Types and sources of data


This chapter discusses types and sources of data used in social science undergraduate dissertations and the kinds of data that are required to answer specific research questions. The chapter explores the nature of quantitative and qualitative data and the main sources of data used for writing dissertations. It covers both primary and secondary sources of data and all types of existing data obtainable from various sources. The chapter also provides some guidance on where to find data that you do not have to generate yourself (for collecting empirical data, see Chapter 7).

By the end of the chapter, you will have a better understanding of:

  • • Different types of data commonly used in social science research and their likely sources;
  • • How primary, secondary and existing data could be used in your dissertation;
  • • Possible sources of data that relate to your research topic and matching data to specific research questions.

The importance of data in dissertation writing

All undergraduate dissertations require the collection or generation of data. The word data is used here to include all types of information, text-based and non-text-based resources including numbers, photos, videos, audio recordings required to evaluate or validate a claim, test hypotheses or answer specific research questions. To a large extent, the ability to find, access and capture the right data to answer your research questions will determine the degree of success in writing yourdissertation. Sourcing and obtaining quality data for your dissertation is essential to any analysis or critical evaluation. Without data there will be nothing to analyse or evaluate.

In relation to data, the key questions to ask after deciding on your dissertation topic and research questions are:

  • • What kinds of data do I need to collect to answer my research questions or to test my hypothesis?
  • • Where am I going to find these data?
  • • Are the data I need readily available or am I going to generate my own data?
  • • What method of data collection or technique is best to collect that data?
  • • Is there sufficient and reliable data available to me to answer all my research questions?
  • • Is the level of bias inherent in the data tolerable to arrive at an objective conclusion?
  • • Have I used a sufficient range of data to enable critical analysis?

These are some of the issues to consider when thinking of collecting data for your dissertation. The essential features of DATA in your project relate to: discovering, accessing, transcribing and analysing information (Figure 6.1). The richer your data, the better your dissertation is likely to be.

Research approaches and types of data

The types of data you need for your dissertation will depend, to a large extent, on your research design, research questions, and the type of

Essential features of DATA in writing dissertations analysis you want to do with the data

Figure 6.1 Essential features of DATA in writing dissertations analysis you want to do with the data. In terms of study design or approaches to analysis, a dissertation could be based on qualitative methods, quantitative methods or a combination of both. In the previous chapter we compared qualitative and quantitative approaches; here we look more closely at kinds of data associated with these approaches.

Qualitative data are based on non-quantifiable data. They tend to be text-based and cover words from your own observations, interviews you have undertaken, or from secondary sources or interviews. Qualitative research seeks to explore, examine and ultimately understand an area and is often interpretivist in nature. In this type of research, your perceptions, feelings and personal understanding of the issue is more important than any quantitative statistical analysis of numeric data. One advantage of qualitative methods is that it can be used in topics that are rather sensitive, exploratory or difficult to count. It is important to recognise any biases that you might bring in terms of your qualitative data collection.

Quantitative data tend to be data that can be counted and measured: quantifiable data. Quantitative methods draw from natural science models with strong positivist approaches. Quantitative research is based on objective facts that are not dependent on the views of the researcher; yet quantitative analysis is still subject to bias in terms of the method of data collection and the subsequent tests undertaken to complete the data analysis. With quantitative methods, the focus is objectivity based on measurable data that produces consistent outcomes or conclusions under similar situations.

Successful dissertations can draw on qualitative data, quantitative data, or a mixture of both. Your choice may depend on your preferences and abilities and the suitability of particular approaches to your chosen topic. For example, you may be interested in doing a study that is primarily quantitative, looking at social trends or policy implications. However, you also may want to introduce a ‘human touch' by conducting one or several interviews asking what these trends mean to people or how particular individuals experience events. After your quantitative analysis, you may wish to include a chapter or section on the qualitative data you have collected. In your discussion of findings, you can use the qualitative data to help you understand the patterns in the quantitative analysis.

If you check out the Internet Journal of Criminology you will find a host of published dissertations from across UK universities. While the methods, approaches and topics are different, they do have one thing in common: they all were awarded first class marks, www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/undergraduate-masters-dissertations.

