Key Issues in International Survey Research

Explores the key challenges in international survey research at different stages of the research process

B. Sebastian Reiche, IESE Business School, University of Navarra
Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, University of Melbourne

© Copyright 2007 B. Sebastian Reiche and Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved.
Second version, 26 June 2007

A revised and substantially expanded version of this white paper is published in European Journal of International Management.

  • Harzing, A.W.; Reiche B.S.; Pudelko, M. (2013) Challenges in international survey research: A review with illustrations and suggested solutions for best practice, European Journal of International Management, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 112-134. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access!)


In contrast to what the wealth of textbooks on conducting empirical research seem to indicate, the actual research process is quite messy in nature. In fact, it can be viewed “as a set of dilemmas to be ‘lived with’; and […] as an effort to keep from becoming impaled on one or another horn of one or more of these dilemmas“ (McGrath, 1982: 69). From this perspective, embarking on a cross-national research project introduces many additional dilemmas. In this paper, we make an attempt to explore these issues in more detail and offer possible solutions to address them. While cross-cultural investigation is not limited to survey research but includes a range of qualitative methods of data collection (see Marschan-Piekkari & Welch, 2004 for a good overview), we focus our discussion on the collection of international and cross-cultural data through questionnaires. We begin by identifying key methodological challenges in cross-cultural survey research. Subsequently, we describe several research practices to cope with these challenges, structuring our discussion along the various stages of the research process.

Methodological Challenges in Cross-Cultural Research

Compared with domestic research, international cross-cultural research faces additional methodological challenges that, if not properly addressed, may considerably increase the risk of inferential errors (Singh, 1995). Indeed, the literature emphasizes that constructs and concepts may entail culture-specific attributes and meanings which need to be explicitly taken into account to ensure sound interpretation of cross-cultural data (Peng, Peterson, & Shyi, 1991). In a similar vein, there is evidence that the language of the questionnaire affects the way respondents answer the same question which argues against the use of single-language surveying (Harzing, Maznevski, & country collaborators, 2002). These arguments require cross-cultural researchers to systematically establish equivalence in terms of their adopted constructs, measures and samples (Mullen, 1995; Sekaran, 1983; Singh, 1995).

To determine which methodological issues are most relevant, it is crucial to characterize a given research project in terms of its approach to cross-cultural research. In this regard, Adler (1983) distinguishes between six orientations to investigating cross-cultural management issues – parochial, ethnocentric, polycentric, comparative, geocentric and synergistic research. The approaches and their main characteristics are compiled in Table 1.

Title Culture Type of Study Approach to Similarity and Difference Primary Question Main Methodological Issues
Parochial Research Single culture studies Domestic management studies Assumed similarity What is the behaviour of people like in organizations? Study is only applicable to management in one culture and yet it is assumed to be applicable to management in many cultures. Traditional methodologies: All of the traditional methodological issues concerning design, sampling, instrumentation, analysis and interpretation without reference to culture.
Ethnocentric Research Second culture studies Replication in foreign cultures of domestic management studies Search for similarity Can we use home country theories abroad? Can this theory which is applicable to organizations in Culture A be extended to organizations in Culture B? Standardization and translation: How can management research be standardized across culture? How can instruments be literally translated? Replication should be identical to original study with the exception of language.
Polycentric Research Studies in many cultures Individual studies of organizations in specific foreign cultures Search for difference How do managers manage and employees behave in country X? What is the pattern of organizational relationships in country X? Description: How can country X’s organizations be studied without either using home country theories or models and without using obtrusive measures? Focus is on inductive methods and unobtrusive measures.
Comparative Research Studies contrasting many cultures Studies comparing organizations in many foreign cultures Search for both similarity and difference How are the management and employee styles similar and different across cultures? Which theories hold across cultures and which do not? Equivalence: Is the methodology equivalent at each stage in the research process? Are the meanings of key concepts defined equivalently? Has the research been designed such that the samples, instrumentation, administration, analysis and interpretation are equivalent with reference to the cultures included?
Geocentric Research International management studies Studies of multinational organizations Search for similarity How do MNCs function? Geographic dispersion: All of the traditional methodological questions are relevant with the added complexity of geographical distance. Translation is often less of a problem since most MNCs have a common language across all countries in which they operate. The primary question is to develop an approach for studying the complexity of large organizations. Culture is often ignored.
Synergistic Research Intercultural management studies Studies of intercultural interaction within work settings Use of similarities and differences as a resource How can the intercultural interaction within a domestic or international organization be managed? How can organizations create structures and processes which will be effective in working with members of all cultures? Interaction models and integrating processes: What are effective ways to study cross-cultural interaction within organizational settings? How can universal and culturally specific patterns of management be distinguished? What is the appropriate balance between culturally specific and universal processes within one organization? How can the proactive use of cultural differences to create universally accepted organizational patterns be studied?

The six approaches to cross-cultural research vary in terms of their methodological issues and thus require different measures to cope with the underlying research process. Whereas parochial research reflects what we would consider a domestic research setting, ethnocentric research replicates domestic studies in another culture. In the latter approach, a key methodological challenge involves the translation of questionnaire items into the language of the research setting. Polycentric research concerns the study of the particularities of certain cultures or those of organizations operating in these specific cultures. Implicit to this approach is the need to use measures that have been developed in the given culture and reflect its idiosyncrasies. In many cases, especially in less researched settings such as developing countries (Bulmer & Warwick, 1983), such measures are not readily available, thus requiring the researcher to develop new scales. This may involve close collaboration with local researchers who can serve as cultural mediators.

Comparative research aims at contrasting two or more cultures, or organizations operating in these cultures. For example, a researcher may be interested in examining to which extent feelings of organizational identification vary across cultures. In order to draw meaningful inferences from the study, the researcher needs to ensure equivalence throughout the entire research process. Most importantly, the construct of interest, in the current example organizational identification, requires equivalent treatment in all cultures under study. This will only be the case if (1) the construct serves the same function (functional equivalence), (2) is expressed in similar attitudes or behaviours (conceptual equivalence), and (3) entails identical interpretation of the scale items, response categories and questionnaire stimuli across the respective cultures as shown by similar patterns of item-to-measure correlation (metric or instrumental equivalence) (Harpaz, 2003; Singh, 1995). In addition, the survey administration may require different channels. For example, online surveys may be an inadequate means of data collection in less developed countries or rural areas where broadband access is not as widely available.

Geocentric research is primarily concerned with the study of multinational companies (MNCs) that are dispersed across different locations and maintain complex interrelationships. The current interest in studying how knowledge that resides in different geographically dispersed company units is diffused within a MNC (Foss & Pedersen, 2004) provides an example for this approach. Accordingly, the geographical dispersion of the different social entities under study poses a main methodological challenge. While this is a central concern in qualitative methods of data collection, the use of surveys, especially web-based surveys, can alleviate this concern. Although cultural differences and idiosyncrasies are often secondary to this line of research, they form an integral part of any geocentric research project and, if not adequately controlled for, can lead to biased interpretations. In the previous example, it is likely that knowledge sharing processes are contingent upon how individuals across cultures process and make sense of new information (Bhaghat, Kedia, Harveston, & Triandis, 2002) and the extent to which they interact with one another (Wang & Kanungo, 2004).

Finally, synergistic research deals with cross-cultural interactions in organizations. International assignment research serves as a prime example for this approach as international assignees directly interact with individuals from different cultural backgrounds during their assignment. In contrast to the other types of cross-cultural research, synergistic research concentrates on understanding the interaction between individuals from different cultures rather than describing specific cultures (Adler, 1983). This involves an identification of particular MNC structures and processes that are effective for the cross-cultural collaboration between organizational members. Given the large number of different cultural groups in MNCs, these research aims substantially increase the level of complexity involved in the research project. Depending on which cultural groups are included in the analysis, the researcher may draw different conclusions concerning the universality or culture-specificity of certain behaviours and processes. In the case of international assignment research, this problem may, for example, be alleviated by holding the assignment culture constant, thus focusing on the cultural particularities of the individual actor with regard to a given cultural context. This facilitates the assessment of where cultural influences occur and where such influence does not exist. In the following sections, we will discuss in more detail the various methodological challenges identified above.

