Updating a Time-Series of Survey Questions: The Case of Abortion Attitudes in the General Social Survey

Sarah K. Cowan, Michael Hout, Stuart Perrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Long-running surveys need a systematic way to reflect social change and to keep items relevant to respondents, especially when they ask about controversial subjects, or they threaten the items’ validity. We propose a protocol for updating measures that preserves content and construct validity. First, substantive experts articulate the current and anticipated future terms of debate. Then survey experts use this substantive input and their knowledge of existing measures to develop and pilot a large battery of new items. Third, researchers analyze the pilot data to select items for the survey of record. Finally, the items appear on the survey-of-record, available to the whole user community. Surveys-of-record have procedures for changing content that determine if the new items appear just once or become part of the core. We provide the example of developing new abortion attitude measures in the General Social Survey. Current questions ask whether abortion should be legal under varying circumstances. The new abortion items ask about morality, access, state policy, and interpersonal dynamics. They improve content and construct validity and add new insights into Americans’ abortion attitudes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-234
Number of pages42
JournalSociological Methods and Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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