Look through the dissertations and you can find examples of the types of qualitative and quantitative data that were produced to answer the students' research questions.

Figure 6.2 shows some of the main sources of quantitative data. Similarly, Figure 6.3 shows different sources of qualitative data commonly used in social science projects. Specific data collection techniques are discussed in Chapter 7 with explanations on the advantages and disadvantages of using each of the different techniques of data collection.

When you find or generate the required data for your dissertation, you need to think critically about what value that data can add to your study and the most effective way to use the data. So, understanding the nature of data is crucial to any social research.

What categories of data will you use?

When considering your research question and the time and resources available to you for your research, you have three options to consider for your dissertation. The first will involve empirical work, which means handling data you gather yourself; the other two use information and data that already exists:

  • 1. Primary data: do I want to collect original data for my dissertation?
  • 2. Secondary data: do I want to use data from existing research, or existing material that has been analysed as part of a research project?
  • 3. Theoretical based: do I want to focus upon a literature-based piece of work?

Use of the third may be dependent upon the requirements stipulated for your dissertation module. Below is a more detailed overview of these three approaches.

Primary data

Primary data include information collected by you as the researcher. This is new data that has not been previously analysed or presented; it is original data. Your data could be collected through a range of different data collection tools that you have designed, including data derived from field observations, interviews or any structured survey. Generally, primary sources of data are considered more reliable than secondary data because you have control not only over the type but also the quality of data collected, and it is specific to your project. Because you collected it.

Main sources of quantitative data

Figure 6.2 Main sources of quantitative data

Main sources of qualitative datayou will have intimate knowledge or the data, and you will own it

Figure 6.3 Main sources of qualitative datayou will have intimate knowledge or the data, and you will own it. Primary data collection, however, is time consuming, your data collection might not go to plan, and you might only be able to generate a small dataset to analyse.

Secondary data

Secondary data include information obtainable from sources other than your own data collection. These could include data collected from sources such as government publications, books, press reports, data banks, archives, journals, conference papers and newspapers. There is a grey area between analysing existing research data and utilising existing material that has been produced for another purpose but has not been subjected to an external research lens, for example, annual reports of organisations, promotional materials, or webpages.

There is no point in 'reinventing the wheel’ if there are readily available secondary data that you can use to answer your research questions. Secondary data are particularly useful if, for any reason, you are unable to generate your own data. To save cost or time, some researchers consider using secondary data a feasible option. The only issue with this approach is that the data may not perfectly fit your dissertation needs and it is difficult to assess the reliability and credibility of other people's data. If secondary data is used, it is essential that the source of such data is known and properly referenced, and the data collection strategy is clearly outlined. Because secondary data is ‘second hand’ information collated, and often collected and compiled, by someone other than yourself, it is often difficult to determine the accuracy or reliability of such data.

Theory-based and other literature-based projects

In a theory-based or literature-based project, the data that you work with is the literature or theory that your dissertation is based on. A literature-based or theoretical study is not necessarily 'easier' than an empirical study: indeed, it may well be harder and, again, should not be considered a second best’ option to undertaking primary work, although in some programmes this may be a requirement. Remember that theoretical studies, like data-based studies, need to have their research design spelled out from the start.

These will usually be entirely literature-based. The methodology of theoretical analysis is likely to include selection and discussion of theoretical material and descriptive material, in context, and detailed comparison of theories in terms of their applicability. You might ask how useful certain concepts or theories are for understanding particular patterns of behaviour or for predicting outcomes.

  • • How useful is the concept of institutional racism?
  • • Is objectivity in the media possible?
  • • How useful is subcultural theory for understanding virtual communities?

Here, the focus of attention is not so much to discover something about the social world, for example, virtual communities, as to reach a judgement about the value of key concepts or theories in understanding that world. How the study is approached and how contrasting approaches are chosen needs to be stated very clearly.

Even if your dissertation is more empirically focused, it could still be entirely literature-based. You might choose to conduct a review of existing research related to a particular topic. What does the research literature in this field tell us about antisocial behaviour, for example? While all dissertations will include a literature review, it is possible to produce a dissertation that is entirely based on a review of the literature.

