The General Social Survey: An Overview
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- 1. Introduction
- 2. Methodology
- 3. Current GSS themes
- 4. Discontinued GSS themes
- 5. Data and product availability
- Appendix A
- Appendix B
- Appendix C
Established in 1985, Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS) program was designed as a series of independent, annual, cross-sectional surveys, each covering one topic in-depth. The overall objectives of the program were, and continue to be, to gather data on social trends in order to monitor changes in the living conditions and well being of Canadians, and to provide information on specific social policy issues.
GSS data has served as evidence behind key government programs to improve the well-being of Canadians, informed research about social life, and become a valuable training tool for quantitative methods in post-secondary institutions across the country. It is viewed as an important foundational social survey within Canada’s national statistical system for providing a comprehensive look at a variety of essential topics. Current GSS themes comprise caregiving, families, time use, social identity, volunteering and victimization.
Each of the above six survey themes is repeated in-depth approximately every 5 years. In addition to the core topic, space is reserved in each cycle for new content that addresses emerging, policy-relevant issues. As well, each survey collects comprehensive socio-demographic information such as age, sex, education, religion, ethnicity, income, etc. Regular collection of cross-sectional data allows for trend analysis, and for the testing and development of new concepts.
Until 1998, the sample size for each GSS survey was approximately 10,000 persons. This was increased in 1999 to a target of 25,000. With this larger sample, basic estimates are available at the national, provincial and some census metropolitan area levels. Depending on the survey topic, the increased sample size may also be sufficient to produce estimates for sub-population groups such as single parent families, visible minorities and seniors.
The GSS program has historically used Random Digit Dialing (RDD) to collect cross-sectional data from a random sample of Canadians aged 15 and overNote 1 living in private households in the 10 provinces.Note 2 The RDD method (which generates phone numbers based on in-use area codes) avoided the problem of not being able to reach new or unlisted phone numbers as is the case when using existing telephone lists.
Along with the use of an RDD frame, collection of data was carried out via Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI), a method that offers lower collection costs than in-person interviews, as well as considerable flexibility with respect to sample design. Telephone interviewing does, however, have some drawbacks: non-coverage of households is concentrated in certain population groups (those who only have cell phones, mostly young, single, urban Canadians, are excluded from RDD samples, as are those without a telephone—often concentrated in groups with lower income and education levels); response rates tend to be lower than for face-to-face interviews; and there are limitations on the amount and type of data which can be collected.
GSS surveys are generally conducted over a 6- to12-month period. The average length of an interview is 40 to 45 minutes.
While the RDD frame and CATI collection have performed well for the first two and a half decades of the GSS program, the social and technological environment in which the surveys had been operating has changed over the years. The increase in cell-phone-only households, the availability of caller display features, and the population’s resistance to an ever increasing number of surveys have led to declining response rates (to an average of 60% - 65% during recent years. See Appendix B for specific response rates). This, combined with increased respondent burden and rising costs for data collection resulted in an in-depth redesign of the GSS program that began in 2010.
Features of the redesign included replacing the RDD sampling frame, developing an internet questionnaire to supplement the existing telephone mode of collection, and undertaking a full content review. The new telephone frame was constructed using the address register and other sources of telephone numbers accessible to Statistics Canada. It is expected that these changes will improve contact with respondents, optimize coverage of the sample, stabilize or increase response rates, allow for more flexibility to accommodate new content, and reduce the length of the survey.
These modifications are currently taking place in tandem with the ongoing survey program activities and are being phased in with the start of each of the upcoming topics. The GSS is using a new sampling frame and it has fielded its first multi-mode (internet and telephone) collection for its Social Identity cycle in the summer of 2013.
Caregiving and care receiving
With the aging of the population, women’s increased participation in the labour force and the emergence of smaller, more geographically dispersed families, the importance of caregiving in Canada has been increasingly recognized. The implications of providing care to someone with a long-term health condition extend beyond the direct economic, health and social consequences to the family. Caregiving also impacts other policy areas of importance to governments, including labour productivity, labour force attachment, and institutionalized care expenditures, such as health care costs.
Data on caregiving were first extensively collected through the 1996 GSS and again in 2002 and 2007. The objectives of these surveys were to determine the nature of the help received and provided, to understand the dynamic between an individual’s social network and help they received and provided, and to identify those who needed help but were not receiving any.
