Total Survey Error: as Iconic as the Statue of Liberty herself?

In Jan Blommaerts book, the Sociolinguistics of Globalization, I learned about the iconicity of language. Languages, dialects, phrases and words have the potential to be as iconic as the statue of liberty. As I read Blommaert’s book, I am also reading about Total Survey Error, which I believe to be an iconic concept in the field of survey research.

Total Survey Error (TSE) is a relatively new, albeit very comprehensive framework for evaluating a host of potential error sources in survey research. It is often mentioned by AAPOR members (national and local), at JPSM classes and events, and across many other events, publications and classes for survey researchers. But here’s the catch: TSE came about after many of us entered the field. In fact, by the time TSE debuted and caught on as a conceptual framework, many people had already been working in the field for long enough that a framework didn’t seem necessary or applicable.

In the past, survey research was a field that people grew into. There were no degree or certificate programs in survey research. People entered the field from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds and worked their way up through the ranks from data entry, coder or interviewing positions to research assistant and analyst positions, and eventually up to management. Survey research was a field that valued experience, and much of the essential job knowledge came about through experience. This structure strongly characterizes my own office, where the average tenure is fast approaching two decades. The technical and procedural history of the department is alive and well in our collections of artifacts and shared stories. We do our work with ease, because we know the work well, and the team works together smoothly because of our extensive history together. Challenges or questions are an opportunity for remembering past experiences.

Programs such as the Joint Program in Survey Methodology (JPSM, a joint venture between the University of Michigan and University of Maryland) are relatively new, arising, for the most part, once many survey researchers were well established into their routines. Scholarly writings and journals multiplied with the rise of the academic programs. New terms and new methods sprang up. The field gained an alternate mode of entry.

In sociolinguistics, we study evidentiality, because people value different forms of evidence. Toward this end, I did a small study of survey researchers’ language use and mode of evidentials and discovered a very stark split between those that used experience to back up claims and those who relied on research to back up claims. This stark difference matched up well to my own experiences. In fact, when I coach jobseekers who are looking for survey research positions, I  draw on this distinction and recommend that they carefully listen to the types of evidentials they hear from the people interviewing them and try to provide evidence in the same format. The divide may not be visible from the outside of the field, but it is a strong underlying theme within it.

The divide is not immediately visible from the outside because the face of the field is formed by academic and professional institutions that readily embrace the academic terminology. The people who participate in these institutions and organizations tend to be long term participants who have been exposed to the new concepts through past events and efforts.

But I wonder sometimes whether the overwhelming public orientation to these methods doesn’t act to exclude some longtime survey researchers in some ways. I wonder whether some excellent knowledge and history get swept away with the new. I wonder whether institutions that represent survey research represent the field as a whole. I wonder what portion of the field is silent, unrepresented or less connected to collective resources and changes.

Particularly as the field encounters a new set of challenges, I wonder how well prepared the field will be- not just those who have been following these developments closely, but also those who have continued steadfast, strong, and with limited errors- not due to TSE adherence, but due to the strength of their experience. To me, the Total Survey Error Method is a powerful symbol of the changes afoot in the field.

For further reference, I’m including a past AAPOR presidential address by Robert Groves

groves aapor

Proceedings of the Fifty-First Annual Conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research
Source: Source: The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 471-513
ETA other references:

Bob Groves: The Past, Present and Future of Total Survey Error

Slideshow summary of above article

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