Going Global: Collecting demographic information effectively and appropriately across a variety of global and regional cultures
This article is based on ESOMAR’s ongoing Demographic Series, which can be found on their website here.
Conducting online qualitative research with participants who span multiple time zones, countries, or even continents, comes with a unique set of challenges. On top of making sure that the software you’re using can accommodate this, you also need to ensure that you’re able to conduct the research in a way that is culturally sensitive. This starts with the screener which often includes survey-style demographics questions. But while cultural sensitivity is hugely important, so is consistency – which poses the question: how can we conduct research in a way that allows us to remain sensitive to different cultures, without sacrificing the effectiveness or consistency of the questions we’re asking?
Thankfully for all of us in the research community, the brilliant minds over at ESOMAR have set out to help us answer this question. Last year, they began their Demographics Series, a series of recommendations developed by their Professional Standards Committee on international best practices for asking demographics questions. The series currently offers recommendations for collecting information on Gender, Age, and Working Status, in a way that, when used, should help the research community develop a common demographic structure by collecting the information in a way that is globally consistent.
Before we get into specific demographic categories, there is one question you should always ask yourself before adding a demographic question to a survey or screener, that is:
Do I need to ask this question?
If you already have the information from your sample provider or elsewhere and can use that data instead, avoid asking it again in your survey or screener. Asking participants for the same information repeatedly can cause friction and frustration.
There are multiple reasons you may be asking your participants about their age before they participate in your qualitative research study, including:
- ensuring your sample is representative across a wide range of ages,
- having a study design that calls for a specific age group, or
- wanting to segment your results by age in your reporting.
This may seem like a straightforward question, but there are a wide variety of different question and response types – do you ask how old they are, or for their birthday? Should you ask for their exact age, or for a range? If asking ranges, what should the ranges be? And then there are the cultural nuances and differing global regulations. For example, did you know that in Germany it’s illegal to ask for a participant’s exact birthday? Here’s what ESOMAR recommends:
- When possible, use dropdowns instead of having participants type out their response. Dropdowns are a little less work than typing something out with a keyboard. Believe it or not, the research shows that this can actually cause some unnecessary dropout, so try to stick to dropdowns if possible.
- BUT, make sure participants (especially older ones), don’t have to scroll through a long list to get to their age. Having to do a bunch of scrolling can be frustrating (especially on mobile) and can even make participants who may feel sensitive about their age feel insecure about their response. The solution to this is to present age bands (or ranges) instead, as this will result in fewer options to choose from. Ideally, have the ranges start at 18(the age of majority)-24, and then from there go up by 10 years each (so 25-34, 35-44), all the way up to 95+. The rationale for these bands can be found in the guidelines document here.
- BUT ALSO, ask for a specific age when possible. This helps make data comparisons more useful. You can accomplish this by using a two-step question methodology, where participants first select their age group band, and then select their specific age from a second dropdown. So if I’m 42 years old, I would first select the 35-44 age range, and then I’d be presented with a second dropdown containing the ages 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, and 44, from which I’d pick 42.
If you’re unable to use this method, ESOMAR has a secondary method recommendation involving birth year, which you can find here. Ultimately though, no matter which method you use, avoid asking for the participants exact date of birth (you really only need month and year), as this would fall under the category of Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
When we ask about working status in a survey or screener, what we are usually looking for is the participant’s paid employment status. That is, are they:
- Employed full-time,
- Employed part-time,
- Unemployed, or
- Not working and not looking for work
Simply asking a participant to pick one of these 4 responses presented as-is can pose some issues, though. The term “unemployed” can carry negative connotations, especially when positioned in the latter half of the list, so responses are likely to be biased towards employment. To combat this bias, and collect the information in a way that works across most cultures and geographical regions, ESOMAR recommends that the question be formatted in a way that:
- provides plenty of options for both work and non-working statuses and roles - for example, “studying,” "retired,” or “self-employed.” They should sound neutral (i.e., not phrased in reference to employment like “unemployed”) so that participants don’t feel like their selection carries negative connotations if they aren’t currently in a paid work arrangement. ESOMAR provides a full recommended list of options in their guidelines document here.
- allows participants to choose more than one response – they may feel that selecting only one choice doesn’t tell their whole story. As a researcher, you don’t actually have to code all of the responses, but having the additional options will help promote honesty and ensure you’re getting the information you need.
- in an order which presents the non-working options before the paid working options. Non-working people should see their codes first so that they don’t seem less socially desirable.
While a paid employment status may seem straight-forward, the social connotations mean that special care should be paid to how the question is presented. For a full description of ESOMAR's recommendation, read their report here.
The concept of gender is especially dynamic and culturally sensitive, making it one of the most challenging for researchers to collect in a way that is accurate, consistent, and safe for participants. It’s important to distinguish between gender and sex, as well as between gender and sexual orientation – concepts which are often conflated but which, while often related, can and do exist independently of one another.
- Sex refers to oneself, and is based on biological organs and reproductive functions. It is often, but not always, aligned with one’s
- gender. Often referred to in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is more cultural in nature and is determined by how one identifies themself. The majority of people are cisgender (e.g., they were born biologically male or female and also identify as such), but others do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender is also increasingly seen as non-binary, that is, there are more options than simply being male or female. Gender is different from
- sexual orientation, which refers to who someone may be attracted to in terms of romantic and/or sexual relationships.
When collecting demographic data on the above, it’s important to
- make sure you’re asking about the demographic(s) you actually need,
- acknowledge that sex and gender will not always be the same,
- be inclusive, but also
- be mindful of cultural sensitivities and safety. In some geographical regions, it may not be safe or legal for someone to identify from a gender that is non-binary or is different from the one they were assigned at birth.
ESOMAR recommends asking about gender in the format:
- Another gender [omit this in regions where it would not be safe to answer as such]
- Prefer not to answer
This wording can be adjusted depending on what is culturally acceptable in the region in which the research is being conducted. For a full description of suggested wording, considerations, and cultural nuances, you can read ESOMAR’s best practice recommendations on asking about gender here.