Data Access and Study Population

Any research project is dependent on access to sufficient data in order to address the research questions of interest. In an international research context, data access concerns not only securing an appropriate sample but also ensuring that all data can be feasibly collected given the additional cost that are involved in cross-border mail, telephone and fax correspondence. The survey population is a crucial concept in empirical research as it determines the set of entities from which the sample can be drawn and affects both the internal and external validity of a study’s results (Reynolds, Simintiras, & Diamantopoulos, 2003). Internal validity refers to the extent to which the manipulation of an independent variable is the sole cause of change in a dependent variable. In contrast, external validity concerns the generalizability of the results to the external environment (Zikmund, 2003). Internal validity is threatened if the observed results are influenced by the confounding effects of extraneous variables. To control for possible extraneous variation, it is important to select a homogenous population (Reynolds et al., 2003). In this vein, Sekaran (1983) highlights the use of matched samples that are functionally equivalent across the countries of interest but not necessarily identical. In the earlier example of international assignment research, this may entail the focus on one particular group of assignees (e.g., inpatriates or short-term assignees) from different countries-of-origin. At the organizational level, this may involve limiting the analysis to MNCs of comparable size, industry affiliation or internationalization experience.

A systematic way to identify all organizations that form part of the target population is the use of data bases with information on company profiles and respective contact details (e.g., Hoover’s Handbook of World Business) in combination with local address books. In most cases it is appropriate to address a request letter or email to either the managing director or, if individual employees serve as the primary unit of analysis, the HR director. As managing directors rotate frequently and address data bases may not be regularly updated, it is advisable to confirm the personal details prior to sending out the request (Harzing, 1999).

Given that response rates from cold calls tend to be low, other strategies are necessary to gain data access. For example, it is beneficial to contact international professional organizations (e.g., IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), attend international academic conferences that place a strong focus on practitioner issues (e.g., Conference of the International Council for Small Business) or participate in conferences hosted by business schools (e.g., FuBuTec conference at INSEAD). Another strategy is to contact consultancies specializing in specific services that are relevant to a given research project. Consulting firms maintain a comprehensive client data base and may be willing to share this information in return for access to the research results.

The inclusion of local collaborators in the specific countries of interest not only serves as an additional means to gain access to local companies but, importantly, also helps to manage the international data collection process (Harzing & 32 country collaborators, 2005; Harzing et al., 2002; House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004). Indeed, local collaborators can collect the data on-site and return the responses in one batch, thereby facilitating the data transmission. Also, they provide additional credibility to the research project in the local context which may help to increase response rates and local collaborators may help with the interpretation of culture-specific findings (Harpaz, 2003). Finally, research that involves developing countries is plagued by additional challenges of data access such as lack of communication infrastructure and literacy problems (see Bulmer & Warwick, 1983 for an overview).

Survey Development

When developing a survey, three methodological issues require special attention in an international research context: (1) choice of survey type, (2) the use of measurement scales that capture equivalent concepts across cultures, and (3) survey language(s). We will discuss each separately in the following sections.

Survey type

Different methods of survey administration exist, namely surveying by face-to-face interview, telephone, fax, mail and internet (Fowler, 2002). In the case of large-scale international survey research, both face-to-face and telephone interviews are usually not feasible in terms of the costs involved. Additionally, substantial time-zone differences between the researcher’s and the respondents’ location limit the available time frame for scheduling and conducting telephone conversations. In a similar vein, the scarce research assessing the effectiveness of fax surveys indicates that their response rates tend to be lower than traditional mail surveys (Tse & Ching, 1994). These limitations have led the majority of international researchers to rely on paper-and-pencil surveys administered by postal mail.

