509-818-0769 (USA)



Spokane Valley, WA (USA)


Research Methods in Anthropology: Surveys

Smiley faces with checkboxes

This post is about research methods in Anthropology, specifically surveys. When people think of Anthropology, many envision a researcher visiting a remote village and learning the culture by living among the people. This is participant observation and is probably the most well-known research method in Anthropology. But Anthropologists often use a mixture of research methods when conducting their research, and this can include surveys. The type of survey used in Anthropology is called an ethnographic survey, to distinguish it from other kinds of surveys. 

In Anthropology, ethnographic surveys are just part of a research strategy, they are not the whole research strategy. Just using a survey can result in incomplete information, and also people may lie on the survey if they are afraid of admitting something on the questionnaire. Also, people can interpret the same question in different ways, or maybe the answer choices don’t accurately reflect what they believe. In addition, some kinds of data are left out in surveys and are best collected by another method. 

So, Anthropologists use surveys to gather MORE data on topics, they don’t rely ONLY on surveys for information. For example, say you are gathering some data through in-depth interviews. You can only do so many of those—you can’t interview everyone. But you CAN use a survey to help you see if the data you are collecting from the interviews can be applied to the whole population. 

But, what exactly is a survey?

Have you ever had a phone call from someone who wanted to know your opinion on a product, or on a certain topic? Have you ever received a questionnaire in the mail that someone wanted you to fill out? Or, maybe you got an email asking you to review or comment on a product or service? Or, you’re on a website and a pop-up window asks you to answer some questions? All of these are a type of survey.

A survey is a method of research where you get information from lots of people through their responses to questions. Usually, a researcher is interested in a whole population of people, but since every single person can’t be surveyed, the researcher chooses a sample of the population and then gets information from that sample through the survey. A survey uses standardized procedures, so each participant in a survey is asked the same exact questions in the same way. The questions in a survey are usually about opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, along with demographics like age, sex, level of education, income, and so on. 

There are many different types of surveys, but they can be divided into 2 categories: interviews and questionnaires. Surveys that include interviews involve asking a person questions in person or over the phone. Surveys that include a questionnaire involve written questions typed on a piece of paper or in a form online, and the participants read each question and then write down their reply. These surveys that involve questionnaires include online surveys, mailed surveys, and surveys given to a group in person. 

Surveys can have different purposes, and so they can be descriptive surveys or explanatory surveys. Descriptive surveys try to describe a certain phenomenon in a sample and a population. Explanatory surveys try to explain relationships between variables in the sample and population.

Surveys can also have different relationships to time: some surveys just collect data from a sample at one time—these are called cross-sectional surveys. Other surveys look at how data changes over time, and they may collect data at multiple time points over a period—these are called longitudinal surveys.

Want to learn how to begin a survey by finding a research topic? Just read this blog post!

Want to learn more?

Want to learn more about research methods in Anthropology, specifically surveys? Just take my new Udemy Course, “Exploring Surveys in Anthropology Research: Anthropology 4U.”

Thanks for reading!

Skip to content