Documents as Forms of Data for Social Researchers

This week’s readings focused on documents as sources of data. Documents can include:


There are two types of official documents. The first is official documents from the state. This comprises of official reports or findings from the government or state and can provide great statistics for those looking for official documents. Though these reports are usually deemed credible, we must remember that these reports could be biased as research is not always objective, so being aware of where these reports originate is important. The second type of official document comes from private sources. This includes documents in the public domain, such as newsletters for various organizations and companies, organizational charts, etc. Though some of these are public domain, some of these materials are not accessible to the public, so researchers interested in these documents may have to request permission or only rely on public domain documents available.

Mass-media outputs are another form of documentation for data, and are more common. These include newspapers, movies, tv shows, magazines, etc. The way in which to interpret these forms of media for data would be to search for themes, or patterns, that emerge from these documents and then analyze your findings.

Virtual documents are just what it sounds like, documents that are virtual. They include:

Interpreting these various forms of documents for data can include qualitative content analysis and semiotics. Qualitative content analysis is simply finding patterns or themes that emerge from analyzing specific documents and using those patterns or themes to use as data. Once you find your emerging themes, the next step is to interpret those findings and then conclude your findings. Semiotics comprises of analyzing symbols in the social world, or your every day life, and then taking your analysis and trying to find the underlying (hidden) meaning to the specific symbols being analyzed.

This week’s readings really highlighted the various ways in which documents can provide data and how social researchers can use these documents to further enhance their research.

Questions to consider:

  1. How can we use visual objects as data in relation to our collaboration with Washington Park?
  2. In your opinion, what source of documents (virtual data included) would you prefer to use and why?
  3. What do we as social researchers have to be cautious of when looking to social media as a source of data?