However, traditional mail surveys are not without problems. Mailing times can be substantial, thus delaying the data collection process. Also, the use of international prepaid postal coupons adds significant extra costs to the research project and there is some concern about the reliability of postal services in less developed countries (Harpaz, 2003). In this vein, researchers increasingly emphasize the use of internet-based surveys as an effective alternative (Dillman, 2000; Hewson, Yule, Laurent, & Vogel, 2003). Generally, surveys administered via the internet offer several advantages over paper-and-pencil surveys. For example, internet-based questionnaire distribution involves lower cost as well as higher transmission and response speed (Bachmann, Elfrink, & Vazzana, 1996; Mehta & Sivadas, 1995; Sproull, 1986), which is of particular importance in an international research context. In addition, web-based surveying entails time and cost savings with regard to data entry and reduces the risk of data entry errors as respondent data can be automatically transformed into a format ready for analysis (Hewson et al., 2003). Especially for studies covering a large number of different cultures and addressing respondents that possess unrestricted access to broadband internet connections, web-based surveys appear a fruitful approach.

Item generation

Questionnaire design involves the decision about which items will best reflect the underlying construct the research wishes to measure. Although a wealth of existing scales is available for measuring constructs in the management discipline, these scales may not be easily transferable to a different cultural context. Implicit to this argument is the issue of construct equivalence in cross-cultural research referred to earlier.

In general, whether construct equivalence can be established is contingent upon the type of perspective the researcher takes towards the study of culture, namely emic or etic. Originating in a linguistic distinction between phonemics and phonetics (Pike, 1966), the emic approach emphasizes the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society whereas the etic perspective attempts to derive commonalities between cultures. Therefore, when the research project aims at an emic approach, it will be restricted to uni-cultural or polycentric inquiry (Peng et al., 1991). Ethnographic studies serve as a key method to address such research issues. In contrast, survey research is primarily useful for etic considerations as it allows for cross-cultural comparisons.

Even in the case of an etic research perspective, establishing construct equivalence encompasses various difficulties. For example, Adler, Campbell and Laurent (1989) failed to validly and reliably describe management behaviour in China as some of their measurement items contained the Western notion of ‘truth’ not applicable to Confucian philosophy. Thus, a construct can only be meaningfully measured across cultures if it is based on a universally applicable concept in these cultures, that is, is conceptually equivalent. In this regard, while questionnaire translation (see next section) is necessary to ‘clarify’ construct elements in the local language and frame of reference it is an insufficient condition for establishing conceptual equivalence (Peng et al., 1991). Rather, in many cases the original scale will need to be re-constructed and existing items complemented with additional questions to appropriately capture the underlying construct. Again, the use of multinational research teams whose members are familiar with the respective local cultures may help to overcome problems related to adapting measurement scales (Harpaz, 2003). Key to a meaningful modification of existing measurement scales is a sound process of scale development (see Hinkin, 1995 for a good overview on scale development practices).

Survey language

The choice of survey language will be primarily determined by respondents’ language proficiencies. In the case of surveying MNCs’ managerial employees who are likely to possess a sufficient level of English and have been exposed to similar tertiary education in business schools around the world, the use of single-language surveys in English may be adequate. At the same time, research shows that English-language questionnaires lead to significantly less extreme response styles than questionnaires in a respondent’s native language, thus underestimating cross-country differences (Harzing, 2006). Especially if both native and non-native English speakers are included in an international survey, survey translation into the respective local language appears crucial.

As many concepts and terms entail culture-specific connotations, their mere direct translation is unlikely to transport the intended meaning. For example, the concept of feedback differs substantially across cultures. Whereas it is usually viewed as a direct, open and formalized process in the U.S. or the U.K., many Asian countries regard feedback as a more indirect, anonymous and informal procedure (Hofstede, 1998). Without clearly specifying the intended meaning of the concept in the translated questionnaire, the researcher risks introducing systematic bias. A meaningful translation of the original version of the questionnaire requires a researcher not only to ensure overall conceptual equivalence but also to consider vocabulary, idiomatic and syntactical equivalence (Sekaran, 1983). In this vein, Brislin (1980) has suggested to use simple sentence structures as well as clear and familiar wording as much as possible to facilitate translation. In addition, by adding redundancy and necessary context for difficult phrases, the researcher is able to clarify the intended meaning.

