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The data used by sociologists may be 'primary' or 'secondary' data. Primary data is that collected by the sociologist herself by experiment, observation or survey method. Secondary data is data collected by other sociologists; Government departments or official bodies; or individuals.
Sometimes a researcher will use data from other studies as the basis of her work. For example, Blauner's (1961) study on the impact of technology on alienation and job satisfaction used data on job satisfaction from a number of job-attitude surveys on car workers, printers and chemical workers.
Halsey et al's (1980) 'Origins and Destinations' used data from the Oxford Mobility Study of Goldthorpe et al. The Health Divide (1987) consists of a series of studies conducted since 1980 on inequalities in health.
Documents can be of several types:
1. Personal documents- letters, diaries, autobiographies.
2. Public/semi-public documents school records, perish registers, etc.
3. Mass media - TV, newspapers, novels.
Perhaps it is important to remember that documents can be primary or secondary data - it depends on how the material is used.
Letters, diaries, autobiographies, first person descriptions of social events. This approach to understanding social life is essentially that of the historian but can also be seen in Sociology, for example, Weber in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' derives some support from the life and works of Benjamin Franklin, in particular two books: 'Necessary hints to those that would be rich' (1736) and 'Advice to a young tradesman' (1748) containing such advice as 'time is money'. (Although recently it has been suggested that Weber misinterpreted Franklin's ideas.)
The first, researchers to adopt the documentary approach are generally considered to be Thomas and Znaniecki in 'The Polish Peasant in Europe and America' (1919) a study of Polish migration to the USA based on first hand accounts from letters, diaries, etc - letters from Polish peasants to relatives in America; the archives of Polish newspapers; periodicals of Polish emigres - as well as (a few) life-histories obtained through interview. One autobiography running to 300 pages. (Some might suggest that both life-histories and oral histories are examples of the 'documentary method' although dependent on memory rather than documents). The material was analysed to show the social changes in rural Poland, the efforts of the emigrating peasants to retain their cultural identity and their eventual imperfect integration into American society.
Plummer sees the documentary method as an example of 'humanistic' Sociology a way of being sensitive to the variation of social life rather than looking for abstract generalisations: a way of understanding that although people are constrained by social structure they are not determined by it but are capable of independent action.
From the mid 1920s to the mid 1950s the document method was seldom used as a consequence of a dramatic shift towards survey methods and statistical approaches - as Brown and Gilmartin note 90% of articles published in the 1960s presented questionnaire data, life histories and personal documents were seldom gathered. Plummer makes the same paint, 'From the 1910s, American sociology became either very abstractly theoretical, as in the work of Parsons, or highly methodologically sophisticated, as with Paul Lazarsfeld.'
1. Scarman Report on the Brixton riots 1981.
2. Black Report (1980) on health inequalities.
3. School records, parish/church records (for example, Williams' study of Gosforth).
4. Mass media - TV, newspapers, novels (for example, Akenfeld).
It is suggested that novels can provide vivid illustrations of social life and behaviour, for example, Dickens' novels tell us about 19th century urban life, Hardy's about rural life.
Problems with documents
Practical - access, time, money
Not all documents are easily available, for example, the Black Report was released in very select circumstances; this is even more true of personal documents. The extraction of data from documents can be very time consuming, especially as data/ideas are not always presented in a useful form (for instance, definitions/categories may be different).
Theoretical - reliability, validity, generalisation, objectivity
The general argument here is that public documents are likely to be higher in terms of reliability, validity, generalisation and objectivity, than private documents like letters, etc although this may be a questionable assumption (see notes on government manipulation of official statistics).
Reliability - how accurate are the documents? To what extent have they been influenced by personal biases? Obviously replication is impossible, all the researcher can do is compare one account with others and try to balance the various accounts.
Validity - how truthful are the accounts. Are the documents authentic? (The rotocols of Zion, the Zinoviev Telegram). What was the motivation for the document? Who was it written for? How objective was the observer? All these questions influence the validity of the document. However, Plummer suggests that this method is no less valid than the data obtained from a ten-minute interview.
Generalisation is difficult since we cannot know how representative the documents are; Plummer argues that, 'any life-history is always representative of a larger group. It always tells you something about more than that one person.' Nevertheless, generalisation is a problem, not least because of the selectivity of the data, here the problem of 'discarded data' becomes more acute. All research involves the discarding of data.
Sociologists indulge in what Baldamus (1972) call 'double-fitting' altering the theory to fit the facts and selecting the facts to fit the theory - but the problem when using secondary data is that the theory more obviously governs fact selection, sociologists are unlikely to search assiduously for documents that would contradict the ideas they are presenting.
Again, the problems of generalization and theory building may vary according to the type of document. Newby who carried out research on Suffolk farm-workers makes this point about Blythe's 'Akenfield', a novel written about the same area:
'Blythe's version of the reality of Akenfield and my own were not entirely similar or even compatible? I was aware of how Blythe had employed a certain amount of artistic licence... I had utilised a certain amount of sociological licence in both my theoretical development and my selection of the data.
But at least I was explicit about my theory whereas Blythe was not..., this difference is not so trivial is it may seem. The theory not only disciplines the data, in the sense of allowing it to 'fit' in Baldamus' terms; it also disciplines the sociologist by rendering contradictions and incompatibilities more explicit and hence more amenable to investigation? it is these contradictions and incompatabilities which... represent the motor of sociological advance... it also retrieves sociology from... a wholesale relativism in which 'anything goes'.'