Research Design

This research project is designed to accomplish three major tasks at once. First, to collect quantitative data on a "big-picture," macro scale, in order to be able to make convincing representative national claims about youth and religion. Second, to collect in-depth, qualitative data in order to help us better understand the texture and meanings of the lived experiences of youth, to sensitively interpret the quantitative data, and to generate "grounded" theories about the influences of religion in youth's lives. Third, this project is designed to maintain contact with the youth we sample, to track changes in their lives over time, in order to be able through longitudinal analysis to make claims about the causal effects of religion in youth's lives. Our research design package achieves all three of these objectives by combining a national telephone survey of American youth and parents in 2002-2003 and follow-up surveys with the original youth participants in 2005 and 2007-2008, with personal, in-depth interviews (conducted in 2003, 2005 and 2008) with a sub-sample of the surveyed youth. This approach unites the best in quantitative and qualitative methods, and cross-sectional and longitudinal research to produce the strongest possible research findings.

Pilot Interviews

During the planning stages of this project, the research team conducted 30 pilot interviews with youth in the Durham and Chapel Hill, NC area. Interviews were conducted with youth ranging in age from 12 to 18 years from a variety of religious and racial backgrounds. These pilot interviews were helpful in providing an early opportunity to learn about issues that are important to youth and how they talk about these matters in their own language. They also helped the research team identify logistical and content-oriented refinements to the research design.


The first NSYR telephone survey began in early summer of 2002. We employed a random-digit-dial telephone survey method with in-house subject randomization, in order to sample nationally-representative households with youth ages 13-17 present. In an effort to reach minority populations, the survey over-sampled Jewish households and was made available in a Spanish language version for non-English respondents. Each completed case consisted of one 40-minute survey with one 13-17 year old youth randomly chosen within the household, and one 30-minute survey with one of the youth's parents (to collect family, neighborhood, and school data that the youth may not know about). The survey achieved a total of 3,370 completed cases.

The second wave of telephone surveys was fielded from June through November of 2005, and the third wave from September 2007 through April 2008.  We successfully re-surveyed approximately 78% of the original youth survey respondents (ages 16 - 20 at the time) in Wave 2, and 77% in Wave 3 (ages 18 - 23 at the time).  In Wave 4, when respondents were ages 23 - 28, we collected a final round of survey data from 67% of the original youth respondents.  In Wave 4, 85% of respondents responded to the survey online, while the balance completed their survey on the telephone.  On average, surveys in the second, third and fourth waves took about 45 minutes.

In-Depth Interviews

During the Summer of 2003 trained interviewers conducted the first wave of personal interviews with 267 youth from around the U.S. The interviewees were sampled from among our survey respondents, for follow-up, in-depth discussions about their religious, spiritual, family, and social lives. One of the great strengths of this sampling procedure (sampling interview subjects from survey respondents-a unique method rarely employed by "mixed-methods" studies) is the ability to directly link the survey and interview answers, both to prepare better for the interview by studying survey responses, and to understand better the survey responses in light of the interview results. Interview subjects were also sampled by religion, race, and geographical region of residence to reflect our national survey sample on these demographic traits.

In 2005 120 of the original personal interview participants were re-interviewed after they had completed the second wave of the telephone survey. For this second round of in-person interviews, NSYR researchers decided a smaller number of interviews was sufficient, and the participants selected for re-interview were chosen based on maintaining the demographic distribution of the original in-person interview sample.

For the third Wave 230 of the respondents who had participated in the Wave 3 telephone survey completed in-person interviews. The interviews were conducted from May through September 2008 all over the U.S.

The fourth and final fielding of the NSYR in-depth interview took place from May through December 2012.  During this wave, 261 of the respondents who had been interviewed previously were re-interviewed, along with 41 respondents who had taken the Wave 4 (and at least one previous) survey, but had never been included in the interview sample before.

Longitudinal Survey Tracing

Longitudinal surveys provide uniquely valuable data for understanding the causal effects of religion and other factors in social life, since they enable us to study the effects of variables measured in the first wave on diverse outcomes. These outcomes play themselves out over time and can only be observed through longitudinal study. This project employs proven methods for maintaining regular post-survey contact with our survey respondents in order to maintain the option of conducting further waves of data collection. Given the highly dynamic and developmentally important events of adolescence, we believe that longitudinal data collection is especially important in youth research.