Academic journal article
By Turner, Heather A.
The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 36, No. 1
Survey research continues to be the most important methodology for examining behavioral issues related to the AIDS epidemic. Surveys are central to obtaining information on the epidemiology of AIDS, the distribution of behaviors that spread the disease, the factors and conditions that influence high risk activities, and the effectiveness of programs targeted at AIDS prevention. The usefulness of AIDS-related surveys depends on how successfully relevant populations can be sampled, and the reliability and validity of the information obtained from self-reports. Unfortunately, survey research in general has been plagued with numerous methodological difficulties that can seriously jeopardize the quality of the data. The fact that the information being sought in AIDS-relevant surveys is often highly sensitive, involving the need to obtain histories of sexual behavior and drug use, likely accentuates methodological problems. One particularly important issue involves participation bias. Given that, in our culture, sex is viewed as a highly private activity, people often feel embarrassed or threatened when asked to talk about their sexual behavior or attitudes with a stranger (Catania, McDermott, & Pollack, 1986). This tendency to avoid discussing sex, together with the potential stigma attached to the AIDS epidemic, may increase rates of refusal and exacerbate participation bias in AIDS behavioral surveys (Gagnon, 1988; Catania, Gibson, Marin, Coates, & Greenblatt, 1990).
The use of phone surveys to collect AIDS-relevant data is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to face-to-face interviewing, especially given the new developments in sampling and data collection technologies and the typically lower costs of collecting data by phone (Miller, Turner, & Moses, 1990). Moreover, the urgent need to move rapidly in collecting data that maps the course of the epidemic, the prevalence and antecedents of behaviors involved in transmitting HIV, and the success of intervention efforts (Catania, Gibson, Chitwood, & Coates, 1990) suggests that the expedience of phone surveys may be particularly advantageous. However, despite its potential advantages, telephone surveys often have lower overall response rates in comparison to face-to-face interviews (Groves & Kahn, 1979). In a meta-analysis of the two types of surveys, face-to-face interviews had a mean response rate of 75 percent, while telephone interviews showed a mean rate of 69 percent (De Leeuw & van der Zouwen, 1987). While it has been suggested that the lower response rates may be due in part to difficulties in establishing interviewer-respondent rapport and trust in phone surveys (Groves & Kahn, 1979), phone surveys also suffer from special problems involving noncontacts (Miller et al., 1990). Unanswered phones, difficulties finding respondents at home, and the increased use of answering machines can make even the initial task of contacting the respondent considerably difficult.
Nonresponse, whether due to refusals or noncontacts, can have serious repercussions for surveys intended to derive prevalence estimates of risk behaviors. To the extent that nonrespondents are different from respondents on survey measures, statistics based on respondent data alone will be biased estimates of the population parameters (Groves & Lyberg, 1988). Although participation bias is certainly not peculiar to sex research, surveys that focus on sexual behavior may be more susceptible than surveys on most other topics. Studies have found, for example, that sex survey participants, relative to nonparticipants, tend to be older and less educated (Johnson & DeLamater, 1976), and are less comfortable disclosing sexual information (Bradburn, Sudman, Blair & Stocking, 1978; Catania et al., 1986). Moreover, there is research suggesting that sex survey participants engage in more frequent vaginal intercourse and masturbation, have more varied and unusual sexual histories, have greater levels of noncoital sexual activity, and have more exposure to erotic material (c. …