Where do I find existing research dataor material?

There is a wide range of sources that provide research data (hardcopy text, online and multimedia) that you can use for your dissertation. Many of these sources will be available online.

The internet has opened up lots of possibilities for gathering secondary data and for collating existing data, for example, content analysis of discussion board messages or statistical analysis of hits on different web sites or pages and other ways as discussed above. However, depending upon what you do, there may be a range of ethical issues to consider such as those related to personal boundaries, privacy, consent and online identities (see Chapter 8) and you should keep these in the forefront of your mind.

In relation to existing research data, there are online sites and archives that provide access to data, often free of charge, that has been collected by other researchers. Here are some examples, though you should discuss with your librarian the most appropriate databases and online sources for your requirements:

  • • The UK’s Office for National Statistics: www.ons.gov.uk/
  • • The UK DataService ReShare: http://reshare.ukdataservice.ac.uk/
  • • The Qualitative Data Repository: https://qdr.syr.edu/
  • • Australian Data Archive: https://ada.edu.au/
  • • US Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/

Examples of other data sources include:

  • • Museums, art galleries and archives;
  • • Websites of organisations and informal sources such as social networking sites (for example, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedln);
  • • Media such as newspapers, magazines, video or other media — even non-fiction books such as autobiographies — the LexisNexis database (www.lexisnexis.com/en-us/products/nexis.page) could be a very useful source of information. With LexisNexis, you can do a fulltext search of and download a wide range of newspaper materials from around the world;
  • • Online image sharing platforms, where you can access other people's images that may be useful, within copyright regulations and with attribution, for your dissertation (for example, Pinterest and Instagram, Flickr);
  • • Reports and documentation — for example, internal material generated by organisations and government reports.

If your dissertation is theoretical or literature-based, refer to Chapter 4, where we discussed literature searching. Remember that you can find relevant books and sources not only from your own institutional library, but also from national catalogues such as the Library Hub Discover for UK national, academic and specialised libraries (https://discover.libraryhub.jisc.ac.uk/), the French equivalent SUDOC (www.sudoc.abes.fr/), or the Karlsruhe Virtual Library, which gives access to of books, magazines and other media from library and book trade catalogues across the world (https://pro.europeana.eu/data/karlsruhe-virtual-catalog). Books and journal articles that are not available through your institution’s library may also be sourced or obtained through an interlibrary loan facility.

During your dissertation, you may choose to access another library if it houses the material you need. There are often agreements between universities that allow students to access other libraries, or you may choose to work in your country’s national library. The British Library in London, for example, is one of the world's biggest and richest repositories of research materials and data (www.bl.uk/visit). Access to their resources is free, but you will need to apply for a Reading Pass.

You may decide, however, that you want to collect your own data; the next chapter deals specifically with collecting your own primary data.

Key messages

  • • You will draw on different types of data for your dissertation.
  • • The type of data you collect will be linked to your philosophical position.
  • • Quantitative data are data (often numeric) that can be counted and measured, qualitative data (often text-based) are not quantifiable.
  • • Your dissertation could be based on primary data (collected by yourself), secondary data (collected by other researchers), existing data (material not produced for research purposes), or theory or literature (here data is the theory and literature you cite).
  • • There are a lot of secondary data and existing material available that you could use for dissertation without collecting your own.

Key questions

  • • Have you explored different sources of data for your dissertation?
  • • Have you chosen the right type of data for the method of analysis you want to use for your dissertation?
  • • Have you thought about and appreciated the potential value of secondary sources, rather than privileging primary data?

Further reading

Grant, A. (2019). Doing Excellent Social Science Research with Documents.. Abingdon: Routledge.

Largan, C. and Morris, T. (2019). Qualitative Secondary Research: A Step-By-Step Guide, London: Sage.

Thomas, G. (2017). How to Do Your Research Project. A Guide for Students (3rd Edition). London: Sage.

Walliman, N. (2015). Social Research Methods, Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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