Building on previous caregiving cycles, the 2012 GSS collected information on the types of help received and provided for a long-term health condition and problems related to aging. Detailed sections cover the characteristics of family and friend caregivers, as well as those receiving formal and informal care. Links can be drawn to the broader determinants of health (such as income, education and social networks) and caregiving or care receiving status. New to this cycle is a greatly expanded look at the impacts of providing care on the caregiver’s life, including health, social, emotional, employment and financial consequences. Accessible housing is another new topic. It will, for the first time, measure the proportion of Canada’s housing stock that is accessible to individuals using a wheelchair.
The first results from the 2012 GSS were published in September 2013.
For information on data sources, methodology, products and publications, or to access the questionnaires, please consult Caregiving and Care Receiving.
The central role of the family in one’s life is indisputable. The GSS on families was first conducted in 1990 and has been repeated approximately every five years since then, most recently in 2011. The survey captures information on the structure of families through each of its cycles and uses retrospective questions to follow the historic evolution of families.
The survey’s ability to monitor the evolution of families has grown through its cycles and its “life course perspective” approach. This approach has been seen as vitally important with the increasing diversity of today's families and their changing conjugal, family, and work trajectories.
The 2011 GSS updates most of the information collected in previous family surveys, including leaving the family home, conjugal history (marriages, common-law unions, separations and divorces), children (birth, adopted or step), maternity and parental leave, intentions to form (or re-form) a union, fertility intentions, custody and financial support agreements and work history. New content looks at organization and decision making within the household, family resiliency, couples living apart, difficulty in conceiving a child, and sterilization (last asked in 2001). Childcare arrangements modules have been remodeled.
The first results from the 2011 GSS were published in July 2012.
For information on data sources, methodology, products and publications, or to access the questionnaire, please consult Families.
Time-use surveys collect information on all human activities and can therefore inform a broad range of policies. In particular, three key themes have been identified as necessary for informed policy making, for which no other data sources are adequate: unpaid work and non-market production; well-being; and gender equality. Other topics covered by time use surveys include leisure time, work-life balance, health, commuting, culture and sports.
Statistics Canada has been conducting time-use surveys since 1986 at approximately five- to seven- year intervals, most recently in 2010. The GSS on time use employs a retrospective 24-hour time diary to collect information on respondents’ participation in, and time spent on, a wide variety of day-to-day activities. In addition, information is collected on the location where these activities occurred (e.g., at home, at work, etc.) and, for non-personal activities, the people who were with the respondent at the time of the activity. In addition, GSS time-use surveys also include questions on household composition, labour force status, life satisfaction, unpaid work, time perceptions and pressures, and participation in sports and cultural activities along with numerous socio economic characteristics.
For the first time in 2010, the GSS on time use included simultaneous activity questions on the Diary. These questions allow for a better understanding of multitasking, particularly in situations where passive childcare is combined with other activities (e.g., a parent cooking dinner while watching over the children).
The first results from the 2010 GSS were published in July 2011.
For information on data sources, methodology, products and publications, or to access the questionnaires, please consult Time Use.
Past cycles of this survey (social networks in 2008 and social engagement in 2003) collected information on social contacts with family, friends and neighbours; involvement in formal organizations, political activities and volunteer work; values and attitudes; and the level of trust in people and public institutions. The 2008 GSS also looked at how Canadians use their social networks to obtain support during periods of change in their lives.
The 2013 GSS was expanded to cover the broader issues of social identity and, in particular, Canadians' identification with and sense of belonging to national, ethnic, geographic and cultural groups as well as to local, regional and national institutions. Questions on shared values will reveal a portrait of identity as a common body of norms adhered to by most people. Content on engagement and participation will help understand how social integration is being built among people living in a modern, diverse society with multiple ethnicities and backgrounds. Finally, questions on social networks and norms of trust will examine the social patterns that hold society together. Data from this survey will help build national measures and support policies on the inclusion and diversity of people living in Canada.
Work on the 2013 GSS is currently under way. (Please note that the 2013 GSS has two components: Social Identity and Giving, Volunteering and Participating or GVP. For more information on GVP, see the following write-up.)
For further information on data sources, methodology, products and publications or to access current or past questionnaires, please consult Social Identity.
Giving, volunteering and participating
This survey provides a portrait of Canadians’ involvement in their community and their compassion towards others. It is a key source of information on charitable giving, volunteering and participating used by government and voluntary sector organizations to inform policy and program decisions. While Statistics Canada has conducted a standalone survey on this topic approximately every 3 years since 1997 (the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating—CSGVP), it has become part of the GSS program as of 2013.
The 2013 GSS collects information about how Canadians volunteer time; donate money and in-kind gifts to charitable and non-profit organizations; and provide direct help to others. While the 2013 GSS covers most of the material in previous surveys, it includes new questions on topics such as online charitable giving, awareness of organizations that monitor how charities use their donations, and ways in which Canadians use the Internet to participate in groups.
