The Problem with Questionnaires

Before we delve deep into the science of the animal-human interaction, I wanted to describe another issue that is problematic in these studies which I’ve been struggling with quite a bit these last few weeks. It’s the problem of questionnaires that will accurately capture how individuals perceive animals, their attitudes toward them, how they interact with them, and so forth. Essentially, how do we capture in a questionnaire or survey instrument the ways in which animals impact the lives of people? Is this even something that can be quantified using a survey? Should it be?

dog sufing

As described in detail in my post last week, scientists, particularly psychologists – where the lion’s share of the animal-human bond work has been done in the past decade – love to use questionnaires to assess attitudes, behaviors, opinions, and changes in these over time.  But questionnaire development is a difficult, time consuming, tedious, and expensive process. Scientists often spend years developing questionnaire instruments, and once they feel they’ve “perfected” something, they will offer it to the public domain or, more often as is the case, will provide it to the public for a profit.

Because of the nature of questionnaire development, and the lack of funds generally in the field of animal-human interaction research (see my post from January 14th and the myriad of issues this lack of funding is tied to), measures to assess the animal-human interaction are far and few between, and even those that are available have flaws or limitations that require researchers to adapt them to their own needs. BUT, when one adapts a questionnaire, you have to consider that this is not how it was intended to be used, and this may affect the validity and reliability of the data you collect.

For example, in the study that I’m working to design currently, we’re going to be enrolling children who attend twolittle girl and puppy to three weeks of summer camp at a local farm sanctuary.  I’ve been searching for months to find questionnaires that would be appropriate for use in this study to assess child-animal interaction, but have found very little that was appropriate.

I’ve reached out to several leading researchers and scientists in this field and they confirmed my findings: there really are not any suitable questionnaires in this field for use with kids. This means that researchers are either a) using questionnaires designed for use with adults and modifying the language for kids, or b) putting together their own questionnaires. Neither of these are necessarily horrible options, but because they were not designed to be used in the ways that researchers are modifying them for, and because they not evaluating them for validity or reliability prior to use, the resulting data could be called into question. Further, it increases a lack of standardization across studies. This not only makes it difficult to assess the results of a particular study, but also difficult to compare results across studies.

goatsAnother important issue that I’ve recently run into recently is that the majority of questionnaires available in the field focus on domestic animals. There are nearly no questionnaires to assess individuals’ attitudes toward and relationships with farm or wild animals. This forces researchers to modify questionnaires designed to assess attitudes around domestic animals with various farm animals, which just like those questionnaires modified for kids from adult questionnaires, can affect the validity and reliability of the data, standardization of studies, and comparisons across the field.

Although this isn’t a topic that has been brought up in many of the critiques of current and past research in this field, as this field grows, it is likely that this will become more of an issue.  As tedious and time-consuming as it is, it’s time for those of us committed to this work to begin to take on the difficult task of developing standardized questionnaires in this field. This will require outside resources to be successful, but if we are serious about improving the rigor of the science in this field, this is an imperative we can no longer ignore.