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Questions About Questions

Inquiries into the Cognitive Bases of Surveys

Judith M. Tanur

Publication Year: 1992

The social survey has become an essential tool in modern society, providing crucial measurements of social change, describing social life, and guiding government policy. But the validity of surveys is fragile and depends ultimately upon the accuracy of answers to survey questions. Recently featured in The New York Times, Questions About Questions brings together experts in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and survey research to probe the relationship between the presentation and interpretation of questions and the accuracy of survey responses.   "these chapters provide a good sense of the range of survey problems investigated by the cognitive movement, the methods and ideas it draws upon, and the results it has yielded." —American Journal of Sociology  

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation


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pp. i

Title Page, Dedication

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vii

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pp. ix-xiii

In the United States the movement to study cognitive aspects of surveys had its roots in a 1980 conference organized by Albert Biderman for the Bureau of Social Science Research (BSSR) (Biderman, 1980). (There had been an earlier conference in England; see Moss and Goldstein, 1979.) Funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the BSSR conference brought together statisticians, cognitive psychologists, and survey researchers to focus on the National...

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pp. xv

As editor I must make it clear that this book is most profoundly a product of the Social Science Research Council Committee on Cognition and Survey Research. Not only did the material for most of the chapters originate in the committee's meetings and workshops, but the idea of the volume itself was generated at a committee meeting. I agreed to edit the book on the condition...

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Members of the Social Science Research Council Committee on Cognition and Survey Research

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pp. xvi

Robert P. Abelson Yale University, Cochair Judith M. Tanur State University of New York at Stony Brook, Cochair Roy G. D'Andrade University of California, San Diego Michelene T. H. Chi University of Pittsburgh Herbert C. Clark Stanford University Robyn M. Dawes Carnegie Mellon University Stephen E. Fienberg Carnegie Mellon University Robert M. Groves University of Michigan Elizabeth F. Loftus University of Washington Janet L. Norwood U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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pp. xvii-xxi

Workshop on the Semantics of Interview Questions February 1986 Participants: Robert P. Abelson Yale University Roy G. D'Andrade University of California, San Diego Marilynn Brewer University of California, Los Angeles Michelene T. H. Chi University of Pittsburgh Herbert C. Clark Stanford University James A. Davis Harvard University Robyn M. Dawes Carnegie Mellon University Stephen E. Fienberg Carnegie Mellon University

Part I: Introduction

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pp. 1

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1. Cognitive Aspects of Surveys and This Volume

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pp. 3-12

Since sample survey technology originated in studies of London's poor in the late nineteenth century, it has undergone continual refinements. Many of these refinements have improved sampling and estimation procedures. In the 1930s the United States government agencies adopted probability sampling methods as a means of ensuring the representativeness of a sample. But...

Part II: Meaning

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pp. 13

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2. Asking Questions and Influencing Answers

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pp. 15-48

On the face of it, survey interviews are simple. An interviewer steps into the home of a randomly selected member of the public, asks a series of questions, records the answers, and departs with new facts or opinions to add to her collection. (For convenience let us think of the interviewer as female and the respondent as male.) The information she takes away is determined...

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3. Direct Questioning About Comprehension in a Survey Setting

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pp. 49-61

Survey questionnaires are useful measurement instruments to the extent that questions convey to the respondent the desired intent of the researcher. For much of survey research this has been assumed to be an unproblematic part of the measurement process. Yet throughout the history of survey research, there has been a stream of methodological research, now grown large with the...

Part III: Memory

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pp. 63

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4. Personal Recall and the Limits of Retrospective Questions in Surveys1

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pp. 65-94

Retrospective, or memory-based, responses to interview questions provide an indispensable window onto our past. Often, retrospective questions are the only means available to monitor individual or social states, or their change. The responses to such questions are used, for example, to: - Estimate the nation's monthly unemployment rate. (Respondents who are not employed are asked to report whether they looked for work...

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5. Improving Episodic Memory Performance of Survey Respondents

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pp. 95-101

Many surveys challenge the cognitive abilities of respondents by asking them to recall the date, frequency, or characteristics of personal events. According to Tulving's (1983) framework, this is a task of episodic memory retrieval. Chapter 4 of this volume demonstrates the inherent difficulties of this task. Individuals can adopt a number of different strategies in order to recall the...

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6. Memory and Mismemory for Health Events

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pp. 102-137

"During the past 12 months, about how many times did you see or talk to a medical doctor?" This question is one of many posed to respondents who participate in the National Health Interview Survey, a major government-sponsored sample survey designed to obtain information on the health of Americans. In this survey 50,000 people are asked each year to recall the...

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7. Attempts to Improve the Accuracy of Self-Reports of Voting

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pp. 138-153

An important self-reported behavior for which survey data are beset with inaccuracies is that of voting. Comparisons of actual vote counts with retrospective answers to the question, "Did you vote?" consistently find a tendency toward overreporting of voting. This is the case both in studies that simply compare aggregate real voting percentages with aggregate claimed...

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8. Applying Cognitive Theory in Public Health Investigations: Enhancing Food Recall with the Cognitive Interview

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pp. 154-169

Public-health epidemiologists rely heavily on histories of food consumption to investigate foodbome outbreaks. Those histories, usually obtained between two to seven days after the suspect meal, are used to identify specific foods consumed by ill and well persons present at the implicated meal, to determine which foods are associated with the illness (Bryan, 1973). If a...


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pp. 171

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9. Opportunities in Survey Measurement of Attitudes

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pp. 173-176

A large proportion of the questions asked in surveys concern the attitudes of the respondents: attitudes toward controversial issues, political candidates, racial groups, consumer products, and so on. How attitudes relate to each other and how they depend on the demographic characteristics of the respondents are the stuff of much survey analysis. In laboratory studies, and...

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10. The Case for Measuring Attitude Strength in Surveys

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pp. 177-203

Attitude measurement is one of the most common goals of surveys. In the news media, for example, we frequently read reports of survey results revealing the proportions of Americans who approve and disapprove of the president's performance in office, or the numbers of citizens who favor and oppose legislation outlawing abortion, or the percentages of people who...

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11. New Technologies for the Direct and Indirect Assessment of Attitudes

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pp. 204-237

Recent theoretical and empirical advances in the domain of attitudes and social cognition offer considerable food for thought for the survey researcher. Basic theory and research have provided new insights regarding such matters as the structure of attitudes, their activation from memory, and the processes by which they guide the individual's behavior. The theoretical distinctions...


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pp. 239

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12. Validity and the Collaborative Construction of Meaning in Face-to-Face Surveys

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pp. 241-267

For statistically based social science, survey research is the principal means of obtaining data about the social world. The interview from this point of view is a standardized data collection procedure that uses a questionnaire as its instrument of measurement. The interview is also, however, an essentially interactional event. From the moment that the interviewer sits down across...


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pp. 269

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13. A Review of Research at the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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pp. 271-290

Federal statistical agencies have a long history of research on data quality and collection methods. Much of the early work was on improved methods of sampling and error calculation, but in recent years research has focused increasingly on methods for reducing nonsampling error. In fact, early research on the influence of the interviewer on the accuracy of survey data...

Name Index

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pp. 291-298

Subject Index

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pp. 299-306

E-ISBN-13: 9781610445269
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871548429
Print-ISBN-10: 0871548429

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 1992