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.

Goldman Sachs Worried About Rising Wages….

In this recent post ‘ America is getting a raise and Goldman Sachs is freaking out about it ‘ Nick Casella cites an extract from investment bank Goldman Sachs’ daily newsletter ‘ Global Markets Daily’ which indicates that they think rising wages in America will be bad for corporate profits.

“Wages are rising. The ‘wage tracker’ maintained by our US economics team — a composite measure of wage growth based on the four main wage indicators — hit 3.0% year-on-year in the first quarter for the first time in this expansion…. And as our colleagues in equity strategy have recently pointed out, rising wages are a threat to corporate profit margins” (1)

This news letter is an example of a private document as it is only sent to high net wealth investors, who invest in Goldman Sachs’ financial services, and was never meant for public eyes, not being available in the public domain of their web-site.

It’s a nice example of how private (ish) documents can give you an insight into the simple logic of these companies – and this insight seems to suggest that Marxism is still relevant today… this really does seem to be a simple case of the Capitalist class panicking about the working classes (those who receive wages) earning more and thus taking a greater share of wealth they generate.

(1) “Labor Costs and US Equities: Stocks Confront Rising Wages with Economy at Full Employment”, Portfolio Strategy Research, May 9, 2017).

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.

For more detailed posts on research methods, including secondary data, please see my page on research methods.

For more advice on the A-level sociology exams (AQA focus) please see my exams, essays and short answer questions page.

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