480.3 Testing social theory with a survey experiment: Simmel's stranger and social distance

Friday, August 3, 2012: 11:15 AM
Faculty of Economics, TBA
Oral Presentation
Mariano SANA , Sociology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Alexander WEINREB , Sociology, University of Texas at Austin
Guy STECKLOV , Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University, Israel
Simmel’s conception of the stranger as someone objective, reliable, and to whom individuals are willing to disclose their secrets has long influenced the practice of survey research: interviewers are almost always “strangers” to the respondents.  This idea, however, has never been experimentally tested and is at odds with a large body of research that suggests that intimacy, truth-telling and trust are all more likely to happen when individuals know each other, and strangers are the usual victims of deception.  The same can be said about other longstanding practices in survey research that are based on the idea that reducing social distance between interviewer and respondent – e.g., by matching them on gender, race, place of residence – will improve data quality. Here, too, there is almost no experimental literature to shore up methodological claims.

We tested these assumptions by means of a carefully designed experimental survey in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2010.  We systematically randomized interviewer assignments so as to produce interviews that allowed us to control for the type of pre-existing relationship between interviewers and respondents.  Most of the questions asked were similar to standard questions typically asked in social surveys.  Other questions were introduced to allow for validity checks.  Overall, the questions in the instrument ranged from relatively innocuous to very sensitive.

Results are mixed.  We find evidence for and against the Simmelian view and the emphasis on reducing social distance. Our study gives us the opportunity to test long-held assumptions about social interaction in data collection settings, and thus challenge established sociological practices. We discuss the implications of these findings for both survey research and social theory in general.