Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Why Do People Participate in Surveys?

06/01/2002

Porst and von Briel (1995) point out that although a great deal is known about survey respondents  their demographic characteristics, as well as their answers to thousands of different survey questions  little is known about why they choose to participate. Based on a content analysis of open-ended responses, their study of 140 participants in 5 waves of a German Methods Panel identifies 3 pure types of participants: (1) those who respond for altruistic reasons (e.g., the survey is useful for some purpose important to the respondent, or the respondent is fulfilling a social obligation  31 percent of respondents); (2) those who respond for survey-related reasons (e.g., they are interested in the survey topic, or find the interviewer appealing  38 percent); and (3) those who cite what the authors call personal reasons (e.g., they promised to do it  30 percent). In reality, of course, most people participate for a variety of reasons.

More recently, Groves et al. (2000) outlined a theory describing the decision to participate in a survey as resulting from a series of factors  some survey specific, such as topic and sponsorship, others person specific, such as concerns about privacy, still others specific to the respondents social and physical environment  each of which may move a particular person toward or away from cooperation with a specific survey request. Furthermore, these factors assume different weights for different persons, and they become salient for a specific individual  the potential respondent  when an interviewer calls to introduce the survey and request participation.

From this perspective, monetary as well as nonmonetary incentives are an inducement offered by the survey designer to compensate for the relative absence of factors that might otherwise stimulate cooperation  for example, interest in the survey topic or a sense of civic obligation. Although other theoretical frameworks such as social exchange theory (cf. Dillman, 1978), the norm of reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960), and economic exchange (e.g., Biner and Kidd, 1994) also can be used to explain the effectiveness of incentives, the present perspective is able to account for the differential effects of incentives under different conditions (e.g., for respondents with differing interest in the survey topic or with different degrees of community activism) in a way that other theories cannot easily do.

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