increasingly as vehicles for experimentation, a way of recruiting subjects outside the laboratory and off-campus and of linking random selection of subjects to random assignment to experimental treatment or control. The current period is one of massive flux and, possibly, rapid obsolescence. On the one hand, target populations are growing less compliant with surveys, even as the bases for survey coverage become more uncertain. On the other hand, new techniques have emerged, often linked to new funding models. Most critical is the World Wide Web. Ironically, the emergence of the web as a survey platform has revived controversies, seemingly settled in the 1940s, over the requirement for probability samples. Through all of this, concern has grown about the very meaning of survey response and its relation to public opinion—indeed, if such a thing as public opinion exists.

Origins, Emergence, and Early Impact

The definitive overview of the early years of survey research, with an emphasis on technical and organizational developments, is Converse 1987, which provides something of a view from the inside. Robinson 1999, a study of the first major international branch of the Gallup empire (in Canada) is also valuable for US developments in the same period. Igo 2007 shows how survey research grew out of other, nonsurvey attempts to portray the mass consciousness of Americans. Herbst 1993 places survey research in the larger context of quantification.

  • Converse, Jean M. Survey Research in the United States: Roots and Emergence 1890–1960. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

    This is the standard source for the early years, with a particularly comprehensive and judicious account of the tensions among governmental, academic, and commercial interests, which often expressed itself over sampling. The book also documents the increased, but delayed, centrality of political science to the survey enterprise.

  • Herbst, Susan. Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    A study of quantification rather than of survey research as such, but most of the book is devoted to the cultural reception of survey data.

  • Igo, Sarah Elizabeth. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

    This book covers some of the technical ground but is most interesting for its investigation of how polls penetrated the popular consciousness.

  • Robinson, Daniel J. The Measure of Democracy: Polling, Market Research, and Public Life, 1930–1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

    In addition to an account of early polling in Canada, this book (its first two chapters in particular) is also invaluable for early polling in the United States, especially by Gallup, and in other countries.

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