Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

1. Basics

1.4 Data, information and evidence
1.4.1 Introduction
1.4.2 Facts and the theory-laden nature of observation
1.4.3 Observation
1.4.4 Texts
1.4.5 Empirical and empiricism
1.4.6 Collecting data Primary and secondary methods

Activity 1.4.1
Activity 1.4.2

1.4.1 Introduction
Researching the social world is also more than collecting data. Although important, research is not so much about collecting data as what you do with it when you have it.

Data (the plural of 'datum') is the raw material but on its own tells you very little. In sociology, or other sciences, for that matter, 'facts' most definitely do not 'speak for themselves'.

Data starts to have meaning when it becomes information, that is, when the data is put into a context. '5000 people visited Bognor last Saturday' is a bit of data but it is not very informative. It becomes information when it is contextualised, for example, '5000 people visited Bognor last Saturday, which is the highest number of day visitors this year'.

However, this information isn't evidence. It becomes evidence when used to support a proposition, such as 'Bognor is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination as 5000 people visited last Saturday, which is the highest number of day visitors this year'.

However, even this is only evidence for a supposition. It becomes evidence in support of a theory when it is used to explain, interpret or understand a social phenomenon. For example, a simple explanation of the upturn in popularity might be, 'The new facilities put in place and the welcoming approach of the local council to all types of visitors has resulted in Bognor becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination as 5000 people visited last Saturday, which is the highest number of day visitors this year'.

Although we have differentiated the two terms, data and evidence, they are often used interchangeably in social science, and, confusingly, also often referred to as 'facts'.


1.4.2 Facts and the theory-laden nature of observation
So far, we have refrained from using the terms 'fact'. This is because 'fact' is a value-loaded term. The assumption is that if something is 'a fact' then it is a fact for everyone, is incontrovertible, and is self-evident. Indeed, if something is a fact it implies it is 'true' or 'correct' and that it has an existence somehow independent of the person asserting the 'fact' or the context within which it is situated.

However, there have been many critiques of this view, which show that a fact is only a fact in a theoretical context and that if the theoretical context is challenged, the fact, despite being self-evident, is no longer an incontrovertible fact. For example, the sun was once thought to go round the earth. People could see the sun traversing the sky and self-evidently going round the earth. However, this fact only had credence on the basis of the theory that the earth was the centre of the universe. A sociological example of a 'fact' might be that 20% of the people of Britain live in poverty. This implies that the figure given is not only correct but that what constitutes 'living in poverty' is self-evident. Any such 'fact' depends on how you define 'poverty' and when and how you compile the data. In short, the 'fact' does not exist in isolation.

As we noted above, facts don't speak for themselves. 'Facts' are not bits of self-evident knowledge that exist irrespective of any values or theories. On the contrary, 'facts' are only 'facts' in relation to theory. We know a 'fact' because someone has made an 'observation' and linked it to a 'theory'. In short, observations (see below) that appear to establish 'facts' are theory-laden (Chalmers, 1994).

We don't observe things neutrally. We have a framework, or set of theories, that conditions our observations. Our observation s of the world only make sense on the back of the theories we have about the world. For example, if someone points out to you a tall person, with short hair, wearing a business suit whose name is Terry and who works in an engineering firm you may infer from these 'facts' that the person is male. However, you would not always be correct. Indeed, you may consider the data insufficient to draw an inference. On the other hand, you may draw on the data as evidence to support a conclusion that the person is highly likely to be male.

Study Point
Provide an example of how your observations of the social world are influenced by your existing theories or preconceptions.

Activity 1.4.1
Examine copies of the week's press (both broadsheet and tabloid) noting any headlines, articles or stories based on journalistic preconceptions. Explain what these might be.
This activity involves critical reading.
As a class activity this would take about 20 minutes in small groups with a short feedback session to share some perceptions.
As an individual activity this would take 30 minutes if students read a couple of articles and write down the preconceptions they identify.


1.4.3 Observation
At root, all data or evidence relies on observation. In social science an 'observation' has a wider meaning than in common speech. Observation is not just restricted to the act of directly seeing something. An observation can include any of the senses.

Furthermore, an observation can be second-hand and provided it is somehow recorded or transmitted, via print, conversation, tape or any other medium it counts as an observation.

In social science, evidence takes many different forms, including:


1.4.4 Texts
The term 'text' has a wider meaning in social science than in common usage. A text, at one level, embraces the common sense notion of the printed or written word.

However, in some sociological perspectives text is shorthand for any cultural object. A postmodernist perspective goes further and construes text as all theories, all events, all persons, places or things as constructions in a given socio-cultural context. In short, everything is text. Not everyone finds this all-encompassing notion helpful. However, when text is seen as the producer of meaning, then the wider use of the term can be a useful shorthand.