The survey includes a set of modules that rotate in and out, depending on analytic priorities, to track changes over longer intervals. The 2013 GSS, for example, includes questions last asked in 2004 about participation in groups and organizations. Rotating modules on employer support of volunteering, skills gained from volunteering, youth experiences and attitudes, and donations for natural disaster relief that were asked in the 2010 CSGVP are not part of the 2013 GSS. These modules will rotate back in future iterations.
Work on the 2013 GSS is currently under way.
For further information on data sources, methodology, products and publications or to access current or past questionnaires, please consult Giving, Volunteering and Participating.
The GSS on victimization explores the sensitive subjects of criminal victimization and spousal violence. In particular, victimization cycles ask Canadians about reported and unreported victimization, including: experiences of crime, violence and abuse by current or past spouse or partner, use of services available to help victims of abuse or crime, fear of crime, crime prevention, and social disorder and experiences of discrimination. The survey allows for the measurement of victimization rates over time by age, sex, province and other classification variables, as well as many other indicators related to victimization.
The GSS data are an important complement to administrative data on police-reported crime, as they capture information that does not come to the attention of the police and is therefore not counted in official crime rates. The survey produces estimates of the extent to which persons are the victims of eight types of offences (assault, sexual assault, robbery, theft of personal property, breaking and entering, motor vehicle theft, theft of household property and vandalism).
The 2014 GSS will keep most of the content of previous cycles including internet victimization, cyber bullying, and crime prevention. In addition, it will re-introduce questions on stalking from the 2004 survey, and include new questions on childhood victimization. Work on the 2014 GSS is currently under way.
The GSS on victimization is the only national survey of self-reported victimization which provides data for the provinces and territories. It is also the only GSS survey to conduct interviews in Canada’s north.
For further information on data sources, methodology, products and publications or to access current or past questionnaires, please consult Victimization.
Access to and use of information communication technology
The main theme of the 2000 GSS was access to and use of technology, specifically computers and the Internet. This was the first cycle of the GSS to collect detailed information on individual access to and use of technology. Two previous cycles, the 1989 and 1994 GSS included questions on computer use as part of the work and education focus. Since much of the work and education component was being covered by other surveys (particularly the Workplace and Employee Survey) and there was considerable interest in the social impact of technology, the 2000 GSS included a detailed focus on computer and Internet use. This survey asked Canadians about their use of computers and the Internet, the impact of technology on privacy and access to information, as well as the social cohesion of families and communities.
For further information on data sources, methodology, products and publications or to access current or past questionnaires, please consult Access to Information Communications Technology.
Education, work and retirement
Two GSS surveys, in 1989 and 1994, covered core content on education, work and retirement. Focus content for the 1994 GSS covered transition into retirement and post-retirement activities, as well as some questions on computer use. Also included were questions to measure social mobility, a topic covered in 1986. The three main themes underlying the 1989 GSS included work and education in the service economy, new technologies and human resources, and emerging trends in education and work. A short module on knowledge and attitudes to science and technology was also covered.
For further information on data sources, methodology, products and publications or to access current or past questionnaires, please consult Education, Work and Retirement.
GSS and analytical articles published by Statistics Canada are available to all interested parties.
Dissemination activities begin for each survey with a data availability announcement in The Daily. The Daily is Statistics Canada's official release bulletin and its first line of communication with the media and the public. The Daily issues news releases on current social and economic conditions and announces new products. It provides a comprehensive one-stop overview of new information available from Statistics Canada.
Analytical articles announced in The Daily and based on GSS data are made available to the public in various Statistics Canada publications. Past periodicals included Canadian Social Trends (CST), which carried the majority of GSS articles and Perspectives on Labour and Income that featured those with a labour or income theme. In addition, special stand-alone publications have been released to highlight particular themes. (See Appendix C for a list of selected products, and the links at the end of each survey theme for a complete list of products and publications.) Current publications carrying GSS content include Spotlight on Canadians: Results from the General Social Survey; Insights into Canadian Society; and Juristat (for the victimization surveys).
Custom tabulations are available on a cost recovery basis for individuals who require a specific set of data for an article or analysis. Please contact Client Services and Dissemination at (613) 951-5979, by fax at (613) 951-0387 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Researchers wishing to undertake more in-depth analysis of their own may request a Public Use Microdata File (PUMF). A PUMF, including documentation, is produced for each GSS survey and is available, free of charge. In order to protect the confidentiality of Canadians, an extensive disclosure risk analysis takes place before the release of the PUMF. Variables with extreme values are capped, information for some variables is aggregated into broader classes and, in rare cases, certain variables are modified. CD-ROMs of the data are available in SAS, SPSS or ASCII format.