The most frequently employed translation technique is back-translation (Brislin, 1970). In this procedure, the original version of the questionnaire is translated into the target language and subsequently translated back into the source language by a second bilingual person. The use of two independent translators increases the chances that the original meaning has been retained, ensures literal accuracy and helps to detect mistakes. However, given the earlier notion that corresponding concepts may not always exist in another language, back-translation does not guarantee overall conceptual equivalence (Peng et al., 1991). Harpaz (2003) identifies two additional translation techniques: bilingual method and committee procedure. The former approach involves sending the original and the translated questionnaire to bilingual individuals and subsequently correcting items based on inconsistencies in their responses. In contrast, in the latter approach a committee consisting of bilingual individuals translates the questionnaire jointly and discusses possible mistakes or difficulties. Finally, to cross-check for possible translation mistakes and to ensure comprehension of the translated questionnaire among respondents, pilot testing is particularly important in international research.

Survey Process and Response Rates

Similar to survey development, the survey and data collection process is likely to also require substantially more time than in domestic research. This is not least due to the need to manage different language versions of the questionnaire, coordinate with country collaborators and, in some cases, to even employ different means of survey administration in order to accommodate respondents’ different levels of technological proficiency. In addition, ideal times for distributing the survey may vary across countries. For example, countries have different public holidays, different peak holiday periods and even differ in terms of their end of financial year dates, which usually correspond to an increased workload for employees. However, the timing of data collection not only affects its overall length but can also influence the results. Research, for instance, has shown that the September 11 attacks had an impact on cultural values and the level of cosmopolitanism of U.S. university students (Olivas-Luján, Harzing, & McCoy, 2004).

A key challenge in any survey research is to maximize the study’s response rate. Overall response rates have been found to differ significantly, both across different professions and occupational groups as well as across countries. For example, evidence suggests that response rates of managerial employees are lower than those of non-managerial staff (Baruch, 1999). In a recent meta-analysis, Cycyota and Harrison (2006) identified an overall top manager response rate of 32%. In an international research context, these rates are, on average, likely to represent an upper boundary. In addition, research has identified considerable cross-national differences that are partly contingent upon the researcher’s origin. Harzing (2000), for instance, showed that respondents were geographically and culturally closer to the research project’s originating country, were more internationally oriented and came from countries with a lower level of power distance than non-respondents.

Several factors have been found to influence response rates in domestic research and will exert differential effects across cultural research contexts. We will discuss three categories of strategies to increase response rates: strategies related to the questionnaire design, the survey process and offered incentives (Dillman, 2000; Zikmund, 2003). First, survey appearance is a widely accepted determinant of response rates. Questionnaires should be user-friendly and have a professional layout. It is also important to personalize the correspondence with potential respondents, by using real signatures and addressing respondents individually. However, whether a survey appears well-designed to the individual respondent is highly subjective and may vary considerably across cultures: Certain colours and pictures used on the cover page or throughout the survey can have culture-specific connotations, which may require slight adaptations of the survey design. Again, country collaborators and pre-tests with individuals from the target culture may facilitate this process. In addition, overall questionnaire length is considered an important predictor of response rates (e.g., Berdie, 1973; Tomaskovich-Devey, Leiter, & Thompson, 1994), yet may vary considerably across different languages. A questionnaire translated from its original English version into German or Finnish can easily be one or two pages longer, thereby affecting respondents’ decision whether or not to complete the survey. Before making a final decision about the overall survey length and thus the number of measurement scales to include, the original version should be translated into all required languages first. It is also important to note that due to respondents’ different levels of language proficiency and general educational background, the average time to complete a survey may vary. It is therefore recommendable to provide respondents with a range rather than a specific estimate for the survey completion time.

