While a census and a survey may sound like the same concept in the broader sense, in theory and practice they are very different.
A census gathers information from every entity in a population. As a result, data is accurately representative of the whole population and detailed data can be made available right down to small areas.
In a survey, however, only part of the total population is selected. Surveys are generally conducted on a nationwide basis and produce data at a national, state and sometimes regional level.
The advantages of a census include accuracy and detail. However, a census can also be expensive and time consuming. Collecting data from a larger population involves lengthy analysis and a longer publication time-frame. A census may include door to door visits, phone calls, and/or mailed-in responses.
When conducting surveys, on the other hand, fewer questionnaires are sent which means there is comparatively less data to process. Surveys can also be quickly conducted and analyzed online. But, since surveys do not represent the entire population, they are not quite as accurate or reliable.
So while census and surveys both involve data collection, they differ in their objectives and practices. Before deciding which one to conduct, think about your analysis needs and about which is a better fit.
Keep in mind: If you’re gathering perception, a survey can be a great choice. If you need scientifically relevant data across an entire group, check out the census.