THE PITFALLS OF
This brief is written for the programme staff of Practical Action and the purpose of this
document is to generate debate and discussion about the effectiveness of the questionnaire
survey and whether it is an appropriate tool to fully understand the realities of the poor
people in developing countries. We hope that this brief will help in more appropriate use of
questionnaire surveys. The following is a look into what are the common pitfalls when
preparing and administering a questionnaire survey and some other effective methods that
can be applied.
What is a questionnaire survey?
A questionnaire survey is an extractive process, a tool that is generally considered as a quick
and cost-effective method to generate large quantities of data. The purpose of any survey,
such as questionnaire depends on what the specific objectives are and what you need to know
at the end of the process. Even though subjects may vary widely the tool is often applied in
the same standardized way offering little flexibility in application – the questionnaire is
prepared, administered through enumerators to a sample group and the data analyzed.
A questionnaire simplifies what are complex situations, relationships and characteristics into
statistical data. However are these necessarily “real” or indicative numbers and does this
statistical data truly reflect the lives of poor people? These are some important reflective
questions, which we need to continuously ask ourselves. There are always gaps between the
objective of the survey, the concepts used and understanding of the respondents and
enumerators about those.
When to use a questionnaire
The questionnaire is commonly used to ask closed questions to look at the size and
distribution of a specific problem; look at the relationship between different variables to see
if there is a pattern and collect baseline data to be used for evaluating impact later on. (Save
the Children 1995, pp 42-43) However consideration needs to be taken as to what is the
most effective method of gaining this information, remembering that the questionnaire is not
the only tool out there. As said above, the method applied will depend largely on the purpose
of your investigation. Perhaps the project calls for a mixture of appropriate methods cross-
checked with qualitative and quantitative tools incorporating participatory elements.
For the purpose of project baseline surveys and evaluations, it is always important to sit back
and consider the purpose of the surveys and range of methods available to meet that purpose.
A questionnaire should not be your first or only choice and when gathering information for a
project it may be a good idea to start by asking “Who, about what and why?” This should be
followed up with deciding what is the best method to employ through asking yourself “how?”
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