Call for changing sex and gender questions on major surveys

Two sociologists argue that survey questions about sex and gender don’t actually tell us much:

Traditional understandings of sex and gender found in social surveys – such as only allowing people to check one box when asked “male” or “female” – reflect neither academic theories about the difference between sex and gender nor how a growing number of people prefer to identify, Saperstein argues in a study she coauthored with Grand Valley State University sociology professor Laurel Westbrook.

In their analysis of four of the largest and longest-running social surveys in the United States, the sociologists found that the surveys not only used answer options that were binary and static, but also conflated sex and gender. These practices changed very little over the 60 years of surveys they examined.

“Beliefs about the world shape how surveys are designed and data are collected,” they wrote. “Survey research findings, in turn, shape beliefs about the world, and the cycle repeats.”…

“Characteristics from race to political affiliation are no longer counted as binary distinctions, and possible responses often include the category ‘other’ to acknowledge the difficulty of creating a preset list of survey responses,” they wrote…The researchers suggest the following changes to social surveys:

  • Surveys must consistently distinguish between sex and gender.
  • Surveys should rethink binary categories.
  • Surveys need to incorporate self-identified gender and acknowledge it can change over time.

Surveys have to change as social understandings change. Measurement of race and ethnicity has changed quite a bit in recent decades with the Census considering changes for 2020.

It sounds like the next step would be to do a pilot study of alternatives – have a major survey include standard questions as well as new options – and then (1) compare results and (2) see how the new information is related to other information collected by the survey.

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