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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we'll be looking at questionnaires as a research tool in sociology.
    • First, we'll explore the definition of questionnaires as well as when they may be used.
    • Next, we'll look at the two types of questions, followed by the various types of questionnaires and their different uses in sociological research.
    • After this, we'll take a look at an example of a potential questionnaire, as well as a small sample from the census.
    • Finally, we'll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of using questionnaires.

    Questionnaire definition

    Questionnaire, Photograph of a hand filling out a questionnaire, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Questionnaires are a common research method both within and outside sociological research.

    A questionnaire is a research instrument used to collect data in the form of a list of questions in written format. Questionnaires are typically self-administered; meaning that respondents complete them on their own.

    For the purposes of academic research, you should take care not to confuse questionnaires with surveys. A questionnaire is a specific data collection method that consists of lists of written questions to the research subject. Whereas, a survey is an umbrella term denoting a variety of research instruments (this can include questionnaires, interviews, focus groups and so on) that generate large data sets.

    Uses of questionnaires

    Questionnaires are used for all kinds of social research starting from studying leisure preferences, consumption habits, social background characteristics and political inclinations, such as voting behaviour.

    Other important uses of questionnaire are as follows:

    1. Generating quantifiable data, and which can therefore be used to identify trends and patterns in behaviour.

    2. Operationalising complex concepts so that they are measurable and simpler to analyse.

    3. Generating data which is comparable so that researchers can identify similarities and differences overtime and between different places.

    Types of questions

    The types of questions that a researcher chooses to ask is a very important aspect of the research process.

    Open-ended and closed-ended questions

    Questionnaires can produce both qualitative and quantitative data. They mainly use close-ended and multiple-choice questions. It allows the researchers to collect structured, quantitative data.

    On the other hand, questionnaires could also pose open-ended questions that provided the opportunity to a respondent to provide an unstructured answer.

    Types of questionnaires

    There are different types of questionnaires researchers can use; the most suitable type depends on various factors, such as the aim of the research and the hypothesis.

    Structured interviews

    Structured interviews involve the researcher (or a designated interviewer) asking questions and recording the participant's answers either by writing or audio-recording. Structured interviews contain a predetermined set of questions; there is no room for any follow-up questions! This type of questionnaire can help researchers look at patterns and trends as each person will be asked the same set of questions.

    On the other hand, questionnaires could also pose open-ended questions that provided the opportunity to a respondent to provide an unstructured answer.

    Online, postal, and telephone questionnaires

    With the growth of the internet, questionnaires are mostly administered online. However, there are still instances where people complete postal questionnaires, meaning forms are being mailed to them to fill in by hand. Some questionnaires are also administered over the phone (telemarketers use a predetermined questionnaire in their cold calls).

    Multiple choice and dichotomous questionnaires

    Multiple-choice questionnaires provide a variety of options for responses, whereas dichotomous ones only ever have two options, such as 'Yes/No'.

    Scaling questionnaires

    Scaling questionnaires ask the respondents to rate something in their questions. For example, they could ask for a customer service rating, or provide a Likert scale.

    A Likert scale is a scale used in questionnaires that asks for the extent to which the respondent agrees with a statement. A common scale that is used is:

    • Strongly disagree
    • Somewhat disagree
    • Neutral
    • Somewhat agree
    • Strongly agree

    Chances are you've used this scale on a questionnaire before!

    Questionnaire example

    One of the most important large-scale questionnaires is the Census. When you come in for a dentist appointment, you fill in a questionnaire about your medical history. When you apply for a loan, you fill in a questionnaire about your financial and credit history.

    Imagine that you wanted to gauge the level of satisfaction that your classmates feel at your school, as well as the reasons behind this. On a very small scale, your questionnaire might start off like this:

    Do you enjoy school?

    1. Yes, always.

    2. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    3. I don't enjoy school.

    2. What is the most important reason for your previous response?

    Possible answers:

    1. Teachers

    2. Classmates

    3. School environment

    4. 4th degree

    Depending on the breakdown of the answers, you will be able to draw conclusions about the reasons people enjoy school or not. You could do so by looking at frequencies of responses or by conducting statistical inference tests.

    Furthermore, a researcher could be asking the same question without providing options for answers and letting students write their reasons down. That would make the response more authentic to the respondent because there is no direction. This would be an open-ended question.

    You could administer the questionnaire by handing out physical copies to your class, or you could send a Google form to their emails.

    Characteristics of an effective questionnaire

    A questionnaire must have certain characteristics so that you, as a researcher, can make the most out of the answers. The table below outlines some tips for designing an effective questionnaire.



