There are two types of basic information that sociologists collect. The first is primary data, which involves information collected personally by a sociologist, who, therefore, knows exactly how the data was collected, by whom and for what purpose (you don’t, for example, have to trust other people if they collected their data accurately). As we will see, sociologists use a range of research methods (such as questionnaires, interviews and observational studies) as sources of primary data. Sources of primary data include such things as:
- Observational studies (including Participant Observation)
- Content Analysis
The ability to generate this type of data has some clear advantages for the sociologist:
- Data Control: Because the researcher is responsible for collecting data they have complete control over such areas as how much data is collected, how and from whom it’s collected and so forth.
- Reliability, validity and representativeness: Simply because you can exercise some measure of control over how data is collected doesn’t, of course, guarantee its reliability, validity or representativeness – a badly designed piece of research can be unreliable, invalid and unrepresentative. However, it’s much easier for the researcher to consider and control these concepts when they design and carry out the research themselves.
This type of data also has a few potential disadvantages.
Primary data collection can be:
- Time-consuming – to design, construct and carry-out. If the group being studied is large and involves something like interviewing each group member individually this is going to take a great deal of time and resources.
- Expensive – as in the above example, the cost of a researcher’s time (amongst other things) may be a factor in the design of the research.
- Access: Having designed a piece of primary research, you need access to the people you want to study – and your plan to interview the 10 richest people in the UK, for example, may come to nothing if they refuse to be interviewed.
Availability: Sometimes it’s just impossible to collect primary data. In the above instance, for example, it’s impossible because the people you want to research do not make themselves available to you. In another (admittedly more extreme) example, if you wanted to research why people commit suicide this would be difficult because your potential subjects refuse to answer your questions because they’re dead. In this case, one way around the problem of availability is to use secondary data. Durkheim (1897), for example, used official statistics to test whether suicide rates varied within and between societies. By so doing, he argued social factors, such as religious belief, were significant in the explanation of why people took their own life.
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