Openended Questions

Open-ended questions include items where the actual question is not followed by response options for the respondent to choose from but rather by some blank space (e.g., dotted lines) for the respondent to fill. As we have seen in the previous chapter (in Section 1.3), questionnaires are not particularly suited for truly qualitative, exploratory research. Accordingly, they tend to have few open-ended questions and even the ones included are relatively short, with their 'openness' somehow restricted. Questionnaires are not the right place for essay questions.

In spite of this inherent limitation of the questionnaire as a research instrument (namely that due to the relatively short and superficial engagement of the respondents it cannot aim at more than obtaining a superficial, "thin" description of the target) open-ended questions still have merits. Although we cannot expect any soul-searching self-disclosure in the responses, by permitting greater freedom of expression, open-format items can provide a far greater "richness" than fully quantitative data. The open responses can offer graphic examples, illustrative quotes, and can also lead us to identify issues not previously anticipated. Furthermore, sometimes we need open-ended items for the simple reason that we do not know the range of possible answers and therefore cannot provide pre-prepared response categories. Oppenheim (1992) also points out that in some cases there may actually be good reasons for asking the same question both in an open and closed form.

The other side of the coin is that open-ended questions have certain serious disadvantages, most notably the following two:

• They take up precious 'respondent-availability time' and thus restrict the range of topics the questionnaire can contain.

• They are difficult to code in a reliable manner.

Because of these considerations, professional questionnaires tend not to include any real open-ended items; yet, my recommendation is that it might be worth experimenting with including some. Research ers agree that truly open questions (i.e., the ones that require quite a bit of writing) should be placed at the end rather than at the beginning of the questionnaire. In this way, they are not answered at the expense of the closed items: they do not discourage people from completing the questionnaire and do not prevent those who get bogged down with them from answering the other questions.

In my experience, open-ended questions work particularly well if they are not completely open but contain certain guidance. In the following we will look at four techniques to provide such guidance.

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