    • Create clear and simple questions.

    • Include instructions that are easy to interpret.

    • Have an approachable layout.

    • Provide a range of options in multiple-choice questions.

    • Make sure all questions and key terms have the same meaning for all respondents.

    • Use a pilot study to test out the questionnaire before administering it to a large sample.

    • Administer questionnaires without knowing the sample (this can lead to irrelevant questions being asked).

    • Ask long-winded questions.

    • Give contradicting instructions.

    • Use complicated terminology, such as technical jargon.

    • Ask leading questions, such as 'Do you agree that...'.

    Table 1 - The dos and don'ts of an effective questionnaire.

    Look at interviews for examples and definitions of leading questions. Researchers should equally aim to avoid directing their participants towards favourable answers, and should keep their research bias-free.

    Questionnaire sample

    As we have read above, perhaps one of the most important large-scale questionnaires is the Census.

    A census is a population count which is conducted in societies (countries, cities or even towns) on a regular basis. For example, the UK National Census is conducted in England and Wales once every 10 years. Take a look below for a sample of the UK National Census.

    Questionnaire, Sample of UK national census StudySmarterFig. 2 - Examples of questions regarding employment in the UK National Census (2021).

    Advantages and disadvantages of questionnaires

    Depending on the aim of the research, using a questionnaire may not be suitable. However, the questions asked in the questionnaire itself are also important. The table below outlines the advantages and disadvantages of questionnaires.

    Advantages of questionnaires in sociology

    • Very few practical issues - it is easier and cheaper to administer, and it can collect large amounts of data at once.

    • It is also convenient for respondents - they could complete a questionnaire sitting in their living room chair.

    • It is reliable because another researcher can replicate a questionnaire.

    • Can be anonymised to protect the identity of the respondent even from the researcher.

    • Respondents could be more likely to discuss sensitive topics if they do can do it without having to talk to someone.

    • The format is conducive to collecting data from large representative samples.

    • The ability to quantify questionnaire results is a big plus point for positivists.

    Disadvantages of questionnaires in sociology

    • Respondents may willingly or unwillingly misrepresent themselves, which renders the findings invalid. This is a key point of contention for interpretivists

    • The researcher cannot prompt or probe for interesting responses.

    • Closed-ended questions are limited: they are unable to ask a follow-up, even if it would be really insightful for the project.

    • As questionnaires are self-administered, there is no one to help the respondent interpret the questions if something is unclear. On the other hand, if a family member helps a person to fill in a questionnaire, they could unintentionally steer the respondent's answers.

    • Postal questionnaires have a very low response rate due to the practical issues associated with posting the form back.

    Questionnaire - Key takeaways

    • A questionnaire is defined as a predetermined set of questions used to collect data. Questionnaires are always structured.
    • They can therefore be divided into types according to the following characteristics: open-ended and closed-ended; multiple-choice and dichotomous; online, postal, and telephone; and scaling.
    • The key dos and don'ts of a questionnaire include clarity and avoiding leading questions.
    • Advantages of questionnaires concern the practical factors, convenience, reliability, anonymity, openness to sensitive topics, and scope.
    • Disadvantages of questionnaires involve invalid data in cases of respondents' self-misrepresentation, inability to follow up, potential bias from third parties such as family members, and a low response rate to postal questionnaires.


    1. Fig. 2 - Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Questionnaire

    What is a questionnaire?

    A questionnaire is a research instrument used to collect data in the form of a list of questions in written format.

    How to make a questionnaire.

    A questionnaire must have certain characteristics so that you, as a researcher, can make the most out of the answers. For instance, a researcher should create clear and simple questions and have an approachable layout for their questionnaire. On the other hand, the researcher should be careful not to ask leading questions or use too much technical jargon. 

    What are the different types of questions in a questionnaire?

    The different types of questions in a questionnaire are open-ended (unstructured) and close-ended (multiple choice) questions. 

    What type of research is a questionnaire?

    A questionnaire is a research instrument used in survey research. This is a primary research method, as this involves the researcher collecting data from scratch (as opposed to using data which has previously been generated). 

    What type of research design uses questionnaires?

    A survey research design uses questionnaires. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Open-ended questions in a questionnaire help researchers identify trends and patterns as the data is structured and quantitative. True or false?

    Which type of questionnaire asks respondents to "rate" something?

    Technical jargon should be used in questionnaires because it teaches the respondent about the topic. True or false?


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    Team Sociology Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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