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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

CASE STUDY Personal documents

Personal documents reveal information about what people feel about their lives or other information about themselves. Researchers can use personal documents as a way to generate hypotheses or to study parts of people's lives, events or situations where it is not possible to study them directly.

Sociologists have made use of personal documents since the start of sociological research. For example, William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (1918–20) used personal documents amongst other material in their study The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. They made use of letters alongside autobiographies, newspaper articles, accounts of court proceedings and records from social agencies.


The letters sent between Poland and America were a major source of information. The researchers knew that there was extensive correspondence between the two countries and so placed advertisements in newspapers offering cash for each letter produced. It was relatively easy for the authors to acquire the letters in America but these represented only one side of the exchange. To overcome this Znaniecki went to Poland to get letters from the Polish peasants and managed to leave Poland with a suitcase full of them despite the outbreak of the First World War. The letters were used to show how traditional family solidarity was maintained or altered as family members moved to the United States.


We have here a case of familial attitudes quite untouched by emigration. The writer seems to represent as perfectly as possible the ideal of a peasant girl according to the traditional norms. There is scarcely anything in her behaviour that could be blamed from the traditional standpoint, but hardly any tendency to go beyond this traditional standpoint.

Brooklyn, N.Y., October 14th, 1911
My Dear Family: In the first words 'Praised be Jesus Christus.'...
And now, dear parents, I inform you that I am in good health, thanks to God, which I wish you also with my truest heart. And now I am on duty [a maidservant] and I do well, I have fine food, only I must work from 6 o'clock in the morning to 10 o' clock at night and I have $13 a month. And now, dear parents, I implore you don't grieve about me, thinking that I am without money.... And you thought, dear parents that I sent my last money away [to Aunt Karololska to repay a loan for the tickets to the United States]. But you know yourselves that I cannot remain without a cent, because I am in the world. I almost laughed about your sorrow. As it is I have spent more than 50 roubles on myself for the coming winter, and nevertheless I am not so beautifully dressed as all the others. Only I regret to spend money, I prefer to put it away rather than to buy luxurious dresses, like Olcia Kubaczowna who buys herself a new dress every week and doesn't look at money and doesn't think what can happen. She thinks only how to dress and says she doesn't need to think about anything more. But I am not of the same opinion; I think about my home. I have brothers and sisters and I intend to help them all come to America....
And now, dear parents, you may hope that I will send you for Christmas 10 roubles. I would not send them but, thanks to God, I have some, and I have work, so every month money comes to me....
And now, dear parents, I will write you that I have an opportunity to be married. I have fine boy, because uncle and auntie [Kubacz] have known him for 3 years. He is good, not a drunkard, he does not swear as others often do... I do not know whether I shall marry this year or not – just as you advise me, my parents. ... I beg you so very much, let nobody learn that I am going to be married and that I have a young man.... I beg you, let nobody know that I wrote this letter. Say only 'She wrote nothing; all's well,' and let that be all. Don't say anything about this matter. And when I send the photograph, hide it also, please, so that nobody may see it.
And now I have nothing more to write, and I bow to you, dear family, and I wish you every good. May God grant that this letter finds you in good health, and I ask you for a quick answer.
Aleksandra Rembienska.
And I request you, dear parents, send letters with stamps, because I have great difficulties. A letter with a stamp arrives sooner.

Adapted from Thomas and Znaniecki [1918–20] (1958), pp. 775–8.

Using letters as the basis of research does raise some problems. First, common to all document analysis, is the fact that the letters are not written specifically for research purposes. For example, in the Polish Peasant study Thomas and Znaniecki were interested in the process of assimilation of Polish peasants into American urban life. Not surprisingly, correspondence between family members in Poland and the United States did not necessarily address this issue in any consistent way. Nor were Thomas and Znaniecki always able to obtain complete sets of correspondence between family members. Thus the data was fragmentary and incomplete.

Second, letters are very personal documents and the owners may object to them being used for the purposes of research. Thomas and Znaniecki encouraged people to provide letters by offering a cash incentive. This may have led to a biased sample. Only certain people would give up letters in such circumstances and they would be likely to be selective about which letters they parted with. A cash incentive would perhaps not be sufficient to induce some people to give up certain types of letter, for example, love letters or letters that talk about the recipient in a derogatory fashion because they perhaps had not been sending enough money back home. A further complication arose in Thomas and Znaniecki's study. Not all the Polish peasants in the villages in Poland could write. Thus some letters would have been written by the village scribe. That there was an intervening person (the scribe) may have affected the content of the letters.

