Dr. Survey: 33 years influencing change

He’s the doctor of data collection, the sultan of surveys, the grand poobah of public opinion polls. Reality is, if you participate in a survey — whether it comes via the mail, phone or Internet — Don Dillman has probably influenced that document in some way.

Dillman, for more than 30 years, has been a prominent researcher and practitioner in survey methodology, recognized both nationally and internationally. Now, WSU has selected him as the 2002 recipient of its highest faculty honor — the Eminent Faculty Award.

Armed with a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Iowa State University, Dillman began work at WSU in 1969 as a rural sociologist. Shortly after, one of his co-workers suggested that he pursue a study by mail. Dillman accepted the challenge and, as the saying goes, the die was cast.

The next year, he started working in the Social Research Center, where, under Jim Short’s direction, he established a telephone survey laboratory, which may have been the first such center in the United States. The laboratory made it possible to do surveys for the university and the state, while conducting research on metholodogical issues.

“At that time, (personally administered) surveys were under tremendous pressure because of costs, and we needed alternatives. The research and experimentation I did in the Department of Rural Sociology on mail surveys and the SRC on telephone surveys provided a basis for a book. It was the first book to provide detailed procedures for conducting those kinds of surveys, and I had no idea how big an impact it would have.”

The book, titled “Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method” (published in 1978), has been cited by the American Association of Public Opinion Research as one of the top 50 books that influenced public opinion research between 1945 and 1995, and has been cited nearly 2,000 times in scientific publications.

Since then, Dillman has gone on to:

• author, or coauthor more than 180 publications and nine books

• bring in (alone or with others) over $10 million in grants and contracts to WSU

• serve as the U.S. Census Bureau’s first senior survey methodologist in the Office of the Director

• serve on numerous national advisory panels

• chair WSU’s Rural Sociology Department for eight years.

• serve as president of the Rural Sociological Society, a national professional association (1984-85).

Today, Dillman is the deputy director for the SESRC; the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy, in the Departments of Sociology and Rural Sociology, and national president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (2001-2002). In addition, he recently completed the second edition of his original book on surveys.

“It took me 22 years to put together an update,” Dillman laughs, “but during that time, I did a lot of experimentation on how to improve surveys, how to tailor procedures to specific populations, and how to apply new methods such as the Web, e-mail, and interactive voice response. Now, the publisher is asking about a third edition.

“When I suggested to my editor that we wait another 22 years before doing the next edition, there was a moment of complete silence on the other end of the telephone. I think she thought I was serious.”

Dillman estimates that during his career he has helped design more than 1,500 surveys. Topics have ranged from honey bee management to soil erosion to estimating the number of science and engineering graduates nationwide.

In 1991, Dillman’s widespread research and expertise led the U.S. Census Bureau to appoint him as its first senior survey methodologist, responsible for leading the redesign of data collection methods for the 2000 Census.

“WSU was very helpful in allowing me to work with the U.S. Census Bureau through an Interagency Personnel Agreement, that placed me on assignment there for two years (1991-1993). For anyone who is a survey methodologist, it is a wonderful place to be; the learning opportunities never end. I was able to focus on several national experiments that led to changing the format of the 2000 Census, which was mailed to about 125 million households. It’s the largest mail survey in the world. And, we were able to learn a lot about the general factors that contribute to response.”

Dillman’s enthusiasm is contagious. “I’m just as excited about a research project we will put into the field one week from now, as I was in 1969 when I did my first statewide survey. I truly enjoy what I do. I enjoy the interaction with people as much as working on the survey tools.”

When not focusing on surveys, Dillman says he enjoys working with “inside flowers in the winter and outside flowers in the summer.” In addition, he’s a “voracious reader,” including many topics other than sociology and surveys. When asked what two books have been most influential, outside of his career field, he pointed to two recent reads:

“Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization,” by Thomas Friedman, and “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” by Jared Diamond.

“If I had my druthers they would be required reading at every college and university in the nation,” Dillman said.

When his fancy turns toward entertainment, he said he enjoys novels by John Grisham.

But, one look at his 23-page vita and you know Dillman’s focus is never far from survey methodology.

“I have told graduate students I have worked with, ‘You’re only as good as your last six months. You have to keep constantly developing your skills.’ Things are changing so fast,” Dillman said. “That’s why I put such emphasis on learning new strategies for survey data collection.

“The specific area I’m working in right now is one that it took me 20 years to find the concepts to investigate. It has to do with how people see and respond to visual stimuli, and the relationship of that to survey measurement and response quality.

“It wasn’t until I worked on the U.S. Census that I had the oppor-tunity to work with others who had such interests and to begin the constant testing of the impacts of visual design elements — brightness, color, type size, and location — on how or even whether people process survey questions. Now with the introduction of Web surveys, the need for visual design has moved from important to critical.”

When asked about his award, Dillman maintains his humble demeanor. “I truly was surprised to hear that I had won the (Eminent Faculty ) award,” Dillman said. “I heard that I’d been nominated, but there are others at WSU who I thought deserved to receive it.”

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