Secondary Sources

Information about secondary sources used in sociological research methods

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Secondary Sources
Primary data ­ data produced by researchers using methods such as questionnaires, interviews and
observation. Primary data is new data that did not exist before the research began.
Secondary data There is a vast range of existing information which is available for sociological research.
It includes letters, diaries, novels, autobiographies, legal documents, parish records, official statistics,
newspapers, magazines, television and radio programmes, recorded music, photographs and paintings.
These sources of information are known as secondary sources and the data itself as secondary data.
This unit looks at a number of secondary sources and assesses the usefulness of secondary data.
Official statistics
Sources of official statistics
Official statistics are numerical data produced by national and local government bodies. They may be a
byproduct of the normal workings of a government department. Eg, the claimant count measure of
unemployment a measure of unemployment based on the number of people who claim unemployment
related benefit is a byproduct of administrating the belief system. Or official statistics may result from
research designed to produce them eg, the Labour Force Survey collects information on unemployment
from a quarterly survey of 60,000 households.
Official statistics cover a wide range of behaviour including births, deaths, marriage and divorce, the
distribution of income and wealth, crime and sentencing and work and leisure. The following are among
the main sources of official statistics.
1 Government departments Departments such as Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office
regularly request information from organisations such as local tax offices, social services departments,
hospitals, job centres and police stations. This information is then processed and much of it published.
2 Surveys The Office for National Statistics is the government agency responsible for compiling and
analysing many of the Uk's economic, social and population statistics. Surveys are a major source of
statistical data. Every 10 years the office for National Statistics Carries out the Census of the Population
which covers every household in the UK. Each head of household must, by law, complete a
questionnaire that deals with family composition, housing, occupation, transport and leisure. Other
large scale surveys include the annual General Household Survey based on a detailed questionnaire
given to a sample of nearly 12,000 people and the New Earnings Survey based on a 1% sample of
employees drawn from Inland Revenue PAYE records.
Using Official Statistics
Official statistics provide a vast array of quantitative data. However, sociologists cannot accept them at
face value they must use them only with care & caution. It is essential to bear the following points in
How are official statistics constructed? Sociologists must know how official statistics are constructed
in order to assess the quality of the data they provide. The example of unemployment statistics shows
As noted earlier, there are two main sources of data for unemployment statistics ­the benefit system
and social surveys. And there are two main definitions of unemployment ­the claimant count definition
which uses data from the benefit system, and the International Labour Organisation definition which
uses data from the Labour Force Survey. Although both measures show broadly the same levels of and
trends in unemployment, there are differences.
Sociologists using official statistics on unemployment should be aware of how these statistics have
been constructed. This applies to all official statistics, no matter what the topic.
Who decides what statistics are collected and published?
Official statistics are government statistics. Elected representatives and government officials decide
what information is important and useful and, on the basis, what data to collect and publish. And,
maybe more importantly, they decide what not to collect and publish.
These decisions may be `political'. They may reflect the concerns and priorities of government rather
than a desire to provide sound & reliable information. Eg, Muriel Nissel, the first editor of Social Trends,
an annual `From time to time, there has been great pressure on directors of statistics in departments to
withhold or modify statistics, particularly in relation to employment and health, and professional
integrity ha forced some to threaten resignation'.

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Are official statistics politically biased?
Does the actual construction of statistics reflect government interests? Are they shaped to present the
government of the day in a favourable light? The following evidence suggests that in some cases this
might happen.
According to the Labour Party, Conservative governments changed the method used to count
unemployment over 30 times between 1982 and 1992. And in practically every case, these changes
resulted in a drop in the official level of unemployment (Denscombe, 1994).…read more

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Critics accept that formal content analysis can often effectively measure simple straightforward aspects
of content. However, they argue that it says little about the meaning of a document, either in terms of its
meaning to the audience or the meaning the producer intends to communicate.
Thematic analysis
This approach looks for the motives and ideologies which are seen to underlie documents. Eg, a news
broadcast may reflect the interests of powerful groups in society. The job of the research is to uncover
this underlying ideology.…read more

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And this requires researchers to discover the meanings people give to those documents &
the understandings they draw from them. To do this they must `ask the audience'.
Historical Documents
For studying the past, historical documents are often the major and sometimes the only source of
information. Max Weber's classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism could not have
been written without a range of historical documents.…read more



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