Steph: Surveys, Surveys, and More Surveys

In the weeks since we were last in touch, surveys have taken over my life. As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently completing my dissertation in environmental sociology. The last phase of large-scale data collection involves surveying residents in four communities surrounding the first proposed uranium mill in the U.S. in 25 years, sited in the Paradox Valley of southwestern Colorado. All of my favorite topics in one project: energy issues, social justice, and good, old-fashioned social science research. In this phase of data collection, I’ve learned just how complex the process of thorough surveying can be. I have also realized how necessary and grounding it is to get into the communities in which we distribute questionnaires, particularly for those of us involved in researching rural issues.

Over the last several months, my to-do list has looked something like this: create survey instrument. Give it to major professor for review – and re-create survey instrument. Submit instrument to IRB for approval – and re-create survey instrument again. Compile sampling frames. Print surveys, labels, envelopes. Buy hundreds of dollars in postage. Stuff hundreds of envelopes. Rejoice at returned, completed surveys.

Many of us know these are the basic steps of conducting a survey. Listed out, they appear tidy, as if they can be checked off a grand surveying to-do list. But this, my friends, is a deceptive sort of tidiness. That said, I operated under this assumption of neatly-penned to-do lists until I just couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I quickly learned just how messy it is to write questions that are both engaging to the potential respondent and informative for the social scientist. I learned how challenging it is to create an organization that flows, to anticipate how people may process information, and to write accessible questions about inaccessible sociological theories. I learned that acquiring addresses for rural residents presents unique barriers, requiring persistence and ingenuity. Above all, I learned the frustrations of the overlooked typo. The seemingly innocuous typo that ends up in the key question, of course; the one that wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. and eventually compels you to persuade your patient husband into spending hours of time with a staple remover and White-Out.

For me, however, the ultimate lesson of this decidedly messy, unpredictable, and exciting process is the importance of getting on the ground in the communities we research, survey, observe. Before constructing my survey instrument, I visited communities potentially impacted by the proposed uranium mill. I found it immensely valuable to observe daily life in communities where residents largely support the mill’s construction versus lifestyles in towns where residents largely oppose the mill.

On my first visit, I ate at the main local diner, drank a beer at one of the local bars, and tried to strike up conversation with anyone who looked my way. Not only did this allow me to meet some friendly people, it let me learn what mattered to community members, how they perceived the controversial permitting decisions, and what it might be like to live – and try to make a living – in one of the most remote pockets of the continental U.S.

The knowledge I gathered through casual encounters such as these led to tens of interviews with people and, eventually, a survey instrument to which people responded. Given the rurality of the communities I’m studying, it turns out that my physical presence and conversations with residents made my survey instrument much more salient and real to many of them, so I’ve been told, people who have grown skeptical of surveys, state institutions, and academics. Instead of an anonymous surveyor, they had a face and perhaps a conversation to put with the questionnaire that arrived in the mail. This connection, I learned, may be more valuable than many of the methodological tools we learn as social scientists. In an era of plummeting response rates, I’m realizing that a little field work can go a long way in creating connections to communities we study, laying foundations for social exchange – even on a tight, graduate student budget.

Stephanie Malin is a PhD candidate in Environmental Sociology at Utah State University. You can read her musings about life as a doctoral student here each month.