Sunday, October 05, 2003

A Side-Order of Questionnaires

My PhD research is looming and I’m suddenly aware of Power—not the Foucauldian power of Marxist discourse but rather statistical power. Where am I going to find all the people I need to fully explore [something to be determined at a later date]?

Several texts on survey design (Bernard, 2000; Hansen, Cottle, Negrine, & Newbold, 1998; Singleton, Straits, & Straits, 1988) seem to take a Field of Dreams approach: if I build my questionnaire (properly), they will come. Just so long as I train my interviewers in the lingo of the subjects, subscribe whole-heartedly to a guru by the name of Dillman-san, and ensure that my truth-de-jour can be divined from a self-completed questionnaire in 20-minutes or less, I am sure to be successful. Somehow, I doubt it. The Ghosts of Readings Past are clamouring in my head:

“Swirling around with Occam's razor, slicing away what cannot be categorized, leaves more than order behind." (Traweek, 1996 pg. 146)

"When one presents users with a long list of services and has them check off which ones they want, one has constructed a world for the users." (Dervin, 1992 pg. 64)

"A consistent finding of the history of science is that there is no such thing as a natural or universal classification system. Classifications that appear natural, eloquent, and homogeneous within a given human context appear forced and heterogeneous outside of that context." (Bowker & Star, 1999 pg. 131)

I suppose that some of our earlier work on the subjectivity of research and the construction of science should have prepared me for this. It is shocking—even for a reformed engineer—to learn that the nature of research can be so quixotic. It seems that the actual construction of my questionnaire (that “forced and heterogeneous” lance of inquiry) is less important than the number of windmills that I’m able to slay. The tenet of Statistical Power demands that I lay the corpses of as many windmills as possible at the feet of science.

So where do my windmills come from? How can I convince all of these people to participate in my adventure? Besides the heavenly-sent hordes of the “sampling frame” it seems that I have to rely on my ability to establish “rapport” with the interviewees (Hansen et al., 1998). It sounds like a sales job to me. Indeed[1], Phil Agre of UCLA’s School of Education and Information Science recommends to all incoming PhD students that they view think of themselves primarily as networkers and sellers of concepts (Agre, 2003)…

Thanks for the completed questionnaire. Would you like fries with that?


Agre, P. (2003). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students. Retrieved October 5, 2003, from
Bernard, H. R. (2000). Social research methods : qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind's eye of the user: The sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management (pp. xiv, 238 p.). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.
Hansen, A., Cottle, S., Negrine, R., & Newbold, C. (1998). Mass communication research methods. New York: New York University Press.
Singleton, R. A. J., Straits, B. C., & Straits, M. M. (1988). Chapter 3: Survey Interviewing. In Approaches to Social Research (pp. 59-82). New York: Oxford University Press.
Traweek, S. (1996). Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. In A. Ross (Ed.), Science wars (pp. 139-150). Durham: Duke University Press.


[1] I’ve noticed my increased use of the expression: “. Indeed,”. Am I becoming an academic writer or have I merely read too much academic-abbalah?


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