They're probably the most widely used secondary source in sociological research, mainly by positivists, collecting quantitative data..
- Availablility as governments and other public bodies collect and publish information for free.
- Identification of trends and patterns. You can see the trends over the years.
- The capacity to make international comparisons. Sociologists often look beyond and across national boundaries.
- The data hasn't been collected with sociological research in mind.
- The way that the statistics are collected changes in time, the categories used and their definitions can be modified.
- Those responsible for compiling the statistics may not work in a uniform way; affecting the reliability and validty of the data.
- They don't tell us why something happened, only record numbers.
Some personal documents have been used to gain insights into everyday life. They analyse documents such as diaries and letters, attempting to understand the meaning and motives of people. This type of material is qualitative and often richly detailed, showing how events and changes in society were percieved by those experiencing them. The advantage of this is the availability of the material. The data may be inevitably unrepresentative of the population as a whole.
The mass media
The mass media are a secondary source, some studies using the mass media produce primary data. e.g. content analysis comparing the coverage of men's and women's sport. This would be an example of quantitative data. The approach is farily straightforward, and the data producde is relaiblty, but simply measuring how much airtime or how many column inches are devoted to a subject doesn't tell us much about the nature of the content.
The contents of newspapers, especially the 'letters' page might give insights into the public opinion, identifying what issues were arousing feelings and the range ov views on those topics. Not everyone writes to newspapers therefore they may not be a representitive sample.