Secondary Qualitative Data in Sociology

Last Updated on August 17, 2020 by

Secondary Qualitative Data is information that already exists in written or audio visual format. Secondary Qualitative Data typically take the form of documents – and there are a huge variety of them. They include government reports, newspapers, novels, letters, diaries, as well as pictures, and television and radio output.

It is useful to distinguish between official and personal sources of secondary qualitative data:

Official Documents are produced by organisations such as government departments and their agencies as well as businesses and charities and include OFSTED and other official government enquiries. These reports are a matter of public record and should be available for anyone who wishes to see them.

Personal documents are first-hand accounts of social events and personal-experiences, and they generally include the writer’s feelings and attitudes. They include such things as letters, diaries, photo albums and autobiographies.

Personal Documents may sometimes be referred to as Life Documents

Life documents are created by individuals and record details of that person’s experiences and social actions. They are predominantly qualitative and may offer insights into people’s subjective states. They can be historical or contemporary and can take a wide variety of forms. Ken Plummer (1982) illustrates this diversity when he says: “people keep diaries, send letters, take photos, write memo’s, tell biographies, scrawl graffiti, publish memoirs, write letters to the papers, leave suicide notes, inscribe memorials on tombstones, shoot films, paint pictures, make music and try to record their personal dreams.”

Strengths of Using Documents in Social Research

  • There is a wealth of different types of secondary qualitative information available – it is the richest vein of information available to researchers in many topic areas.
  • Sometimes documents might be the only means of researching the past.
  • Interpretivists generally favour using life documents in social research as they are not produced by the researcher, but written by respondents for their own purposes. This means they should give us an insight into the author’s own world view and meaning. This, of course, depends on us being able to verify the credibility and authenticity of documents (See limitations below).
  • At a practical level, many public documents are freely available to the researcher, and many of them are very in depth.
  • Ethically there are few issues with accessing public documents.

Limitations of Using Documents in Social Research

John Scott (1990) identifies four potential theoretical limitations which might undermine the usefulness of historical documents.

  1. The document may lack authenticity – Parts of the document might be missing because of age, and we might not even be to verify who actually wrote the document.
  2. The document may lack credibility – We may not be able to verify why somebody wrote the document, and what their motive was. We need to know if the document has been distorted for political reasons, for example, because this would mean they would put a spin on the content.
  3. Meaning – It may be hard to interpret the meaning of the documents if they are written in an archaic language. With older documents it is not possible to get the authors to clarify what they meant if they are dead.
  4. Representativeness – Documents may not be representative of the wider population – especially a problem with older documents. Many documents do not survive because they are not stored, and others deteriorate with age and become unusable. Other documents are deliberately withheld from researchers and the public gaze, and therefore do not become available.

In Summary: The main types of secondary data which you are likely to investigate as part of an A-level sociology course includes:

Official Documents:

  • Government Reports (‘public documents’)
  • Company reports and accounts (‘private documents’)

Personal Documents (or ‘life’ documents)

  • letters (including suicide notes)
  • diaries, blogs and vlogs
  • Individual Social media profiles
  • graffiti
  • autobiographies

Media Output:

  • The News (and ‘Fake News)
  • Various websites – Wikipedia should be of special interest to students

Related Posts 

Using documents to research education

Official Statistics in Sociology and Social Research

Related External Posts 

A very brief outline of qualitative secondary data

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