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Some years ago, Hal Winsborough of the University of Wisconsin wrote an insightful and witty analysis of the complex and not always easy relationship between sociology departments and the research centers with which they are typically associated. We thought visitors to the CSR website might enjoy reading what he had to say about what academic survey centers are usually like . . .

Survey Research

Survey research needs a lot of administrative services. It takes many part-time, often itinerant, helpers to do interviewing and coding. Their training and skill is central to the quality of the work and their able overseers are jewels to be treasured. One must deal with samplers as though they were gods or they will go away and double their salary in business or industry.

Because of the personnel commitments, it is best to have a steady amount of business to keep staff working. There are risks of disruptive booms and busts unless the size of the enterprise is fairly large. It may be necessary to take on some routine projects to keep body and soul together. These aspects of funding require a pretty able planning and accounting section.

Research funds for survey research are fairly plentiful.

The work needs a fair amount of equipment. Keypunches, countersorters, and tabulators were tools in my youth, and they were replaced by computers of diminishing size and cost but increasing complexity. These days one needs a lot of telephone lines and a lower travel budget.

The technology of survey research yields two important cultural traits that help center formation and persistence. First, survey research is a sequence of structured emergencies. A lot can go wrong, so it is hard to get away for very long. The faculty are usually around, and along with the staff, band together to fight forces of entropy. That can produce solidarity. Second, survey research is a sociable activity. You have to talk to people to do it, so survey researchers are usually personable and concerned with communicating well. Those things help keep centers from flying apart.

All in all, survey research is a great in-lieu-of-mitosis center maker that often serves several departments.

I think the situation of the survey center emphasizes a fairly eclectic image of knowledge. Most centers do work on many topics, some undertaken simply to keep the wolf from the door. There isn't a shared theory or model of process that is common to the topics studied. In most survey centers there does develop a pride in the craft that is shared. Knowldege about that craft is highly valued.

The temporal dimension looms large in survey research. A good deal of work is done to find out what is going on now, as opposed to previously. Today's poll is likely to find something different from yesterday's. As with historians, survey people can show a certain impatience with the idea of eternal verities.

Brief excerpt from "Sociology Departments and their Research Centers" by H. Winsborough

Reprinted from SOCIOLOGY AND ITS PUBLICS, Terence C. Halliday and Morris Janowitz eds. published by the University of Chicago Press, copyright © 1992 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair use provisions of US and international copyright law and agreement, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires both the consent of the author(s) and the University of Chicago Press.

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