We label questions “sensitive” if their object is potentially threatening, controversial, intrusive, or objectionable. These sorts of questions are those that encourage socially desirable responding, the term used to describe respondents’ propensity to answer in a way that aligns with social norms. Questions about normative behaviors and attitudes are often similarly labeled. But for whom and in
which contexts are these questions sensitive? I review theories behind sensitive questions and related concepts, social desirability and impression management, in survey data collection. The limitations of conventional understandings are outlined and a new approach is introduced based in the self-views of the respondent. I argue that conventional understandings that rely on subjective assessments of question sensitivity or respondents’ concern over the interviewer’s impression of them are incomplete and include residual variation that may be explained with an alternative theoretical approach. An identity-based approach rooted in how respondents see themselves vis-à-vis their identities affords a more complete and effective understanding of socially desirable responding than conventional explanations.
Presentation by Professor Philip Brenner of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.