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Asking questions: Measurement in the social sciences

Psychology is an empirical science. This implies that its validity is rooted in reality, and that reality must have a chance to influence our conceptualizations (e.g., Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1984). In the natural sciences, the link between theory and reality is systematic observation. Often, however, manifestations of reality need to be translated in order to be perceived by our senses. Moreover, to communicate what is perceived, we need a shared reference point, at best, a meter. In this case, measurement affords objectivity in that it does not hinge on subjective experience of the observer (e.g., Wilson, 1992). However, the social sciences seem to have an alternative way of accessing human characteristics: asking questions. In the following paragraphs, we describe how research participants use different aspects of standardized question situations to determine the intended meaning of a question: What is the information that the researcher wants them to provide? The program of research outlined in this chapter describes the psychological mechanisms of answering questions in both natural and standardized situations. Moreover, it identifies some crucial influences researchers need to know if they are asking questions to collect data in the social domain. We emphasize context and conversation as the perhaps most important influences. In detail, we contend in this chapter that answers are always generated in a social context. Even without specific evidence, it is safe to assume that answering a question is always influenced by the “actual, imagined or implied presence of others” (Allport, 1954), in this case, the presence of the questioner. This true not only for personal or telephone interviews but also for self-administered questionnaires. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2007 APA, all rights reserved) (from the create)