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The usual suspects: are they really that difficult? Resistance to surveys among the general population

*Ineke Stoop, The Netherlands Institute for Social Research/SCP 

Keywords: Nonresponse, cross-national survey, noncontact, refusal

In nonresponse studies several groups have been identified as being hard to survey: the young, the old, people living far away or not close together, the urban population, the homeless, the cell-only, ethnic, linguistic or cultural minorities, immigrants, the indigenous, busy people, socially isolated people, the poor, the rich, the illiterate and men. The response probability of these groups of course depends on the survey design: geographically isolated groups may be easy to reach by telephone, the cell-only may have no problem with a web-based survey, linguistic minorities may be quite happy to complete a questionnaire translated into their language and the illiterate may enjoy a conversation with a face-to-face interviewer.

Causes of nonresponse will also differ for different groups: elderly people are often hard to reach but may be unwilling to let an interviewer into their house, whereas ethnic minorities may be hard to reach but – once reached by someone who speaks their language – may participate just as often as the majority population. People with long working hours are generally not underrepresented in burdensome time use studies, and busy parents have been found to be quite happy to extensively discuss educational problems with interviewers.

Resistance to surveys should therefore always be discussed against the background of the survey design and process and underlying reasons for survey participation. Evidence from the European Social Survey (ESS), a biennial face-to-face survey conducted in more than 30 European countries, will be used to illustrate how high response rates can be pursued, how and why response processes and response outcomes differ across countries, and which groups are prone to being underrepresented.

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