Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 2015


Published in Public Opinion Quarterly 79:2 (Summer 2015), pp. 411–419; doi:10.1093/poq/nfv025


Copyright © D. Dutwin et al. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Used by permission.


The landscape of survey research has arguably changed more significantly in the past decade than at any other time in its relatively brief history. In that short time, landline telephone ownership has dropped from some 98 percent of all households to less than 60 percent; cell-phone interviewing went from a novelty to a mainstay; address-based designs quickly became an accepted method of sampling the general population; and surveys via Internet panels became ubiquitous in many sectors of social and market research, even as they continue to raise concerns given their lack of random selection.

Among these widespread changes, it is perhaps not surprising that the substantial increase in refusal rates has received comparatively little attention. As we will detail, it was not uncommon for a study conducted 20 years ago to have encountered one refusal for every one or two completed interviews, while today experiencing three or more refusals for every one completed interview is commonplace. This trend has led to several concerns that motivate this Task Force. As refusal rates have increased, refusal bias (as a component of nonresponse bias) is an increased threat to the validity of survey results. Of practical concern are the efficacy and cost implications of enhanced efforts to avert initial refusals and convert refusals that do occur. Finally, though no less significant, are the ethical concerns raised by the possibility that efforts to minimize refusals can be perceived as coercive or harassing potential respondents. Indeed, perhaps the most important goal of this document is to foster greater consideration by the reader of the rights of respondents in survey research.