Second, there are various strategies to increase response rates that concern the actual survey process. In general, it is beneficial to follow a multi-stage survey process that includes the circulation of an announcement letter and the distribution of reminders (Dillman, 2000). In addition to the actual questionnaire, these may also need to be translated into the local language. In the case of using single-language surveys, it is at the very least necessary to include a note in the local language in case the survey is forwarded by a colleague or secretary. It is particularly important to seek sponsorship for the study given the geographical and cultural distance between the researcher and the respondents. Sponsorship can be provided by an international professional organization, through an international committee of recommendations that includes local university representatives from every target country (Harzing, 1999) or, at the level of the individual unit of analysis, of the respective participating organizations. It often takes the form of an explicit letter of endorsement that can be attached to the actual cover letter, expressing support for the study and asking for participation.

Third, the use of incentives is widely accepted to increase survey response rates. In an international research context, the inclusion of financial tokens, which have been shown to increase response rates (Dillman, 2000), is difficult to administer, both due to currency differences as well as possible differences in ethical perceptions. From this perspective, non-financial incentives may be preferable. This may entail the inclusion of a ‘Thank you’ note in the reminder letters, thereby thanking those who have already completed the survey. Also, providing respondents with a summary report of the overall research results and recommendations of the study is beneficial. Organizations may be particularly interested in benchmarking themselves against other firms. Other non-monetary incentives may include the attachment of tea or instant coffee bags (Harzing, 1999). Again, local adaptation is likely to result in an increased effect.

Data Analysis and Publication

In the case of comparative and synergistic and, to a lesser extent in geocentric, cross-cultural research, the effect of cultural differences has to be explicitly taken into account in order to draw meaningful inferences from the survey results. In this regard, several statistical approaches have been developed to test for and establish cross-cultural equivalence. A first set of techniques are based on item response theory which examines statistical relationships between item responses and the latent attributes that are reflected by combinations of specific items. If these statistical relationships and thus item response distributions reveal similar patterns for constructs measured in different languages, it is assumed that construct equivalence is possible (Peng et al., 1991). In a different vein, Riordan and Vandenberg (1994) apply a covariance structure analytic procedure to test the stability and transferability of self-report measures in cross-cultural research. Similarly, Mullen (1995) applies Multiple Group LISREL and Optimal Scaling techniques to the diagnosis of cross-cultural equivalence. However, a main drawback inherent in these methods is the need to have equally-sized groups in order to model comparisons which may be difficult to achieve when multiple cultural groups are considered. As mentioned earlier, local collaborators and even other local academics volunteering to peer-review the results can serve as an important source for interpreting the findings within the scope of the local cultural and institutional context.

When writing up the research results for publication, it is important to explicitly discuss and convince potential reviewers and editors why the research project warrants an international rather than domestic design, especially in the case of targeting general management and organizational studies outlets. Whereas this will be evident in comparative cross-cultural research, several issues related to the study of MNCs, for example, may apply to domestic organizations as well, which is why the researcher needs to clarify the conceptual idiosyncrasy of the research context (Roth & Kostova, 2003). Of course, a unique research contribution should be established prior to starting data collection but an explicit justification of conducting international survey research along with a discussion of the distinct methodological issues provides a stronger rationale that reviewers and editors may buy into.


Conducting meaningful international survey research is prone to additional difficulties and complexities and can easily discourage researchers from initiating cross-cultural inquiry in the first place. Given these problems, many areas in the field of international management are still largely under-researched and provide ample opportunities to advance our knowledge in this domain. We hope that by identifying some of the key issues in international survey research and offering various solutions we are able to promote such future research. Addressing the issues raised in this paper will contribute to a more rigid and sound conduct of research across cultures.


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Further reading

  • Schaffer, B. S., & Riordan, C. M. (2003). A Review of Cross-Cultural Methodologies for Organizational Research: A Best-Practices Approach. Organizational Research Methods, 6(2): 169-215.
  • Tsui, A. S., Nifadkar, S. S., & Ou, A. Y. (2007). Cross-National, Cross-Cultural Organizational Behavior Research: Advances, Gaps, and Recommendations. Journal of Management, 33(3): 426-478.

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