A secondary source is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere.
Examples of some secondary sources are: books, newspapers, pamphlets and encyclopaedias.
Secondary sources involve generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information.
Secondary sources are invaluable to sociologists, but they have to be used with caution. Their reliability and validity are open to question, and often they do not provide exact information required by a sociologist.
Secondary sources are research reports that use primary data to solve research problems, written for scholarly and professional audiences. Researchers read them to keep up with their field and use what they read to frame problems of their own by disputing other researchers’ conclusions or questioning their methods.
Sociologists often use secondary sources for practical reasons. They can save time and money and they may provide access to historical data that cannot be produced using primary research because the events concerned took place before current members of society were born.
A vast range of stats are produced by the government. In recent years the government statistical service (produced in 1941) has coordinated the production of government statistics, but the production of large scale statistical data goes back at least to 1801, when the first census was conducted.
Sociologists interested in demography have used statistical data from the census and elsewhere to examine a wide range of topics, which include birth and death rates, marriage and fertility patterns, and divorce.
Sociologists who study deviance have used official crime and suicide statistics.
The many official economic statistics are of interest to sociologists concerned with work.
John Scott has provided some useful guidelines for evaluating secondary sources which he calls documents. The criteria can be applied to all secondary sources, including existing sociological research. They offer systematic ways of trying to ensure that researchers use secondary sources with as much care as they employ in producing primary data.
Scott identifies four criteria:
1) Authenticity – there are two aspects of authenticity soundness and authorship. Scott says a sound document is one which is complete and reliable (ensuring all the pages are there, no misprints and if it is a copy of an original it should be a reliable copy without errors. Authorship concerns who wrote the document. Many documents are not actually produced by those to whom they are attributed. For example letters signed by Prime Minister may have been written by civil servants and might reveal little about the prime ministers own views.
2) Credibility – this issue relates to the amount of distortion in a document. Any distortion may be related to sincerity or accuracy. In a sincere document the author genuinely believes what they write. This is not always the case as the author may hope to gain advantage from deceiving readers.
3) Representativeness – a researcher must be aware of how typical or untypical the documents being used are in order to assign limits to any conclusions drawn. Two factors that may limit the possibility of using representative documents are survival and availability. Many documents do not survive because they are not stored, and others deteriorate with age and become unusable. Other documents are deliberately withheld from researchers and the public gaze, and therefore do not become available.
4) Meaning – this concerns the ability of the researcher to understand the document for example the document may be written in a foreign language or written in old fashioned language or handwriting or vocabulary which is difficult to comprehend.
Historical documents are of vital importance to sociologists who wish to study social change which takes place over an extended period of time. There are limits to the period over which a sociological study using primary sources can extend, and past events may be important in understanding how contemporary patterns of social life came about. One area in which historical statistical sources have been of considerable importance is the study of family life.
Life documents are created by individuals and record details of that person’s experiences and social actions. They are predominantly qualitative and may offer insights into people’s subjective states. They can be historical or contemporary and can take a wide variety of forms.
Ken Plummer (1982) illustrates this diversity when he says: “people keep diaries, send letters, take photos, write memo’s, tell biographies, scrawl graffiti, publish memoirs, write letters to the papers, leave suicide notes, inscribe memorials on tombstones, shoot films, paint pictures, make music and try to record their personal dreams.”
Advantages of secondary sources: ease of access; low cost to acquire; clarification of research question; may answer research question and may show difficulties in conducting primary research.
Disadvantages of secondary sources: quality of research may be poor; not specific to researcher’s needs; possible incomplete information and not timely.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex