I. Introduction

Sample surveys are used to describe or enumerate the beliefs, attitudes, or behavior of persons or other social units.1 Surveys typically are offered in legal proceedings to establish or refute claims about the characteristics of those individuals or social units (e.g., whether consumers are likely to be misled by the claims contained in an allegedly deceptive advertisement;2 which qualities purchasers focus on in making decisions about buying new computer systems).3 In a broader sense, a survey can describe or enumerate the attributes of any units, including animals and objects.4 We focus here primarily on sample surveys, which must deal not only with issues of population definition, sampling, and measurement common to all surveys, but also with the specialized issues that arise in obtaining information from human respondents.

In principle, surveys may count or measure every member of the relevant population (e.g., all plaintiffs eligible to join in a suit, all employees currently working for a corporation, all trees in a forest). In practice, surveys typically count or measure only a portion of the individuals or other units that the survey is intended to describe (e.g., a sample of jury-eligible citizens, a sample of potential job applicants). In either case, the goal is to provide information on the relevant population from which the sample was drawn. Sample surveys can be carried out using probability or nonprobability sampling techniques. Although probability sampling offers important advantages over nonprobability sampling,5 experts in some fields (e.g., marketing) regularly rely on various forms of nonprobability sampling when conducting surveys. Consistent with Federal Rule of Evidence 703, courts generally have accepted such evidence.6 Thus, in this reference guide, both the probability sample and the nonprobability sample are discussed. The strengths of probability sampling and the weaknesses of various types of nonprobability sampling are described.

1. Sample surveys conducted by social scientists “consist of (relatively) systematic, (mostly) standardized approaches to collecting information on individuals, households, organizations, or larger organized entities through questioning systematically identified samples.” James D. Wright & Peter V. Marsden, Survey Research and Social Science: History, Current Practice, and Future Prospects, in Handbook of Survey Research 1, 3 (James D. Wright & Peter V. Marsden eds., 2d ed. 2010).

2. See Sanderson Farms v. Tyson Foods, 547 F. Supp. 2d 491 (D. Md. 2008).

3. See SMS Sys. Maint. Servs. v. Digital Equip. Corp., 118 F.3d 11, 30 (1st Cir. 1999). For other examples, see notes 19–32 and accompanying text.

4. In J.H. Miles & Co. v. Brown, 910 F. Supp. 1138 (E.D. Va. 1995), clam processors and fishing vessel owners sued the Secretary of Commerce for failing to use the unexpectedly high results from 1994 survey data on the size of the clam population to determine clam fishing quotas for 1995. The estimate of clam abundance is obtained from surveys of the amount of fishing time the research survey vessels require to collect a specified yield of clams in major fishing areas over a period of several weeks. Id. at 1144–45.

5. See infra Section III.C.

6. Fed. R. Evid. 703 recognizes facts or data “of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular field….”

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