Improving Social Measurement by Understanding Interaction in Survey Interviews

Many of the official statistics and leading indicators that inform policy decisions are created from aggregating data collected in scientific survey interviews. What happens in the back-and-forth of those interviews—whether a sampled member of the public agrees to participate or not, whether a respondent comprehends questions in the way they were intended or not, whether the interview is spoken or texted—can thus have far-reaching consequences. But the landscape for social measurement is rapidly changing: Participation rates are declining, and people’s daily communication patterns are evolving with new technologies (text messaging, video chatting, social media posting, etc.). New analyses of survey interactions are demonstrating aspects of interviewer speech that can substantially affect survey participation, which is vital if social measurement is to be trustworthy. Findings also suggest that, once a survey interview starts, the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication are greater than one might expect, potentially jeopardizing the accuracy of survey results; different approaches to interviewing that allow clarification dialogue can improve respondents’ comprehension and thus survey data quality. Analyses of text messaging and voice interviews on smartphones demonstrate the importance of adapting scientific social measurement to new patterns of communication, adding ways for people to contribute their data at a time and in a mode that is convenient for them even when they are mobile or multitasking.