Purpose and Methodology of the Houston Area Survey

For the past 24 years, these countywide, random-digit-dialed, computer-assisted telephone surveys have monitored systematically the continuities and changes in demographic patterns, life experiences, attitudes, and beliefs among successive representative samples of Harris County residents. Using identical items across the years, with new questions added periodically, the annual Houston Area Survey has tracked America’s fourth largest city in the midst of fundamental transformation.

No other metropolitan area in America has been the focus of a long-term study of this sort, and none more clearly exemplifies the nation’s ongoing economic and demographic transformations. During most of the twentieth century, Houston was essentially an Anglo-dominated, biracial Southern city, riding its location near the East Texas oil fields to continual prosperity. In May 1982, two months after the first survey in this series was conducted, the oil boom collapsed.

Houston recovered from deep recession in the mid 1980s to find itself in the midst of a fully restructured economy and an accelerating demographic revolution. New economic, educational, and environmental challenges have redefined the “pro-growth” strategies that will be required for urban prosperity in the twenty-first century. At the same time, major immigration flows have transformed this city into one of the nation’s most culturally diverse metropolitan areas, at the forefront of the new ethnic diversity that is refashioning the social and political landscape of urban America. The overall purpose of this continuing project is to measure systematically the way area residents are responding to these ongoing transformations, and to make the findings of this research widely available to the general public and to research scholars.

In order to ensure that every Harris County adult living in a household with a telephone will have an equal probability of being interviewed, survey respondents are selected through a two-stage random-digit-dialing procedure. In each household reached by randomly generated telephone numbers, the designated respondent is selected randomly from all household members aged 18 or older. Using “back translation” and the reconciliation of discrepancies, each year’s questionnaire is translated into Spanish, and bilingual interviewers are assigned to the project at all times.

Conducted annually during February and March, the interviews assess a rich array of attitudes and beliefs, of life circumstances and demographic characteristics, among successive representative samples of Harris Countyresidents. In the early years, the sample size ranged from 412 to 679; since 1992, it has been set at 650. Response rates — the ratio of completed interviews to all eligible phone numbers — averaged 70 percent in the 1980s and around 45 percent more recently. These are high figures for survey research, justifying continued confidence in the reliability of the data.

In 13 of the past 15 years (the exceptions were 1992 and 1996), the basic random samples have been expanded with “oversample surveys.” Using identical random selection procedures, additional interviews are conducted each year to enlarge and equalize the annual representation of Anglo, African-American, and Hispanic respondents at 450 to 500 each. In 1995 and 2002, the research included multi-lingual interviews with large representative samples from Houston’s Asian communities, the only such surveys in the country.

As indicated on this site (All Survey Questions), the annual surveys have measured over the years the respondents’ outlooks on the local and national economy, poverty programs, and interethnic relationships; their beliefs about discrimination and affirmative action; their perspectives on immigration, education, crime, healthcare, taxation, and community service; their assessments of downtown development, mobility and transit, land-use controls, and environmental concerns; their attitudes toward abortion rights, homosexuality, and other aspects of the “social agenda”; their religious and political orientations, their socioeconomic and other life circumstances, their residence patterns and family structures.

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