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CLOSED- VERSUS OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

The most often-asked question about survey research is whether fixed-choice (also called closed-ended) or open-ended items are better. The answer is that the two formats produce different kinds of data, and it’s your call when to use what. A problem with fixed- choice questions is that people focus on the choices they have. If they’d like to offer a response other than those in front of them, they won’t do it (Krosnick 1999:544). Daniel Hruschka and colleagues (2004) asked 227 Zimbawean women who were in HIV counseling two questions about how they negotiated the use of condoms. The first question was open-ended:

Think back to when you discussed male condom use with [main male partner] since [the last counseling session]. What exactly did you ask/tell him? Tell me in your own words.

The second question—which was asked immediately after the first—was fixed choice:

Now I’m going to read you a list of things some women tell their partners to try and convince them to use male condoms. Tell me for each one whether you told your partner this to convince him to use male condoms.

  • 1. Told him that she was worried about getting HIV/AIDS.
  • 2. Told him that she is worried about giving HIV/AIDS to him.
  • 3. Reminded him that many of his friends or relatives have already died of HIV/

AIDS and that this makes her believe that anyone can get it and pass it on through sex.

  • 4. Told him that if she gets sick with HIV/AIDS, she may no longer be able to take care of him and her children.
  • 5. Told him she wants to use male condoms to prevent pregnancy.
  • 6. Told him about the study and that the study staff wanted you to ask him to use male condoms.
  • 7. Showed him a brochure from the Ministry of Health/National AIDS Control Program everyone in Zimbabwe to use condoms.

The seven items for the fixed-choice question were developed from focus groups with staff at the University of Zimbabwe and in consultation with nurses and other women in the community (Hruschka et al. 2004:188-89). One of the themes extracted from the open-ended responses was: Emphasizing that HIV is everywhere. Women who reported using that negotiation technique were about 300% more likely to report 100% condom use by their partners over the previous 2 months. None of the seven items in the fixed- choice question predicted reported 100% condom use (Hruschka et al. 2004:196).

Schuman and Presser (1981:89) asked a sample of people this question: ‘‘Please look at this card and tell me which thing you would most prefer in a job.’’ The card had five items listed: (1) high income, (2) no danger of being fired, (3) working hours are short— lots of free time, (4) chances for advancement, and (5) the work is important and gives a feeling of accomplishment. Then they asked a different sample the open-ended question: ‘‘What would you most prefer in a job?’’ About 17% of the respondents to the fixed- choice question chose ‘‘chances for advancement,’’ and over 59% chose ‘‘important work.’’ Under 2% of the respondents who were asked the open-ended question mentioned ‘‘chances for advancement,” and just 21% said anything about ‘‘important’’ or “challenging” or ‘‘fulfilling’’ work.

When the questions get really threatening, fixed-choice questions are generally not a good idea. Masturbation, alcohol consumption, and drug use are reported with 50%- 100% greater frequency in response to open-ended questions (Bradburn 1983:299). Apparently, people are least threatened when they can offer their own answers to open- ended questions on a self-administered questionnaire, rather than being forced to choose among a set of fixed alternatives (e.g., once a month, once a week, once a day, several times a day), and are most threatened by a face-to-face interviewer (Blair et al. 1977; Tourangeau and Smith 1996; Tourangeau and Yan 2007).

On the other hand, Ivis et al. (1997) found that at least one pretty embarrassing question was better asked in a fixed-choice format—and over the phone, at that. People in their survey were asked: ‘‘How often in the last 12 months have you had five or more drinks on one occasion?’’ Then, later in the interview, they were asked the same question, but were given nine fixed choices: (1) every day; (2) about once every other day; . . . (9) never in the last year. The fixed-choice format produced significantly more positive responses. The anonymity of telephone surveys provides a certain comfort level where people feel free to open up on sensitive topics. And notice that the anonymity of telephone surveys lets the interviewer, as well as the respondent, off the hook. You can ask people things you might be squeamish about if the interview were face to face, and respondents feel that they can divulge very personal matters to disembodied voices on the phone.

Overall, because closed-ended items are so efficient, most survey researchers prefer them to open-ended questions and use them whenever possible. There is no rule, however, that prevents you from mixing question types. Many survey researchers use the open-ended format for really intimidating questions and the fixed-choice format for everything else, even on the phone. Even if there are no intimidating questions in a survey, it’s a good idea to stick in a few open-ended items. The open-ended questions break the monotony for the respondent, as do tasks that require referring to visual aids (like a graph).

The responses to fixed-choice questions are unambiguous for purposes of analysis. Be sure to take full advantage of this and precode fixed-choice items on a questionnaire. Put the codes right on the instrument so that typing the data into the computer is as easy (and as error free) as possible.

It’s worth repeating that when you do computer-assisted interviews in the field (CAPI, mobile-CAPI, CASI, audio-CASI) you cut down on data entry error. The fewer times you have to touch data, the fewer opportunities there are to stick errors in them. I particularly like the fact that we can combine fixed-choice and open-ended questions on a hand-held computer for fieldwork.

 
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