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  1. 1. Secondary DataTypes of secondary data:Life Documents – including all written, aural (heard) and visual materials deriving from people’spersonal lives. The advantage for the sociologist of using these sources are that they are tool to seethe world through the actors’ eyes. However, there are some distinct disadvantages: How might the rise of digital technology make these sources less accessible?Photographs - have a long history of being used in sociology, however, when photography in thepast was expensive it was mostly used to convey happy (‘say cheese’) images. Why was this a problem?Diaries – chronicle events as they happen and are not filtered through memory, but for politiciansand the famous they may be aware that their diaries will later be published and thus will edit themas they write. One the first acts that prime ministers and presidents perform on leaving office is tomake a deal with a publisher to publish their memoirs. Why should the researcher be wary of using these as a source?Letters –Thomas Znaniecki’s study of ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America’ (1918), put anadvertisement in a Chicago newspaper, offering payment for letters written home, in order to gainan insight into the immigrant experience. However, he realised that these letters were often‘filtered’ to give a positive impression to those at home.Official publications – are often used by sociologists, as the government is the biggest compiler ofsocial information in the country. For example, Social Trends has been published for the last thirty-five years. However, governments often massage statistics to put a positive gloss on theirperformance.Similarly, reports and government inquiries are often given a limited ‘remit’; forexample, the Leveson Inquiry into the press did not look at the ownership of the press.The Census is a the biggest bit of sociology that takes place in the UK, and is seized upon by manyresearchers. However, the coalition government says the 2011 census is to be last one. There areconcerns that certain groups are missed, for example refugees, asylum seekers and the homeless.The size of the census also means that by the time the results are out it is dated, result from the 2011census were only released in late 2012.Documents from other sources such as NGOs and private companies – as with all organisations caremust be taken as they will be keen to put a positive emphasis on all that they do.Previous sociological research – a literature search is the first act in any research project. However,other sociologists may have got it wrong. Margaret Mead’s ‘Coming of age in Samoa’ (1928), wasfor years considered a masterpiece, however soon after her death it became clear that her methodswere questionable and the Samoans had probable duped her.The Mass Media – is obviously an important and readily available source. Qualitative researcherswill look for themes in the text or programmes. Quantative work may focus on the number of timesa word or phrase appears. In his 2012 book (‘What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets’)Michael Sandel quotes work by an academic research team on the appearance of the work
  2. 2. ‘incentivise’ in major newspaper. In the 1980s it appeared just 48 times. In the 1990s 449 times. Inthe 2000s 6159 times, and in 2010-2011 5885 times. Why do you think they focused on this one word? What conclusions could they draw from these findings?Memory is clearly a problem when dealing with the retelling of past events. Professor Harold Rosen(‘A Necessary Myth: Cable Street Revisited’), realised that when he retold his memory of theBattle of Cable Street, his recollection was flawed. It could not have happened as he remembered it.He quotes Karen Fields (1989), ‘Nothing is more fully agreed than the certainty that memoryfails.’,and Jean Peneff (1990) ‘The life story can be a way of excusing ourselves in public, an effectiveway of building an enhanced self-image.’Rosen argues that: Where and when we remember is affected by the socio-cultural location. A ‘flash-bulb’ memory – ‘the bright perfectly remembered moment, often turns out to be wrongly remembered and endowed with a significance after the event or even before it.------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Practice questionItem A – sociologists sometimes make use of personal documents in their research. Personaldocuments include items such as diaries, letters, photo-albums, portraits and so on. They can beparticularly valuable in situations where it is impossible to interview someone or get them tocomplete a questionnaire, such as when we want to study the past, and there are no survivors fromthe period we are interested in. For example, Aries studied the emergence of the modern notion ofchildhood by examining portraits painted of children and adults from the past. Personal documentsare particularly useful for sociologists who want to gain insight into a person’s life and worldview.Using material from item A and elsewhere, assess the usefulness of personal documents insociological research.How to tackle this question – begin by introducing the idea of secondary data and why it is relevantto sociology. Life or personal documents are useful in showing how individual perceive the world[Durkheim – verschenen], illustrate this with reference to the item. For example, you could explainthe usefulness of personal documents in studying the past and gaining an insight into people’s lives.You could then outline the main types of personal documents – diaries, letters, visual images; detailthe advantages and weaknesses of each. Finally, say that subject to the weaknesses that you haveoutlined personal documents/data are very useful in certain circumstances – in particular whengaining access to the views of participants in historical or hard to access situation (eg detentioncentres).