Phone Surveys and Sensitive Behaviour Reporting: Evidence from a Methods Experiment in India

This study aims to measure the extent to which phone surveys can act as an alternative to in-person surveys in gathering sensitive information.

Phone Surveys are emerging as a promising mode of primary data collection owing to the improvement in quality and coverage of telecommunications infrastructure in India. Even as phone and electronic modes of data collection have gained increasing importance within the national survey system, actionable research around the use and efficacy of phone surveys or methods to improve the same are still emerging in the Indian context. This study examines the efficacy of phone surveys (indirect presence of interviewer) relative to in-person surveys (physical presence of interviewer) in sensitive behaviour reporting within the Indian context. For this particular study, menstrual hygiene was chosen as the sensitive behaviour. The broad objective of the study is to advance knowledge around diversified data collection in the Indian context.
The study was conducted in partnership with the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women (TNCDW) in Vadipatti and T. Kallupatti in Tamil Nadu. Following a longitudinal design, with repeated follow-up of the sampled women across two time periods over a 6-month duration, the study design helped examine patterns of sensitive behaviour reporting and whether the reporting is consistent over time. Using administrative data shared by TNCDW, 11 villages were randomly selected within the two blocks using village-level stratification based on number of women between the age group of 20-49 and number of SHG members in each of these villages. A common structured survey instrument of approximately 30 minutes duration was administered to SHG households assigned to the two survey modes – in-person and phone.
Key Findings
Results from the first round of data collection indicate that phone surveys are comparable to in-person in terms of sensitive behaviour reporting. These positive results could stem in part from the survey implementation partnership with TNCDW, which may have improved respondent willingness to participate in the survey and answer sensitive questions to the extent possible across both modes and over time. Findings also point towards measurement challenges specific to phone surveys, witnessing higher refusal rates and higher instances of calls being barred. Results also suggest that follow-up phone surveys could carry an increased risk of response burden. 


Higher refusal rates and higher instances of calls being barred in the phone survey mode underscore the measurement challenges that are specific to this survey mode. These challenges could potentially be addressed through over-sampling. Despite this, the study has important implications on the cost front – phone surveys ensure more value for money in terms of both the cost and time taken to complete the survey relative to in-person surveys. 

Thematic area


Project Leads

Sujatha Srinivasan


Tamil Nadu


Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women (TNCDW), NCAER