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Questionnaires: A tool for good or evil?

November 28, 2011

At first glance ‘questionnaire’ seems a straightforward word.  I’ve checked it out on dictionary.com and it means a ‘list of questions’.  The thing is, there are so many reasons why you might want to ask people a list of questions.  Sometimes they are nice, sometimes not so nice.  Sometimes people can choose whether to answer your list of questions and sometimes they are forced upon people.

For example a questionnaire could be a feedback form at an event you attended, a survey to gauge awareness of an advertising campaign, an application for a credit card, a phone call from someone selling you double glazing, an exam, or an assessment for taking your medical history.  Questionnaires can assist you in offering your opinion to improve things in your life and allow you to gain access to products and services.  However if you ‘fail’ some kinds of questionnaires the questionnaire can act as a barrier to accessing something you want or need, such as insurance, healthcare, or entrance to a job or university.

Recently an article entitled Warning: questionnaires may damage your health caught my eye.  A very interesting article about the experience of reassessment for state benefits from a person with mental health problems.

I love questionnaires, I really do.  But then I like to think I am a champion for good and ethical research.  Unfortunately sometimes questionnaires are used as inappropriate decision-making tools in inappropriate circumstances. In the case of the linked article, the questionnaire is a scapegoat for the real issue of benefits reassessment but (as an expert in research methodologies and a previous exployee of a mental health charity) I am happy to concur that I would not consider a questionnaire an appropriate assessment tool in these circumstances.

For most people a questionnaire is a questionnaire whether it is a happy fluffy ethical survey or whether it is a twenty page compulsory interrogation upon which the livelihood of a mentally ill person is decided. 

I’ve blogged several times before about the difference between good and bad research, and the reasons why taking part in genuine market research is (or should be) an ethical and ideally pleasant experience.

It upsets me when the tools of my trade are used in a way that causes stress and pain for people.

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