From Face-to-Face to Digital Space: PSR Helps Scholars Navigate Survey Research in a Time of Social Distance

May 8, 2020
Chase Harrison

by IQSS Staff

One thing is clear when speaking to Chase Harrison, Associate Director of the Program on Survey Research: PSR helps a lot of people at Harvard and beyond with survey methodology and research. 

The Program on Survey Research (PSR) is an interdisciplinary scientific program within the Institute for Quantitative Social Science that encourages and facilitates research and instruction in the theory and practice of survey research. The primary mission of the program is to provide survey research resources to enhance the quality of teaching and research at Harvard. PSR works to create intellectual cross-fertilization among researchers and survey methodologists, practitioners, and consumers across the University; these surveys are used across a wide range of the social sciences and across many of the professional schools. 

Harrison, who is also Senior Preceptor in Survey Methodology in the Department of Government, explains, “Students from a wide range of disciplines take the courses I teach on survey research… We have advised researchers from every school at Harvard, including Dentistry.” The Program on Survey Research also offers survey method lectures and workshops of courses and groups at Harvard. 

One of the key services PSR provides is survey consultations for Harvard students, faculty, and other researchers. Harrison explains that the goal of consulting is to provide “timely, high-value" advice. These consultations have included consultations on research approaches, sample design, questionnaire design, cognitive testing, and assistance finding appropriate firms and staff to support funded research projects.

The consulting service focuses on helping undergraduates, graduates, post-docs, faculty, professional, and academic staff: 

  • Understand whether they need a survey to answer a research question and, if so, what type of survey;
  • Think through questions of research design, including the trade-offs between random versus convenience samples, self-administered questionnaires versus interviewer administration, and other matters;
  • Understand the expectations of different audiences, with a focus on evaluating the standards that might be expected during different types of peer review; and
  • Advocate for early-stage pilot testing, qualitative interviewing, and cognitive testing as part of questionnaire design. 

When asked how PSR's work has changed over the years, Harrison discusses the role that technology and online surveys have played in the changing research landscape. 

He recalls the time when surveys were primarily conducted by telephone or in person, when PSR was advocating for site licensing for online survey tools such as Qualtrics. He explains that there were relatively few people with experience in such digital platforms just a decade ago. "Now, with Qualtrics and Survey Monkey and other online tools, people are doing surveys all the time. That brings a lot of people to us—not only because people are more familiar with surveys, but often they have done one and come to realize that the population they targeted wasn't very useful for what they wanted, or because the questions they designed didn't measure what they wanted. There's a science behind sampling and questionnaire design, and we help people understand that, and learn to approach their surveys in a more rigorous and scientific way."

Survey Research in the Age of COVID-19

As the current coronavirus pandemic changes the way in which our world functions, Harrison notes that many faculty and graduate students have had face-to-face survey and fieldwork interrupted. He describes working with faculty and graduate students to think about the possibilities of moving from face-to-face interviews to online surveys, which is more feasible for some populations than others. 

He has also been working with the Harvard Undergraduate Council, who is implementing surveys to understand the impact remote learning has had on their college experiences. Harrison also mentioned that there are now a group of researchers trying to create an app to geo-locate COVID-19. When asked about how COVID-19 has impacted survey work in general, the first thing that comes to Harrison's mind is the US Census. "The whole idea of the census,” says Harrison, “is to create as perfect as possible a count of who is living where in the United States, on April 1, 2020." This data is then used as a benchmark for the population statistics used to evaluate and adjust other surveys to make them representative. Harrison said that in the past, census data was so good, because census-takers go to extraordinary efforts to count everyone, and collect data for 98-99% of households. The concern now, according to Harrison, is that the 2020 census is running into all sorts of trouble because they cannot safely do the in-person follow-ups to get increased response rates or accurate counts in group housing units such as retirement homes. 

Telephone surveys, on the other hand, have been surprisingly effective since the COVID-19 lockdowns, not only because they have been able to move to telework, but because researchers have found that people are more likely to answer telephones, and more willing to complete surveys, thus increasing response rates.

Harrison hopes that in the next year or two, the program will hold a conference to address the changes to survey research in the age of COVID-19—how modes have changed, how people communicate has changed, and how one measures things when there are global restrictions on mobility and travel. “IQSS faculty and staff specialize in geographical data, satellite data, electronic data, as well as survey research. PSR would love to be able to bring all of this expertise together to talk about what ways to integrate these technologies together for better data collection.”

Click here for more information about the Program on Survey Research at IQSS.