Time for a revival? A historical review of the social survey in Great Britain and the United States

Research output: Working paper/PreprintWorking paper


During the 1980s, the history of the social survey method in the UK and the US evoked significant scholarly attention; however, this has waned in recent years. Drawing on this historical literature, I review the origins and development of the social survey to its current ubiquity in serving the information needs of modern societies. Two pivotal moments set the direction for this history: first, the publication of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London in the late nineteenth century, which inspired numerous further studies to replicate his approach; second, World War II, which provided the applied research opportunity that established the social survey as an indispensable tool in public policy. Although historians acknowledge the growth of survey research in the post-war era, there has been limited discussion of the trends that shaped this expansion. I identify the processes of institutionalisation, professionalisation and economisation as setting the course for social survey methods during this period. The emergence of historical reflection on the survey method in the late twentieth century responded to a new transitional moment in its history. Commentators argued for a greater integration of theory in empirical findings to enable the survey to continue to function effectively in the production of “argumentative knowledge” (Philip Abrams, in Bulmer 1985:x), which is central to its critical social function. I argue for the value of methodological history to enable the survey method, and its practitioners, to reflectively appraise the idiosyncrasies of its development, current practices and future prospects.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2017

Publication series

NameMethodological Review
PublisherNational Centre for Research Methods


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