the onion theory of communication (doing surveys)

without too much detail, i’ll just note that i spent more time in the hospital in undergrad than i would have preferred. often times, i, being highly unintelligent, would wait until things got really bad and then finally decide one night it was time to visit the ER – uncomfortable but not non-functional or incoherent. on at least one occasion – and because she’s wonderful, i suspect more – alannah (aka mal-bug, malice, malinnus) took me there and would do her homework, sometimes reading out loud to me to keep me entertained and distracted. in one such instance, she was studying some communications theories, one of which was called or nicknamed the onion theory of two-way communication. the basic gist is that revealing information in a conversation should be a reciprocal unpeeling. i share something, shedding a layer of social divide, then you do and we both feel reasonably comfortable.

it didn’t take too long to connect that this was the opposite of how my interaction with doctor was about to go. the doctor would, at best, reveal her name and i would be told to undress in order to be examined, poked and prodded. onion theory, massively violated.

i mention all this because i have just been reading about assorted electronic data collection techniques, namely here, via here. first, i have learned a new word: ‘paradata.’ this seems useful. these are monitoring and administrative data that go beyond how many interviews have been completed. rather, they focus on the process of collecting data. it can include the time it takes to administer the questionnaire, how long it takes a surveyor to locate a respondent, details about the survey environment and the interaction itself (i’d be particularly interested in hearing how anyone actually utilizes this last piece of data, in particular, in analyzing the survey data itself. e.g. would you give less analytic weight to an interview marked ‘distracted’ or ‘uncooperative’ or ‘blatantly lying?’).

the proposed process of monitoring and adjustment bears striking resemblance to other discussions (e.g. pritchett, samji and hammer) about the importance of collecting and using monitoring data to make mid-course corrections in research and project implementation. it does feel like there is a certain thematic convergence underway about giving monitoring data its due. in the case of surveying, it feels like there is a slight shift towards the qualitative paradigm, where concurrent data collection, entry and analysis and iterative adjustment are the norm. not a big shift but a bit.

but on the actual computer bit, i am less keen. a survey interview is a conversation. a structured conversation, yes. potentially an awkward conversation and almost certainly one that violates the onion theory of communication. but even doctors – some of the ultimate violators – complain about the distance created between themselves and a patient by having a computer between them during an examination (interview), as is now often required to track details for pay-for-performance schemes (e.g.). so, while i appreciate and support the innovations of responsive survey design and recognize the benefits of speed and aggregation over collecting the same data manually, i do wish we could also move towards a mechanism that doesn’t have the surveyor behind a screen (certainly a tablet would seem preferable to a laptop). could entering data rely on voice more than keying in answers to achieve the same result? are there other alternatives to at least maintain some semblance of a conversation? are there other possibilities to both allow the flexibility of updating a questionnaire or survey design while also re-humanizing ‘questionnaire administration’ as a conversation?

update 2 Feb 2014: interesting article  on interviews as human, interpersonal interactions.


Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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