The strengths and limitations of secondary data

What is secondary data?

Information which has been collected previously, by someone else, other than the researcher. Secondary data can either be qualitative, such as diaries, newspapers or government reports, or quantitative, as with official statistics, such as league tables.

Strengths of using secondary data in social research

  • There is a lot of it! It is the richest vein of information available to researchers in many topic areas. Also, some large data sets might not exist if it wasn’t for the government collecting data.
  • Sometimes documents and official statistics might be the only means of researching the past.
  • Official statistics may be especially useful for making comparisons over time. The U.K. Census for example goes back to 1851.
  • At a practical level, many public documents and official statistics are freely available to the researcher.

Limitations of using secondary data

  • Official statistics may reflect the biases of those in power – limiting what you can find out.
  • Official statistics – the way things are measured may change over time, making historical comparisons difficult (As with crime statistics, the definition of crime keeps changing.)
  • Documents 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, meaning we cannot check whether its biased or not.
  • 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.

This was a brief post, for revision purposes, designed as last minute revision for the AS and A Level sociology exams.

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