4th International Conference of Sociocybernetics
- Society from Ancient Greece to Cyberspace and Beyond -

Corfu, Greece, June 30-July 5, 2003

Control Processes in Survey Interviews: A Cybernetic Approach

Johannes van der Zouwen* and Johannes H. Smit*#

*Faculty of Social Sciences, *#Faculty of Medicine
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Paper presented at the Fourth International Conference on Sociocybernetics,
June 29 - July 5, 2003, Corfu, Greece.

Email: h.van.der.zouwen@fsw.vu.nl


The survey interview is a method of data collection in which information is transferred to the researchers via a communication process between interviewer and respondent. This process is controlled directly by the interviewers, and indirectly by the researchers who constructed the questionnaire and instructed and supervised the interviewers. The interview can thus be characterized by core concepts of cybernetics: information, communication, and control.

The researchers control the information gathering process via precise formulations of questions and response alternatives (open loop control). The respondents control the question-answering processes taking place in their minds, thereby guided and stimulated (closed loop control), by interviewers who in turn are instructed and trained to do so by the researchers.

Despite these control activities errors occur. In order to investigate the sources of these errors, we analyzed transcripts of 200 interviews -related to eight questions about income- using a detailed coding scheme. In 30% of all question-answer sequences interviewer and respondent stick to the 'script' designed by the researcher. In these 'paradigmatic' sequences the open loop control by the researcher works well. In 25% of the sequences this control is not sufficient, but additional closed loop control, via 'repair' activities of the interviewers, appears to be successful. In the remaining sequences both the open loop control of the researcher and the closed loop control by the interviewer failed.

Large differences between the eight questions with respect to deviations from the 'paradigmatic' sequence were found; also interviewers differed regarding their competence to practice closed loop control.


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