The Social and Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC) is celebrating 50 years of conducting social science research for Washington State University and others in need of information on people’s opinions and behaviors.
This 50th anniversary celebration comes during a year with a “perfect storm” of seemingly intractable problems: racial injustice, climate change, and a global pandemic with all of its effects on businesses and daily lives. It is fitting to note that the SESRC – originally named the Social Research Center – and its Public Opinion Laboratory were created during another turbulent year: 1970.
Don Dillman, deputy director for research and development at the SESRC and the author of “The Tailored Design Method,” the SESRC’s blueprint of survey methodology, says, “Without a doubt, 1970 was the most intense year in my 51 years at WSU.”
Founding the Center
The SESRC began in response to student protests that temporarily closed down WSU. The Viet Nam War had created enormous frustration and division, and the U.S. invading Cambodia in 1970 unleashed waves of criticism nationwide. The focus of frustration shifted after a number of racially charged events from January 1969 to May 1970 involving Black WSU students.
As a result, students at WSU marched on the French Administration Building lawn and the residence of then-WSU President Glenn Terrell, insisting that the president do “something.” Students requested University leadership to respond to a list of 11 Black student demands to resolve racism concerns. As tensions built, Dillman recalls, “I, along with other faculty, was asked to spend a few night hours in our office buildings ‘to protect’ them.”
Students and many faculty went on strike during the spring semester of 1970. To resolve the conflict, President Terrell made a controversial decision. He agreed to the cancellation of two days of classes to hold racism workshops, as they were called at the time, for all members of the WSU community.
“Many local residents and people throughout the state were reported as being upset at what students and faculty were doing,” said Dillman.
In the midst of this unrest, James F. Short, Jr., founding director of SESRC, and Melvin Defleur, chair of sociology, proposed to President Terrell that they could create a telephone survey laboratory to learn what students and others in the community were thinking. The president agreed. Dillman was asked to form the Public Opinion Laboratory, install phones, hire interviewers, and provide results. Dillman, an assistant professor at the time, recalls being stunned by this request.
“Professional surveyors did not do telephone surveys in those days; only in-person interviews were considered scientifically legitimate,” said Dillman. “But since I had done a single telephone survey in 1969 just prior to coming to WSU, I was assigned the task. Most importantly, however, those two racism workshops and people’s attitudes needed to be understood.”
After four days of telephone calling, the center achieved an 85% response rate, reaching almost all of the students. Short recalled years later that the WSU Board of Regents was astonished, yet relieved, by the survey results, which revealed broad positive support for the racism workshops. Previously, they had only heard from individuals voicing complaints.
Dillman recounts, “We found that people were cooperative so it only made sense for us to continue conducting telephone surveys for other pressing issues where public opinion was needed.”
Leading the Way for Survey Methods and Innovation: 1970s and 1980s
The SESRC established itself as a survey innovator early in its existence. SESRC developed methods for doing effective telephone and mail surveys that quickly caught on across the University. In the same timeframe, Dillman released the first edition of his book, titled “Mail and Telephone surveys: The Total Design Method.” This is the foundation of survey methodology that provided the scientific basis for applying probability sampling and social exchange theory to ensure valid survey results.
When John Tarnai joined the center as assistant director in the early 1980s, he immediately formed a team of researchers and programmers to build a micro-computer-assisted telephone interviewing system, one of the first in the world. The system enabled significant advancements in the effectiveness of telephone interviewing, which was rapidly becoming the dominant mode for survey research.
In 1985, Dillman agreed to become the SESRC’s director, serving in the position until 1996.
“When I became director, we started applying for and getting grants, which then allowed us to hire a full-time staff,” said Dillman. “The existence of the SESRC with approximately 20 full-time staff members, supported almost entirely by outside funds, made it possible to continually run experiments to test and then implement new ways of doing surveys.”
Years of Growth and Expansion: 1990s through 2010s
Tarnai became the director of the SESRC in 1996. Under his leadership, the SESRC expanded, moving its telephone interviewing and mailing facilities to the WSU Research Park and adding the Puget Sound Division to better respond to state agencies’ research needs.
In 1998, the SESRC was among the first to conduct and publish methods for doing surveys over the internet. Nearly a decade of research followed that provided the theoretical understanding of how people processed aural (interview) and visual (web and mail) survey formats. The SESRC team then conducted experiments to test their hypothesis. Results from the experiments produced evidence that supported their theory. This research showed how mode differences in survey responses could be mostly eliminated, paving the way to perhaps the most important research accomplishment of the SESRC: the creation and testing of web-push methods for improving survey response and data quality.
The web-push method uses postal address lists to ask households to respond via the internet and then follows up with a paper survey for those who have not yet respond. This method is now being used throughout the world for conducting censuses and surveys. The impact of this research resulted in Dillman and five sociology graduate students receiving the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s 2017 Warren J. Mitofsky Innovator Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the field of public opinion research.
Maintaining its innovative edge in survey methods, the SESRC has had its own proprietary web survey platform since the 1990s, a first-of-its-kind when it was created. To this day, the SESRC continues to develop its proprietary online tools, not only to collect online survey data, but also to accommodate mixed mode surveys, often combining mail, internet and telephone data collection in a single survey to improve response rates and data quality. More recently, SESRC has expanded its capacity to meet the demand for survey mailings by adding commercial-grade printing and mailing facilities. The SESRC’s data collection and telephone lab is the largest academic facility in the Western United States.
In 2014, the SESRC welcomed its current director, Lena Le, who previously served as the director of the Park Studies Unit at the University of Idaho. Le has over a decade of survey expertise and a wealth of experience working with public land management agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and state park agencies. The SESRC now hosts a database of 25 years of social science research collected via visitor surveys at national parks. This is the largest collection of its kind in the nation.
Moving into the Future: 2020 and Beyond
Dillman’s collaborations with the SESRC and his Tailored Design Method have become the foundation for SESRC’s approach to conducting surveys. The 4th edition (2014) of Dillman’s book is perhaps the most used reference in the world for designing surveys, according to Google Scholar.
As Le looks ahead to the next 50 years, providing clients with high quality first-hand public opinion data is the number one focus for the SESRC team. The center especially takes pride in the degree of care it invests in to meet clients’ needs while maintaining integrity standards of the scientific process.
“We are investing a lot into our infrastructure and training our employees to ensure that we can meet our clients’ needs,” said Le. “We also continue to experiment with methodologies as new technologies gain popularity.”
The SESRC has many achievements to celebrate during its 50 years of history. Short, Dillman, and Tarnai laid a strong foundation for the center. To date, the SESRC has surveyed well over a million people with mail, telephone, internet, or mixed-mode data collection. Several generations of researchers have since joined the team; many have been with the center for 20 to 30 years. Others continue to join as the center expands its operations, bringing new ideas, skills, and solutions to move the center forward.
Dillman added, “It started with telephone, but now surveys include mail, the internet, and smartphones. You have to prepare for things to change. We’re really good at adapting.”
The SESRC provides a specialized, holistic approach to social science research. While conducting surveys is the core of the SESRC’s operation, the center continues to expand its services, supporting researchers and policymakers within and outside WSU by offering a wide array of services, including proposal writing, training, consultation, research design, implementation, data collection, data analysis, database development, program evaluation, policy analysis, and workforce/labor market analysis.
To learn more about the SESRC, visit https://sesrc.wsu.edu/.