Activity CASE STUDY Personal Documents 1
1.  In what ways does the letter (above) show that the writer continues to adhere to traditional norms?
2.  Do you think that her desire to keep her forthcoming marriage a secret indicates a shift from tradition?


Diaries are sometimes used to keep a record of the everyday activities of individuals in a particular social setting. A useful picture of an individual's life can be built up by asking the person to keep a record of what they do at various times of the day, month, year and so on. The diary is often used as a supplement to other research methods.

Grabrucker (1988) kept a diary about the development of her daughter. At the end of each day she wrote a precise account of everything that had happened. She noted what she had said and done and what had been passed onto Anneli (her daughter) and her male and female friends. In this study of socialisation, Grabrucker wanted to contest the myth, which even some feminists were beginning to believe, that 'boys will be boys and girls will be girls' due to innate differences. The entries were thus made in order to assess the extent to which these trivial and frequently insignificant events play a part in gender role stereotyping. The following extract shows how Grabrucker's diary records the way her daughter was learning her gender role.


3 May 1983 (21 months)

Grandma is visiting us and is playing with Anneli. Some soft toys have been wrapped up and are being rocked to sleep. Grandma shows Anneli how to do it and she copies eagerly. Grandma would never have done this with a boy.

She's brought Anneli a present of a little shopping basket just like mummy's, which I let her use when we go shopping, when it occurs to me that by doing so I'm identifying her with me and again defining her in terms of myself and my own activities. Of course, this isn't the first time. How often have I passed on the idea of being 'just like mummy' in my daily activities as a housewife?

The sense of just being like mummy, handed on in the daily intimacy between mother and daughter, stays with us all our lives.

From Grabrucker, 1988, p. 35.

By using a diary Grabrucker concluded that the upbringing of girls is varied and experimental. Girls are confronted with two 'worlds' prescribed for the sexes and are expected to feel at home in both. For example, comments at home may make it clear to the girl that aggression is not acceptable in women, yet she is expected to stand up for herself just like a boy. The author concludes that it is now the time to start a new gender approach to boys. Only when both sexes, from childhood on, are engaged in a continual process of change is there any hope for a future of real equality between males and females.

Another example of using a diary is 'Project Sigma' (Coxon, 1988) funded by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health. The project was a three-year longitudinal national study of the sexual and social behaviour of gay and bisexual men to examine changes in sexual lifestyles under the impact of AIDS and HIV positivity. The need for this study arose because very little information existed about the detail of gay sexual behaviour. Yet good estimates were needed if theories and models that explain and predict transmission of HIV were to be accurate. Using the usual survey method would not have beeen appropriate, since most people would not participate truthfully. The researchers used a variety of methods, extensive interviews, ethnographic research and a day-to-day sexual diary as the main tool.

Most people, gay and heterosexual, cannot provide a reliable detailed account of sexual behaviour further back than a fortnight (Coxon, 1988). As one of the main factors in becoming HIV antibody positive is engaging in 'high risk' behaviour with a lot of partners it becomes clear that a reliable source of information on sexual activity is needed. The information in the diary is used to find out the number of partners and other information that cannot be obtained any other way. By using the diary, people were persuaded to detail their sexual activity.

Activity CASE STUDY Personal Documents 2
Keep a diary for a week of the programmes you watch on television and note how often and in what ways people from different ethnic groups are represented in various types of programme. What do you conclude from your findings? Discuss your results with other people who have also kept a similar diary. Did you have similar observations? Explain any differences that occurred in your entries.

Both Grabrucker's and Coxon's studies involved keeping a diary for research purposes. Grabrucker kept her diary with a view to challenging the myth of innate sex differences and Coxon encouraged a sample of people to keep a diary of sexual activity.

Researchers can also make use of diaries that are written for personal reasons and not intended as a research tool. Such personal diaries can provide useful research material but like letters and other personal documents the content might be quite fragmentary and incomplete for research purposes.

For example, Lee Harvey (1987) used the private journal of William Ogburn in his study of the Chicago 'School' of Sociology. This journal, which was stored in the archive of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, was restricted to public view for twenty-five years after the death of William Ogburn. It was used in the research to explore how Ogburn related to other members of the Chicago 'School'. Very little of the journal spoke about this presumed central issue and mentions of it were interspersed with lengthy accounts of holidays, social events, political reflections and so on.

Finally, researchers can also make use of diaries that are kept by politicians with a view to publication, such as The Diaries of  a Cabinet Minister (Crossman, 1975–7) or Against the Tide and Conflicts of Interest (Benn, 1989, 1990). These are particularly useful when looking at the processes of political decision-making as there has been very little social research into the area. However, such published diaries must be approached critically because of their party-political bias.


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