This mainly refers to data already collected by governments, e.g. statistics relating to births, marriages, deaths, health, crime, the economy, etc. Official statistics are seen as scientific because they are collected in a highly standardised way. For example, some data has to be registered by law. Government surveys such as the Census, the General Household Survey and the British Crime Survey are viewed as highly reliable and objective in their design and execution.
Positivist sociologists suggest that official statistics are useful to sociologists because they are already available. Their use saves time, effort and money. They give a wide-ranging picture of social phenomenon. They have excellent comparative value in that they allow examination of trends over time.
Interpretivists however, are very critical of statistics because they have been collected for non-sociological purposes. They may not include data in which the sociologist is interested or may be based on definitions which sociologists don’t accept. They may be socially constructed and therefore tell us more about the people who collect them than about the social phenomena in question.
Mass media reports
Sociologists have used newspaper and magazine articles, television programmes, advertisements and films as sources of secondary data. In particular, interpretivist sociologists have used newspaper reports to give insight into past events and social concerns. The sociology of moral panics is one such area.
Some sociologists use content analysis to systematically analyse the content and meaning of media messages. Positivists have generally focused on breaking down the content of media into quantifiable categories, while interpretivists have attempted to ‘read’ the symbolic meaning of media messages – a type of analysis called semiology.
Analysis of mass media is relatively cheap because such reports are already available. Samples of people are not necessary. Content analysis is repeatable if used in its simple category form. It is allegedly objective because it does not interfere with what is being researched. It results in quantitative data.
However, its scientific status has been questioned by positivists. It can be very subjective and the same content may be interpreted in different ways by different sociologists. The method also implicitly assumes that the media have an impact on the audience of lasting significance. The evidence for this is mixed and certainly not proven. Content analysis rarely asks the audience what it thinks and assumes that the audience reacts in the same way. Media content may tell us more about the values and attitudes of journalists than those of society.
Historical documents such as government reports and white papers, historical treatises, diaries and even novels from a particular period may add qualitative insight into social problems. However, the reliability and validity of any historical document should be assessed by asking four key questions:
- How authentic is it?
- Does it have credibility? Might it involve exaggeration, deception and justification leading to bias?
- Is the document representative or typical? Documents such as diaries may only represent the views of an articulate minority and provide a selective picture of society.
- Do we share the author’s interpretations?
These are documents such as diaries, letters, autobiographies and biographies.
Sociologists may even examine photographs and the inscription on gravestones.
Some sociologists ask people taking part in their research to keep a diary documenting activities and feelings. This is known as time-budgeting. However, all these methods may be too subjective. People may be more concerned with justifying their activities than objectively recounting their experiences.