For example, as we shall see later in the Guide, a study of the store chain 'Girl Heaven' treated the store as a text because the approach to marketing and the contents of the shop created a meaning for the target clientele, which was female teenagers (Russell and Tyler, 2002). So, in this case, the whole concept of the shop is a 'text'.


1.4.5 Empirical and empiricism
The term 'empirical data' is used widely in social science. This should really only refer to observation or experiment that permit inferences. In practice the term 'empirical data' is used in social science to refer to any data or evidence. Hence, given our definition of data, there is no need, in practice, to preface it with the descriptor 'empirical'.

Conversely, in practice, an 'empirical study' is one that draws on data or evidence in making inferences or conclusions, rather than a purely theoretical or logical analysis.

However, one distinction that you need to be aware of is that between 'empirical' and 'empiricist' (Pawson, 1989). Empirical, as we have seen, means using data as part of the research. An empiricist approach is one that assumes that knowledge can be derived directly from observation and is opposed to theoretical conjecture. It is beyond the scope of this section to examine 'empiricism' in detail (see Social Research Glossary). The argument in this Guide is opposed to empiricism and argues for the interrelationship of theory and observation.


1.4.6 Collecting data
Most textbooks on research methods spend most of their time outlining the 'correct' ways to collect different types of data. While it is important to be aware of these ideals, the real world usually makes it impossible to fulfil the rubrics of these methodolic prescriptions.

This Guide will not only provide accounts of what should happen but will illustrate how to use the data and how to link it to theory or policy and to present it in ways that are accessible to all.

Social research answers several broad types of questions. What does the social world look like? Why is the social world as it is? What can we do to change it? What are the consequences of the change? In all these cases, evidence is important.

Evidence might take the form of newly-collected data (primary data) or data already in existence (secondary data). Data takes various forms, numeric data ('statistics'), observations of social action and of people's views (qualitative data) published accounts and an analyses of social phenomena (literature) unpublished written or electronic material (grey literature).

Collecting data can be a haphazard or a systematic process. Haphazard data collection is whatever you happen to stumble across. Systematic data collection is based on a clearly stated method. In social science there are many methods that can be used to collect evidence including observation of events, interviewing people and searching through and analysing documents. There are many variations on these approaches and different circumstances require different forms of investigation, as you will see in the examples in the following chapters. A method can be used in many different settings and for a variety of purposes. Also some tools or methods are better for some jobs than others.

Top Primary and secondary methods
Methods are of two broad types, primary and secondary.

Primary methods involve researchers collecting their own data. They may, of course, have help to do this, such as hiring interviewers. The data they collect is 'new'. It might be completely new, such as a taped interview with someone. Or it is material that already exists but 'collected' and used in a new way, such as making recordings of television news broadcasts to use to analyse the extent of political bias.

Secondary methods involve reanalysing information that has already been used as part of a research study. This includes the following:

  • using a database of information collected for one study for a new but related study;
  • using official statistics collected by government agencies (for example on poverty and on unemployment) as evidence in exploring the relationship between poverty and unemployment;
  • using data archives to collect information from a range of studies to undertake a comparative study;
  • search the published literature to collect evidence to examine a theory.

Most social research involves a mixture of primary and secondary methods. Researchers usually explore the existing literature to find out what other studies have shown about the area of research. Most, although not all, research also involves some 'new' material that the researcher has collected.

Primary research takes three broad forms:

In the latter case, a 'document' is not necessarily something written or printed on paper. It can include 'aural documents' such as tape/digital recordings, visual documents such as video, films, paintings or any other collection of material, even (as in one research study) the collection of rubbish from people's dustbins (Sawyer, 1961).

What we have called 'document analysis' is sometimes referred to as 'unobtrusive methods' because it involves using material that does not involve any direct intrusion into the lives of the subjects of the research.

Study Point
Write down which types of evidence you think are appropriate for sociological enquiry. Devise a method by which you could find out whether the pastoral care system in the institution in which you are studying is working efficiently.

The wide range of methods of data collection are summarised in the following tables (pdf files, currently unavailable)

Table 1 Primary data collection: asking questions

Table 2 Primary data collection: observing events

Table 3 Primary data collection: analysing documents

Activity 1.4.2
List five methods you would consider using if you wanted to find out under what circumstances the police would make an arrest? Consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
This activity involves applying existing knowledge and the hints in Chapter 1 to a broad conceptual issue, viz. circumstances for an arrest. Students need to think critically about advantages and disadvantages.
As a class activity this would take about 30 minutes in small groups with a short feedback session to share some perceptions.
As an individual activity this would take 40 minutes if students write down their thoughts.


Next 1.5 Theory