A social survey in its broadest sense, has a reference to a first-hand investigation, analysis and co-ordination of economic, sociological and other related aspects of a selected community or group.
A survey may be undertaken with the primary purpose of formulating a programme for amelioration of the conditions of life and work of a community or a group, implying some ‘frame’ in the mind of the surveyor as to what the conditions ideally ought to be.
The purpose of a social survey may also be to provide scientifically gathered facts or materials affording some empirical basis for the social theorists to set up their conclusions.
If the term ‘social survey’ is mainly thought of as referring to an operation having as its central concern ‘social action’, i.e., social engineering, social reform, social planning and social survey, it is to the distinctive history of social survey movement that one would have to turn for explanation.
As the history of the development of survey movement unfolds itself, we come across such trail-blazers as John Howard, a philanthropist and reformer, Fredrick Leplay, a reformer and economist; Charles Booth, a reformer and statistician.
The life and works of all these men were governed by a deep-seated conviction that constructive reforms must be founded only on the secure ground provided by scientifically gathered facts. Thus, the survey-operation might be regarded as a pre-requisite to social reform and often the former implied the latter.
Thus, the terms, ‘social surveyor’ and ‘social practitioner’ came to be used almost interchangeably. It is in this particularized sense that quite a few books treat of social survey; for them it means scientific study of social problems acute enough to arouse public opinion and to take a “hand in their solution” or a “scientific study for the purpose of presenting a constructive programme of social advance.”
It is worthy of note, however, that the notion of social survey as an operation undertaken basically to afford scientifically gathered material as a basis for theory construction, found its way into the sociological thought as a result of Leplay’s work.
Threaded though the survey work of Leplay was an insistent concern, for theoretical generalization which has ever since exerted a powerful influence on the French and German sociology.
Social survey with social action as its central concern while gaining substantially from the impetus provided by Leplay’s work had its actual inception with the pioneering work of Charles Booth and associates and attained its full bloom in USA.
The influence of the Booth survey in the field of social planning was as significant as that of the survey method for the study and analysis of social phenomena as well as one affording a substantive base for a programme of social planning is of comparatively recent origin.
At the present time, the development of varied types of survey, both the voluntary, semi-public and governmental agencies, marks the disappearance of social survey as a clearly defined form of social investigation having direct relevance for social planning or reform.
Today, the influence of social surveys is not restricted to the field planning, programmes of amelioration and change. Quite a number of surveys seem to include only incidentally the programmatic.
Because of complexity of objectives and diversity of the uses of social surveys there is in evidence a lack of uniformity in defining and employing crucial variables and the qualitative and quantitative indices devised for their measurement.
This has created problems, since surveys cannot be used, comparatively speaking, on a broader field of social generalization although they may be undertaken with reference to some specific problem in a specific group. It is precisely this that explains why the social survey method is no longer restricted to any particular school of thought.
While a social survey may provide basis for theory-construction or generalization, in addition to its implications for social planning and reform, social research may provide just the clues which may be utilized for solving certain practical problems or which may help setting up of programmes on right lines, e.g., the theory of group morale may guide planning to step up the output in a factory.
Those who are given to differentiating sharply between social survey and social research, as though they constituted a clear-cut dichotomy, seem to be governed by a considerably narrowed down conception of each.
Looking at the matter from this angle, differentiation, even if arbitrary, is indeed easy to effect. The social surveys are concerned with specific persons, specific places, specific problems, and situations, whereas the social researchers are inclined to make the more general and abstract problems as their principal concern.
Whereas “the social surveyor is interested in fact-finding in order to improve the current social conditions of a specific locality, the social researcher seeks to build a body of tested general knowledge of mankind, a body of knowledge timeless, space-less — which may lead to formulation of theories and general laws.”
To use R.S., Lynd’s striking differentiation:
“The former (social researcher) works in a leisurely world in which the hands of the clock crawl slowly over a vast dial; to him the precise penetration of the unknown cannot be hurried. In this time universe of the research scholar, certain supporting assumptions have grown up, such as … objectivity … the self-justifying goodness of ‘new knowledge’ about anything big or little, the practical man (surveyor-planner) … works by a small time dial over which the secondhand of immediacy and urgency hurries incessantly.”