Survey researcher Eleanor Singer dies at 87

June 4, 2017

Photo of Eleanor SingerANN ARBOR – Eleanor Singer, academic survey researcher and research professor emerita of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), died on June 3, 2017. She was 87.

“Eleanor was a major figure in the field of survey methodology and she will be greatly missed by all who knew her,” says ISR Director David Lam. “We are fortunate that she spent the last decades of her illustrious career at ISR, where she made major contributions to research, training, and the intellectual life of the Institute.”

A self-proclaimed “social psychologist at heart,” Singer was a respected authority on American public opinion and the ethical practice of academic survey research. Her fascination with sources of error in surveys, and with human behavior in survey conditions, inspired a prolific research career beginning in 1975. Among her significant accomplishments was her decade-long editorship at Public Opinion Quarterly, a role that elevated survey methodology as an academic discipline, according to U-M political scientist Michael Traugott.

“Eleanor was editor of Public Opinion Quarterly at a time when survey research and public opinion research became established in the university setting,” says Traugot. “By her selection of content and manuscripts, she — in a very important but subtle way — promoted and encouraged the study of academic survey methods as well as the current state of knowledge that is very important to survey researchers.”

In 1994, Singer was recruited as a research professor at the ISR. Bob Groves, who later became the director of the Survey Research Center (SRC), brought her to Ann Arbor to join a new survey methodology program, and knew Singer to be “central to the intellectual heart of the field.”

“Eleanor was one of those productive scientists who was also an incredible magnet for collaboration,” says Groves. “She ended up collaborating with half of the people in the building, was known as a wonderful mentor, and an exquisite writer. Whenever I would get back articles I submitted to her that she had rewritten, I realized she made my pieces better. As a collaborator you would discover that again and again.”

Singer was the first woman to serve as the associate director of the SRC and the only woman to hold an academic directorial level position at the center. She served on or chaired various National Academy panels on privacy and confidentially, data access, and protection of human subjects. In 2016, she received the Monroe G. Sirken Award in Interdisciplinary Survey Methods Research for “significant contributions in our understanding of survey participation, sources of nonresponse bias, and factors affecting survey responses; for pioneering research on the use and effects of incentives; and for leadership in developing awareness and understanding of ethical issues in survey research.”

The connecting theme of her research was the validity of measurements—that is, whether issues such as privacy and confidentiality, informed consent procedures, or incentives have an effect on survey participation, bias, and the accuracy of survey response data. Her studies adapted to technological advances in survey settings over the years, and explored the implications of face-to-face, mail, phone, and online surveys. Her work continues to play an important role in the study of survey methodology.

“Some people who don’t understand survey methodology as a scientific enterprise think that in a period of declining response rates and possibility of bias in samples that the quality of public opinion is on a kind of slippery slope of decline. What they don’t understand is that it’s actually a very vibrant and dynamic field, and research like Eleanor’s is conducted continuously to improve the quality of data collected,” says Traugott.

Singer was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1930. When she was 8 years old, her family fled the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe and settled in Astoria, New York. She completed a B.A. in English at Queens College in 1951, where she met her late husband Alan Singer. In her early career, Singer worked as a book editor at various publishing houses, including Teachers College Press, and increasingly specialized in books about social science.

During this time, survey research, public opinion, and polling began to grow as a field of study in the United States. Singer developed an interest in sociology — in particular surveys and survey research — and decided to pursue graduate school at Columbia University in 1959. She earned a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1966.

During the course of her studies, she met and worked with illustrious mentors including Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, and her dissertation sponsor Herbert H. Hyman, who introduced Singer to public opinion research and survey methodology. She went on to conduct research at Columbia University and University of Chicago, and worked as a social science analyst at the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Singer was active in the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). She served as AAPOR president from 1987-88, conference chair from 1984-85, standards chair from 1995-96, and counselor-at-large from 1985-87 and 1991-93. In 1996, she received the AAPOR Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2011, Singer, along with five co-authors of the textbook Survey Methodology, donated an estimated $60,000 in royalties to benefit graduate student education and research in survey methodology at ISR. According to an ISR article, “The need for specialization in this field is critical, [the authors] say, because it generates data that ultimately touches all aspects of life: personal, social, and political. And institutions — whether governmental, corporate, or academic — rely on that data.”

Eleanor is survived by her children Emily and Lawrence and her grandchildren.

Eleanor and her family request that memorial donations be made to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Survey Research Center’s Eleanor Singer Junior Faculty Fund at the U-M Institute for Social Research, or the U-M Cancer Center.

Read more about Eleanor in the words of her colleagues in the special edition of the SRC Center Survey.


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