General Social Survey - Family (GSS)

Detailed information for 1990 (Cycle 5)




Every 5 years

Record number:


The two primary objectives of the General Social Survey (GSS) are: to gather data on social trends in order to monitor changes in the living conditions and well being of Canadians over time; and to provide information on specific social policy issues of current or emerging interest.

This survey monitors the changes in the structure of families with respect to marriages, common-law unions, children and fertility intentions.

Data release - 1991


The two primary objectives of the General Social Survey (GSS) are: to gather data on social trends in order to monitor changes in the living conditions and well being of Canadians over time; and to provide information on specific social policy issues of current or emerging interest.

This survey monitors changes in Canadian families. It collects information on: conjugal and parental history (chronology of marriages, common-law unions and children), family origins, children's home leaving, fertility intentions as well as work history and other socioeconomic characteristics.

The information collected will impact program and policy areas such as parental benefits, early learning and child-care strategies, affordable housing, child custody and spousal support programs.

Statistical activity

This record is part of the General Social Survey (GSS) program. The GSS, originating in 1985, conducts telephone surveys. Each survey contains a core topic, focus or exploratory questions and a standard set of socio-demographic questions used for classification. More recent cycles have also included some qualitative questions, which explore opinions and perceptions.

Until 1998, the target sample of respondents was approximately 10,000 persons. This was increased in 1999 to 25,000. With a sample of respondents of 25,000, results are available at both the national and provincial levels and possibly for some special population groups such as disabled persons and seniors.


  • Families, households and housing
  • Family history
  • Family types
  • Household characteristics
  • Society and community

Data sources and methodology

Target population

The target population includes all persons 15 years of age and older in Canada, excluding: 1. Residents of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut 2. Full-time residents of institutions. Respondents were contacted and interviewed by telephone. Thus persons in households without telephones could not be interviewed. However, persons living in such households represent less than 2% of the target population.

Instrument design

Core content for Cycle 5 concentrated on the respondent's family and friends, as well as the relationships and interactions with them. The content drew heavily on the 1984 Family History Survey for birth and marriage/cohabitation history questions and on the social support sections of GSS Cycle 1 (survey record 3894, 1985 reference period). Questionnaires and procedures were field tested in a pretest involving approximately 800 households in August 1989.


This is a sample survey with a cross-sectional design.

Data sources

Responding to this survey is voluntary.

Data are collected directly from survey respondents.

Two questionnaires were used to conduct the interviews: the Control Form GSS 5-1, and the main questionnaire GSS 5-2.

Respondents were interviewed in the official language of their choice. The French and English version of the main questionnaire are identical with the exception of question L17. Respondents being interviewed in English were not asked if they still understood English and similarly for the French interviews.

View the Questionnaire(s) and reporting guide(s) .

Error detection

All survey records were subjected to an exhaustive computer edit to identify and correct invalid or inconsistent information on the questionnaires. Records with missing or incorrect information were assigned non-response codes or corrected from other information from the respondent's questionnaire. In most cases editing was 'bottom-up', meaning that specific related information following a question with a branching pattern was employed to ensure the branching was correct. For example, question A3 of the "Family and Friends Questionnnaire" was "Is your mother still living?". This question was edited in relation to question A4 "How old is your mother?". The edit ensured that the information was consistent and complete between these questions.

Due to the nature of the survey, imputation was not appropriate for most items and thus 'not stated' codes were usually assigned for missing data. In some cases, the answer was not known but could be narrowed to a subset of possible answers using the skip pattern (e.g. variable DVF9SON, value 8, where the frequency of help was not given but help was reported).

However, non-response was not permitted for those items required for weighting. Values were imputed in the rare cases where any of the following were missing: age; sex; number of residential telephone lines. The imputation was based on a detailed examination of the questionnaire and the consideration of any useful data such as respondent's name, ages and sexes of other household members, and interviewer's comments.

DVTEL (number of residential telephone lines) was derived from questions L9 to L13 of the Family and Friends Questionnaire (GSS 5-2). When the questionnaire did not contain adequate information to derive DVTEL, it was assigned a value of one (1).

Data from the survey questionnaires were entered directly into mini-computers in Statistics Canada's regional offices and transmitted to Ottawa. The data capture program allowed for a valid range of codes for each question and automatically followed the flow of the questionnaire.

Disclosure control

Statistics Canada is prohibited by law from releasing any information it collects that could identify any person, business, or organization, unless consent has been given by the respondent or as permitted by the Statistics Act. Various confidentiality rules are applied to all data that are released or published to prevent the publication or disclosure of any information deemed confidential. If necessary, data are suppressed to prevent direct or residual disclosure of identifiable data.

Data accuracy

Statistics from the General Social Survey (GSS) databases are estimates based on data collected from a small fraction of the population (roughly one person in 2,000) and are subject to error. The error can be divided into two components: sampling error and non-sampling error.

Sampling error is the difference between the estimate derived from a sample and the result that would have been obtained from a population census using the same data collection procedures. For a sample survey such as the GSS, this error is estimated from the survey data. The measurement of error used is the standard deviation of the estimate. When a sampling error is more than 33 1/3% of the estimate itself, it is considered to be too unreliable to be published. In such a case, the symbol '' -- '' appears in statistical tables in place of the estimate. When the sampling error is between 16 2/3% and 33 1/3%, the corresponding estimate is accompanied by the symbol " * '' in a table. Such estimates should be used with caution. Finally, all estimates with a sampling error of less than 16 2/3% can be used without restriction.

All other types of errors, such as coverage, response, processing, and non-response, are non-sampling errors.

Many of these errors are difficult to identify and quantify.
Coverage errors arise when there are differences between the target population and the surveyed population. Households without telephones represent a part of the target population that was excluded from the surveyed population. To the extent that this excluded population differs from the rest of the target population, the estimates will be biased. Since these exclusions are small, one would expect the biases introduced to be small. However, since there are correlations between a number of questions asked on this survey and the groups excluded, the biases may be more significant than the small size of the groups would suggest.

Individuals residing in institutions were excluded from the surveyed population. The effect of this exclusion is greatest for people aged 65 and over, for whom it approaches 9%.

In a similar way, to the extent that the non-responding households and persons differ from the rest of the sample, the estimates will be biased. The overall response rate for the GSS was 76%. Non-response could occur at several stages in this survey. There were two stages of information collection: at the household level and at the individual level. Non-response at the household level was about 14%. Non-response also occurs at the level of individual questions. For most questions, the response rate was high and, in tables, the non-responses generally appear under the heading "not stated".


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