Personal Documents in social research

Personal documents are those which are intended only to be viewed by oneself or intimate relations, namely friends or family. They generally (but not always) not intended to be seen by a wider public audience.

For the purposes of A-level sociology, the two main types of personal document are diaries and personal letters.

Today, I’m inclined to include personal ‘emails’ and certain intimate chat groups – such as circles of close friends chatting on WhatsApp, in this definition, because the data produced here will reveal personal thoughts and feelings, and isn’t intended for wider public consumption.

I think we can also include some personal blogs and vlogs in this definition, as some of these do reveal personal thoughts and feelings, even if they are written to be viewed by the general public – people sharing aspects of their daily lives on YouTube, or people writing more focused blogs about the travel experiences or how they are coping with critical illnesses, all have something of the ‘personal’ about them.

We could also include ‘naughty photos’ intended only to be shared with an intimate partner, but I think I’ll leave an analysis of those kind of documents out of this particular post!

Just a quick not on definitions – you need to be careful with the distinction I think between personal and private documents.

  • Personal documents = anything written which reveals one’s personal thoughts and feelings. These can either be written for consumption by oneself, by close others, or sometimes for public consumption.
  • Private documents – these are simply not intended to be viewed by a wider public audience, and can include someone’s personal diary or intimate letters/ photos between two people, but company accounts and strategy can also count as private documents, even if shared by several dozens of people, if not intended for consumption by a wider audience.

As with all definitions, just be clear what you’re talking about.

Certainly to be safe, for the sake of getting marks in an A-level sociology exam question on the topic, personal diaries and ‘intimate letters’ are certainly both types of personal document.

Examples of sociological research using Personal Documents

Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant (1918/ 1921)

Ozana Cucu-Oancea argues that this remains the most significant work using personal documents in the history of the social sciences (source).

The study used a range of both personal and public documents, and the former included hundreds of letters between Polish immigrants and their families back home in Poland, as well as several personal diaries.

In all the work consisted of 2,200 pages in five volumes, so it’s pretty extensive, focussing  on the cultural consequences of Polish migration.

The documents revealed touched on such themes as crime,  prostitution, alcoholism; and the problem of social happiness in general.

What was significant about this study from a theoretical point of view is that it put the individual at the centre of social analysis and stood in contrast to Positivism which was popular at that time.

The limitations of using personal documents in social research

  • There is a problem of interpretation. The researchers might misinterpret the meaning of the documents. The less contextual information the researchers have, the more likely this is to happen.
  • Practically it takes a long time to sift through and organise the information.
  • Who cares? Let’s face it, are you really going to go and read a 2, 200 page work analysing letters from Polish Immigrants, written over 100 years ago?

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

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