Interview Mode and Measurement of Sexual Behaviors: Methodological Issues
Gribble, James N., Miller, Heather G., Rogers, Susan M., Turner, Charles F., The Journal of Sex Research
Surveys, or, more generally, the method of asking questions and recording answers, continue to be one of the most commonly used techniques in obtaining data on sexual behavior. Although much attention tends to focus on the statistical information derived from surveys, behind the cross-tabulations, logistic regression, or other analytical models used by researchers lies a human encounter between two individuals, an interviewer and a respondent. The situational, cognitive, social, and psychological factors that arise within that interpersonal exchange affect the answers that are given and the data that are thereby generated (Turner, 1985). To understand the behaviors of interest in research on fertility, contraceptive practices, and STD transmission, one must confront the uncertainties introduced when this question-and-answer process is used to gather data on sensitive sexual behaviors. This task has become increasingly important given the increase in the number of surveys asking such sensitive questions and the increased reliance on data from these surveys in determining appropriate public policy.
In this review, we have drawn extensively on the contributions of the authors of several jointly-authored works. These works include Gribble, Rogers, Miller, and Turner (1998); Miller, Gribble, Mazade, Rogers, and Turner (1998); Rogers, Miller, and Turner (1998); Turner, Danella, and Rogers (1995); Turner, Ku, Rogers, Lindberg, Pleck, and Sonestein (1998); Turner, Ku, Sonenstein, and Pleck (1996); Turner, Miller, and Rogers (1997); and Turner, Miller, Smith, Cooley, and Rogers (1996). With the exception of this statement, we do not note the numerous places where we have drawn on these works.
In the collection of data on sexual behavior, a variety of approaches have been used. Some studies use interviewer-administered questionnaires (e.g., Fox, Odaka, Brookmeyer, & Polk, 1987; Martin, 1987; McCusker et al., 1988; Winkelstein, Lyman, & Padian, 1987) while others use self-administered questionnaires (e.g., Joseph et al., 1987; Marmot et al., 1982; McKusick, Hortsman, & Coates, 1985). Because sexual behavior is complex, survey designs may require elaborate skip and branch instructions so that the information gathered is tailored to the sexual histories of individual respondents. This approach may yield survey questionnaires that are too complex for reliable administration as a self-administered paper questionnaire. Reporting sexual behavior in a face-to-face interview, however, may be embarrassing to the respondent, and may cause some respondents to conceal important aspects of their sexual histories. Therefore, the issue of reporting bias becomes central to the assessment of the different modes of data collection: how the properties of a specific mode influence reporting bias and how modes compare in their effects on reporting bias (Groves, 1989).
When estimating the prevalence of illicit or stigmatizing behaviors, survey methodologists believe that a net negative bias occurs. The negative bias occurs because the number of respondents who deny engaging in those sensitive behaviors that, in fact, they have engaged in is expected to be larger than the number of respondents who report sensitive behaviors that they have not engaged in (Bradburn & Sudman, 1979; Catania, Gibson, Chitwood, & Coates, 1990; Fay, Turner, Klassen, & Gagnon, 1989; Miller, Turner, & Moses, 1990; Turner, Lessler, & Gfroerer, 1992). The challenge facing researchers is to reduce the bias in estimates of the prevalence of high-risk behaviors. By experimenting with the modes of survey administration, it is possible to estimate the relative level of reporting bias associated with one mode versus another.
In this review, we examine the effectiveness of different modes of administering surveys of both sexual behaviors and ancillary behaviors that increase the risk for the transmission of HIV and other STDs. …