The Origins of Surveys

Surveys are as old as large societies.

Historically, humans have lived in groups of about 120 people. Researchers say this is roughly the number of people we can actually know, as a friend or relative or acquaintance, not just a name.

However, as soon as we began gathering in societies rather than small villages, it became impossible to know everyone—to talk to them and gauge their feelings or thoughts on an issue. We needed a way to judge the mood of the population even though we couldn’t talk to everyone anymore.

Ancient Origins

Scholars believe that surveys go back as far as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

During its heyday, Athens had a population of around 250,000 to 300,000 people—far too many people to understand without talking to them. There were only about 30,000 formal citizens—male adults who met certain criteria and were able to participate in government—but even 30,000 were too many without a survey.

One of the things that limited early surveys like ones the ancients used was that they didn’t take the entire population into account. It was more about asking leaders to speak for a group than about finding out each individual’s thoughts or feelings.

“Rulers have used census surveys of the population for thousands of years,” the Prairie Research Institute tells us. “During the Middle Ages, respondents to such surveys typically consisted of authorities such as the clergy or nobles who reported the numbers and living conditions of their parishioners or serfs.”

According to the Institute, rulers didn’t trust the common person to speak on their own behalf—an idea that lasted long past medieval times.

“In the 1800s, Fabian socialists and Karl Marx relied on key informants (factory owners or trusted socialists) for information on working conditions of the poor.”

It wasn’t until 19th century English philosopher and social reformer Henry Mayhew asked the people themselves about their living conditions that surveys began to develop as a viable tool.

Modern Evolution

In the 1820s, newspapers began taking straw polls—informal surveys of public opinion akin to “tossing straws in the wind.” Most view this as the inception of political polling, inexact as it was.

But in 1916, the Literary Digest began a bigger effort that changed things somewhat. The publication mailed out millions of postcards to ordinary citizens asking their views. While not an exact science, the surveys successfully predicted U.S. presidents for about 20 years.

Things changed even more in 1936 when George Gallup introduced some science into the proceedings. Instead of random mass mailings, Gallup studied smaller groups that were demographically more diverse. He correctly predicted the results of the 1936 U.S. presidential election—Franklin Delano Roosevelt beating Alf Landon—while the Literary Digest got it wrong. (I don’t remember Alf Landon, either, by the way.)

What Gallup did was to introduce the first scientifically based studies of representative demographics, which greatly enhanced the accuracy of surveys in general. He infamously missed the mark in 1948 when Harry Truman upset Thomas Dewey, but Gallup also gave us an outline for modern survey methods.