Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



pp. 685-687 in Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and Policy, Vol. II, edited by Gwendolyn Mink and Alice O'Connor. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


Social surveys are the systematic collection of data on a specific subject. From approximately 1890 to 1935, social surveys in the United States often encompassed broad topics, a whole city, or a very large sample of a target population. After World War II, surveys increasingly became more quantitative, narrower in their definition of populations, and more focused. Surveys were initially relatively infrequent events and were conducted face-to-face, but surveys now permeate daily life and increasingly occur over the telephone.

The earliest social surveys were done by governments taking a census of their people. Great Britain conducted an early count of its population and was the origin of many concepts associated with empiricism and methodology to collect data. Starting in 1790, the U.S. census has occurred every ten years and provided information affecting government services and funding. In France from the middle to late nineteenth century, the work of Frederick LePlay focused on family budgets and social amelioration. At the end of this period, Emile Durkheim attacked LePlay's approach, and Durkheim's emphasis on objective science combined with statistics was accepted as more valid than LePlay's applied work. Durkheim's definition was increasingly accepted by many survey researchers in the United States during the 1930s.