Analysts whose work necessitates access to the complete file (prior to the disclosure risk analysis performed for the PUMF) need to refer to the Analytical File produced for each GSS survey following the end of collection. For confidentiality reasons, data from the Analytical File can only be accessed through Statistics Canada’s Research Data Centres (RDCs). RDCs, located in secure university settings, operate under the provisions of the Statistics Act in accordance with all the confidentiality rules. They are accessible only to researchers with approved projects who have been sworn in under the Statistics Act as “deemed employees.” RDCs are located throughout the country, so researchers do not need to travel to Ottawa. Another way of accessing the Analytical file is by requesting custom tabulations from Client Services and Dissemination at (613) 951-5979, by fax at (613) 951-0387 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
For the most up-to-date information on products and services, please visit Statistics Canada’s website at www.statcan.gc.ca, and click on “browse by key resources/articles and reports.”
|Topic||1st series||2nd series||3rd series||4th series||5th series||6th series|
|Health||1985 (1)||1991 (6)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Time use||1986 (2)||1992 (7)||1998 (12)||2005 (19)||2010 (24)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Victimization||1988 (3)||1993 (8)||1999 (13)||2004 (18)||2009 (23)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Education, work and retirement||1989 (4)||1994 (9)||2002 (16)||2007 (21)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Family||1990 (5)||1995 (10)||2001 (15)||2006 (20)||2007 (21)||2011 (25)|
|Social support and aging||1985 (1)||1990 (5)||1996 (11)||2002 (16)||2007 (21)||2012 (26)|
|Access to and use of ICT||2000 (14)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Social engagement||2003 (17)||2008 (22)||2013 (27)||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period||Note ..: not available for a specific reference period|
|Giving, volunteering, participating||1997Note 1||2000Note 1||2004Note 1||2007Note 1||2010Note 1||2013 (27)|
.. not available for a specific reference period
|Cycle||Date of collection||Core content||New content||Response rate|
|26||2012||Caregiving and care receiving||The consequences of caregiving||65.7|
|24||2010||Time use /stress and well-being||Simultaneous activities, work-life balance||55.2|
|22||2008||Social networks||Coping with change||57.3|
|21||2007||Family, social support, retirement||Work/family history, retirement experiences and plans||57.7|
|20||2006||Family history||Family transitions||67.4|
|19||2005||Time use||Social networks/trust/transportation||58.6|
|18||2004||Victimization||Use of restraining orders, stalking and social disorder||74.5|
|17||2003||Social engagement||Social/civic participation, trust and values||78.0|
|16||2002||Social support and aging||Retirement planning and experience||74.5|
|15||2001||Family history||Education history, mobility||80.9|
|14||2000||Technology – computer and internet||Use of computers, impact of technology on privacy, access to information||80.8|
|13||1999||Victimization||Spousal, senior abuse/perceptions||81.3|
|12||1998||Time use||Sports participation/culture||77.6|
|11||1996||Social support||Tobacco use||85.3|
|10||1995||Family||Effects of tobacco smoke||81.4|
|9||1994||Education, work and retirement||Transition into retirement||81.2|
|8||1993||Personal risk||Alcohol and drug use||81.6|
|7||1992||Time use||Culture, sport and unpaid work activities||76.8|
|6||1991||Health||Various health topics||80.2|
|5||1990||Family and friends||Relationships and interactions with family and friends||75.8|
|4||1989||Education and work||New technologies and human resources||80.7|
|3||1988||Personal risk||Victim services||82.4|
|2||1986||Time use, social mobility||Language||78.9|
|1994 Public Use Microdata File, Documentation and User’s Guide||12M0009XDB|
|Canada’s Changing Retirement Patterns: Findings from the General Social Survey||89-546-X|
|Quality of Work in the Service Sector (GSS Analysis Series)||11-612-MPE, no.6|
|Human Resource Challenges of Education, Computers and Retirement (GSS Analysis Series)||11-612-MPE, no.7|
|Canadian Social Trends articles||11-008-X|
|The Impact of Family Structure on High School Completion||Spring 1998|
|“I Feel Overqualified for My Job...”||Winter 1997|
|Everyday Technology: Are Canadians Using It?||Autumn 1997|
|Retirement in the 90s: Going Back to Work||Autumn 1996|
|Retirement in the 90s: Retired Men in Canada||Autumn 1996|
|Preparing for the Information Highway: Information Technology in Canadian Households||Autumn 1995|