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What are demographics?

Examples, definitions and step by step guide

People completing demographic questions in a survey

What is demographic information?

Demographic information refers to data about the features or characteristics that define an individual or population. Obtaining demographic information is both important and advantageous in helping researchers have a better understanding of the population of interest to their research.

Examples of demographic variables

In research, some important demographic variables include:

Type Definition
Age How old an individual is
Gender Physical, social, or cultural characteristics relating to whether an individual identifies as male, female or an identity that does not correspond with neither male nor female, such as non-binary. This differs from Sex, which refers exclusively to the biological status of an individual (born male, female).
Race and Ethnicity Physical or cultural traits or factors that promote a sense of belonging to a particular group of people, such as nationality, ancestry, or language.
Marital Status Characteristics relating to whether an individual is in a relationship and if so what the legal status of that relationship is. Legal marital statuses include single, married, separated, divorced, and widowed, whereas social marital statuses include de-facto partnerships or unmarried.
Family Structures Social characteristics which relate to the composition of an individual’s family unit. This could include nuclear families with two parents and children, single-parent families with one parent and children, or blended families involving parents, children from previous relationships and added biological children.
Education Level Relates to the highest level of education that an individual has completed, including primary, secondary, tertiary, and postgraduate studies.
Employment Status Characteristics relating to whether an individual is currently employed in an occupation. Employment positions may be further defined as full-time, part-time, casual, contracted, or ongoing/tenured.
Socio-economic Status Refers to the combined economic and social classification of an individual, such as upper, middle, or lower class.
Religion Group membership to religious or spiritual beliefs, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, among others.

Each group that results from being defined by demographic variables will be associated with its own characteristics, which can be used by researchers to gain a better understanding of their population of interest.

Examples of Demographic Questions

How you collect demographic data depends on your research question. However, the simplest way to obtain this information is to ask your participants directly using either a questionnaire or interview. The most common forms that demographic questions take are in either a multiple-choice question with the possible categories of responses listed, or providing a textbox or lines so that participants can write out their answers. It’s important that the questions you include are constructed in such a way that you accurately capture the information that you’re interested in. In line with the multiple choice or open response options, examples for how to structure demographic questions include:

Multiple Choice Open Ended
What is your age?
- 20-29
- 30-39
- 40-49
- 50-59
- 60+
How old are you?
________________ years
Please choose the gender you identify as:
- Male
- Female
- Non-binary
- Other (please specify): ___________
Which gender do you identify as?
What is your country of origin?
- United States
- France
- Spain
- United Kingdom
- Australia
- New Zealand
- Other (please specify): ___________
Please state your country of origin:
Please select your marital status:
- Single
- Married
- Divorced
- Other (please specify): ___________
What is your marital status?
Which of these options best describes your family structure?
- Nuclear (2 parents, children)
- Blended (2 parents, step-siblings)
- Single Parent (1 parent, children)
- Other (please specify): ___________
Please describe your family structure:
What is the highest level of education that you have completed?
- Primary (primary school)
- Secondary (high school)
- Tertiary (Bachelor’s degree or equivalent)
- Postgraduate (Masters, PhD)
- Other (please specify): ___________
What is the highest level of education that you have completed?
Please select the option that best describes your current employment status:
- Employed, full time
- Employed, part time
- Employed, casual basis
- Unemployed
- Other (please specify): ___________
Are you employed? If yes, please specify the type of hours you work:
Please estimate your current annual income:
- $0 - $49 999
- $50 000 - $99 999
- $100 000 - $149 999
- $150 000 +
Please describe your current socio-economic status:
Please choose the option that describes your religious beliefs:
- Christian
- Jewish
- Muslim
- I do not follow a religion
- Other (please specify): ___________
Do you belong to or follow a religion? If yes, please identify which one:

Remaining sensitive to privacy

How you phrase the wording of the questions you include in your questionnaires or interviews is at your discretion, but it’s important to be mindful because demographic information is personal, and some topics may be sensitive in nature. Therefore, phrasing of demographic questions needs to always be respectful and neutral where possible. For multiple-choice questions, if using number ranges such as in the age and socio-economic examples the ranges used to describe each response option depend on how detailed you want the information you collect to be. Larger ranges with fewer options are better if you’re wanting a broader picture, however smaller ranges with more options are better if you’re wanting more detail. Further, for all multiple-choice questions it’s always a good idea to have an extra option at the end of the available choices providing participants with spaces to self-identify if their answer isn’t one of the available options listed.

What can I do with demographic information?

Once you’ve collected demographic information, we as researchers need to analyse it to gain an understanding about what characterises our population of interest. Analyses can be done in two ways:

  1. Descriptive analyses include stating how many people chose each response option as a number and/or percentage. For example, in a table you could report how many participants in your sample were single, married, divorced or widowed, and then next to it include a few sentences explaining this information.
  2. Category analyses include using the demographic variables of interest to your study as categorical or grouping variables for the purposes of statistical analyses. In this sense, demographic variables can be used as independent variables with each response option used as a level. We can then compare groups based on different factors. For example, you may categorise your sample as being male or female, and then comparing how old each group is to understand which sex is associated with greater ages.

Analysing demographic information can really help us understand who our participants are. Any conclusions from our research can then be tailored to match our sample because we have a thorough understanding of the features that define them.

Important Notes

While demographic information provides you as a researcher with valuable information about your population of interest, only ask participants demographic questions that are relevant to your study. Some participants may not feel comfortable providing this information and this must be respected. Therefore, all answers should be anonymous and confidential and not linked to any identifying information, such as their name. It’s important that all potential participants are aware that this is the case when they receive information about your research before they take part.

  1. Office of Regulatory Affairs and Research Compliance, Harvard University (2020). Inclusive Demographic Data Collection.