A survey can broadly be defined as a way of researching some topic that involves asking questions to a selection of participants and recording their answers. From one of the scale this could be asking a simple yes or no question to a small group of people. At the other end it could be a 50 part set of complex questions that demand a paragraph each in response. A survey could be undertaken in a multitude of different ways; online, in-person, over the telephone or even by post. The reasons for carrying out a survey could vary. A survey may be carried out as market research, with the end goal being to improve sales of a product. Another survey might be used in order to quantify the efficacy of a medical drug or procedure. A survey could merely be put to a group of people for fun, people like to be asked questions and give their opinions on subjects that they are interested in.
When we think of surveys we probably believe they have been around forever. When thought about at their most simple, a survey could be a question, or a poll, put to a number of people at the same time. In fact as far back as 3800 BC the ancient Babylonian Empire were thought to have conducted surveys upon their land and peoples. They counted the number of persons living on their land, men, women and children. They accompanied this with details about farmed produce and the number and type of livestock. All of this was recorded on clay tablets, the notebooks of the era. Ultimately, the leaders of the empire used this information to help them work out how much food they would need for the incoming period. By recording the number of mouths and amount of food currently stored they could make predictions and, therefore, inform their choices in the coming year. Tablets have also been found that point to the Egyptians use of surveys to obtain population numbers that helped them plan out the building of the pyramids. Surveys used in slavery, rather grisly.
In a modern sense, the industry often declare the originator of the formal survey as one Paul Felix Lazarsfeld. Lazarsfeld pioneered a formal approach to surveying while in Austria in the 1930’s. He exhaustively studied an area with low employment rates, his goal was to shed light on the reasons behind it. By creating surveys that quizzed the local population on subjects such as educational level, family structure, social lives and financial habits he amassed and analysed an amount of data that was unheard of at the time. As with many advances in technology and science he drew criticism from many angles. There were certain elements of those working in sociology who baulked at the fact he simply turned these human beings into numbers, graphs and charts. They believed that you could never get the whole picture by removing the real human elements, categorising and simplifying the human experience. Many of Mr Lazarsfeld’s methods are still used to this day. Furthermore, those he directly taught are at the forefront of the technology.