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Outline and explain two practical problems of using documents in social research (10)

There are a lot of documents available and it can be time consuming to analyse them qualitatively

Taking news for example, there are thousands of news items published every day.

You also need to distinguish between ‘real and ‘fake news’.

Also, in the postmodern age where fewer people get their news from mainstream news it is necessary to analyse a wide range of media content to get representatives, which makes this more difficult.

Because there are so many documents available today, it is necessary to use computer assisted qualitative analysis, which effectively quantifies the qualitative data, meaning that some of depth and insight are lost in the process.

With personal documents, gaining access might be a problem

Personal diaries are one of the most authentic sources of information because people write them with no intention of them being seen.

However, they may not be willing to show researchers the content because they say negative feelings about people close to them, which could harm them.

Blogs would be easier to access but  the problem is people will edit out much of what they feel because these are published.

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Comparing Military Blogs and Civil War Letters

This post outlines an interesting comparative research study of secondary documents (‘private’ letters and a more public blog) which could be used to get students thinking about the usefulness of such sources in social research.

I’ve taken the summary below straight from Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods:

It is tempting to think that the century and a half that separates a solider writing a military blogs and the letters and diary of a solider in the American civil war will be far apart in tone and content.

Shapiro and Humphreys (2013) compare the military blog of ‘Dadmanly’, who was in the US army for just over four years beginning in August 2004 and who served in Iraq for 18 months, with the letters and diaries of ‘Charlie Mac’, who joined the Union army in 1862, whose writings continued until 1865.

Dadmanly’s blog is looking like a bit of a historical artefact already. with its last update in 2012, but he did make some contributions to the more recent ‘blog of war’ book, which brings together different bloggers from the front-line of war.

There are clear differences between them:

  • Dadmanly wrote for a general audience the vast majority of whom he would never know
  • Charlie Mac wrote primarily for his large family, although he seems to have anticipated that that they would passed around to others, as they have a tone which implies they will have a more general readership than just his close family.

However, there are also various common elements:

  • Both writers show a desire to reassure family and friends about their safety and well-being.
  • Both expressed opinions about the progress of the war, and offered political commentary on them;
  • both wrote in large part to maintain contact with their families during the wars,
  • and the writing was therapeutic for both of them.

Shapiro and Humphries conclude that this comparison is significant because it shows that changes in communications technologies do not necessarily result in changes in the nature of the content of communication.

one question you might like to consider is whether Dadmanly’s blog is any less valid as a source of information about war than Charlie Mac’s letters?

 (Source: Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods)