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
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

7. Secondary data

7.1 Introduction to secondary analysis
7.2 Extent of re-analysis of secondary data

7.3 Nature of the data

7.4 Data sources

7.4.1 Statistical sources Introduction Government official statistics The Office for National Statistics Government Statistical Service Admiistrative Data Research Network The British Social Attitudes Survey The Crime Survey for England and Wales Social Trends Local official statistics Unofficial statistics

7.4.2 Data and historical archives
7.4.3 Big data

7.5 Examining data sources
7.6 Methodological approaches

7.7 Summary and conclusion

Activity 7.4.1 Government official statistics
The British government produces a vast array of statistical data, and much of it is published on a regular basis. In the past this was published in the form of books or pamphlets but increasingly data is available on-line, often free. The data produced by the central government is a unique source, as no other body has the resources or the need to produce the data. Government official statistics are widely referred to and the scale of the available material makes them a useful resource for social researchers.

Official statistics are produced by a range of organisations, including UK government departments, the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and non-crown bodies.*

As of 2015, the following government departments and organisations produce official statistics

  • Cabinet Office (CO)
  • Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
  • Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)
  • Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
  • Department for Education (DfE)
  • Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
  • Department of Health (DH)
  • Department for International Development (DfID)
  • Department for Transport (DfT)
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA)
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
  • Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC)
  • HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
  • HM Treasury (HMT)
  • Home Office (HO)
  • Ministry of Defence (MoD)
  • Ministry of Justice (MoJ)
  • National Records of Scotland (NRS)
  • NHS in Scotland (NHSS)
  • Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA)
  • Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
  • Office of Manpower Economics (OME)
  • Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual)
  • Office of Rail Regulation (ORR)
  • Scottish Government (SG)
  • Welsh Government (WG)

The Online List of Government Statistical Surveys documents which statistical surveys are run by each organisation.

Top The Office for National Statistics
The Office for National Statistics is the largest independent producer of official statistics in the United Kingdom, being the only government department with the production of statistics as its main role.

The Office for National Statistics is independent of ministers and instead reports through the UK Statistics Authority to Parliament and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Office for National Statistics is thus the executive office of the UK Statistics Authority, an independent non-ministerial department, directly accountable to Parliament, which was established on 1 April 2008 by the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Under the Act, the Authority is responsible for promoting and safeguarding the production, quality, comprehensiveness and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. It promotes good practice and has independent scrutiny of all United Kingdom official statistics.

The Office for National Statistics is the recognised national statistical institute for the country and has an international reputation for its scrupulous approach to producing official statistics. One of its main responsibilities is the provision of statistical leadership and methodological advice for the benefit of UK official statistics.

The Office for National Statistics is responsible for collecting and publishing statistics related to the economy, population and society at national, regional and local levels. It also conducts the census in England and Wales every ten years. The output of the Office is extensive, with over 600 different statistical releases a year (as of 2019), which rely on a broad range of methods and systems. All outputs are produced in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics (UK Statistics Authority 2019) (formerly the Code of Practice for Official Statistics) and relevant quality standards.

The Office of National Statistics, commenced operation on 1 April 1996 as a result of the merger of the Central Statistical Office and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. The Central Statistical Office was a government department charged with the collection and publication of economic statistics for the United Kingdom. Each government department prepared and published its own statistics (either directly or via Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO)). The statistics divisions of all major departments plus the Business Statistics Office and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) made up the Government Statistical Service and the Central Statistical Office co-ordinated the system.

Top Government Statistical Service
The Government Statistical Service (GSS) is a community for all civil servants working in the collection, production and communication of official statistics, whether they work in the Office for National Statistics, a government department or devolved administrations. The GSS includes statisticians, economists, social researchers, IT professionals and secretarial and clerical staff.

The GSS publishes around 2,000 sets of statistics each year, (including the 630 produced by the Office for National Statistics).

The National Statistician is the Head of the GSS and, as the Authority's Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary, is a member of the Board of the UK Statistics Authority. The National Statistician's role includes: safeguarding the production and publication of high quality official statistics by all departments, agencies and institutions within the United Kingdom; providing professional leadership to all statisticians within the UK government and the devolved administrations, as well as other producers of official statistics; providing strategic oversight of the Office for National Statistics; providing advice to ministers, the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials on the production, dissemination and use of statistics across government.

Top Administrative Data Research Network
To aid research, the Administrative Data Research Network was set up. It is a United Kingdom-wide partnership between universities, government departments and agencies, funders and the wider research community.

The ADRN is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and has been established to facilitate accredited researchers in accessing de-identified (with names and addresses removed) administrative data, which is routinely collected by government organisations, for the purposes of social and economic research.

The use of data is controlled, though. An Approvals Panel examines every research proposal thoroughly. Once they give their approval, the data custodian has to agree to share its data before the research can go ahead. The network provides a secure environment for the researcher to work in and researchers cannot take any data out of this safe setting. Furthermore, Network staff scrutinise the results before publication to make sure they are relevant to the project and do not disclose any information about individuals.

Examples of available surveys include, the British Social Attitudes Survey, Crime Survey for England and Wales and the composite Social Trends summaries.

Top The British Social Attitudes Survey
The British Social Attitudes Survey is an annual statistical survey conducted in Great Britain by NatCen Social Research since 1983 and the report, British Social Attitudes 32, was launched on 26 March 2015. It asks over 3,000 people what it is like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run. It tracks changes in people's social, political and moral attitudes and informs public policy as well as being an important barometer of public attitudes used by opinion leaders and social commentators.

The survey involves in-depth interviews with respondents who are selected using random probability sampling. Interviews are on topics including newspaper readership, political parties and trust, public expenditure, welfare benefits, health care, childcare, poverty, the labour market and the workplace, education, charitable giving, the countryside, transport and the environment, the European Union, economic prospects, race, religion, civil liberties, immigration, sentencing and prisons, fear of crime and the portrayal of sex and violence in the media.

The survey is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, government departments, quasi-governmental bodies and other grant-giving organisations.

The British Social Attitudes Survey was not conducted in 1988 and 1992, when funding was devoted instead to studies of voting behaviour and political attitudes in the British Election Study. The data from the study can downloaded from the UK Data Archive website (at, accessed 15 June 2015).

Top The Crime Survey for England and Wales
The Crime Survey for England and Wales is a systematic victim study, currently carried out by BMRB Limited on behalf of the Home Office. It was started in 1982 as the British Crime Survey and included Scotland. However, the Scottish Government has commissioned a bespoke survey of victimisation in Scotland called the Scottish Crime and Victimisation Survey (SCVS).

The Crime Survey for England and Wales seeks to measure the amount of crime in England and Wales by asking around 50,000 people aged 16 and over (as of January 2009), living in private households, about the crimes they have experienced in the last year. From January 2009, 4,000 interviews were also conducted each year with children 10–15 years old, although the resulting statistics have been treated as experimental.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales is comparable to the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted in the United States.

Since its commencement in 1982, the The British Crime Survey was carried out in 1984, 1988, 1992, and every two years to 2000. It was then undertaken in 2001 and since April 2001, interviews have been carried out on a continuous basis and detailed results from that point are now reported by financial years. Headline measures are updated quarterly based on interviews conducted in the previous 12 months.

It is the view of the Home Office that the Crime Survey for England and Wales provides a better indication of the true level of crime than police statistics since it includes crimes that have not been reported to, or recorded by, the police for various reasons. For example, the survey captures crimes that people think are too trivial to report or that the police will not be able or willing to do anything about. Over one third of reports of violent crimes are not recorded by police, for example.

The Home Office also claims that the survey provides a better measure of trends over time since it has adopted a consistent methodology and is unaffected by changes in reporting or recording practices. Data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales can also be downloaded for research and teaching use from the UK Data Service website.

The survey, while being regarded as a better indication of crime levels than reported police statistics, has faced criticism. It arbitrarily restricts the number of crimes that can be reported in the survey to five, which it has been estimated means an underreporting of about three million incidents a year, including about an 80% underreporting of violent crime. The five crimes per person limit has been consistent since the survey began so this might not affect the long-term trends. However, it takes little account of crimes such as domestic violence, figures for which would allegedly be 140% higher without the reporting limit in the survey.

Although highly regarded, the survey has also been criticised for omitting rape, assault, drug offences, fraud, forgery, crime against businesses and vehicles as well as murder and manslaughter (as the victims are dead). People living in communal establishments such as, hospitals, student halls of residence, homeless hostels, nursing homes are not included either.

Top Social Trends
Of all the general digests produced by the Government Statistical Service the most accessible, readable and widely used publication by social scientists is Social Trends. Originally published by HMSO and now Office for National Statistics, it was established in 1970 and was produced annually.

The last comprehensive published book seems to be Social Trends 41 (released in 2011), which covered, inter alia, the environment, housing, housing, health and social protection. A single volume, Measuring National Well-being was published 17 January 2012 as Social Trends 42: Population and later that year Measuring National Well-being - International comparisons released: 31 May 2012 (See the Office for National Statistics website for details at, accessed 21 June 2015.)

Social Trends was the major composite source of information about the social life of the country, drawing on social and economic data from a wide range of government departments and other organisations. It was packed with information presented in a readable form. It presents a broad picture of UK society and how it has been changing. For many students this would be the only source immediately available. Since Social Trends 41, the only related publication (as of June 2015) appears to be an article 'Social Trends spotlight on: E-society 2013', the first, and so far only, Social Trends 'Spotlight On' publication.

Although Social Trends is a useful summary source, for further analysis it is necessary to refer to the original source that is used in Social Trends, or to consult a special government department publication or even request a special tabulation from the department (which you there is normally a charge).

The main surveys used in Social Trends were:

  • Census of Population
  • General Household Survey
  • Family Expenditure Survey
  • National Food Survey
  • International Passenger Survey
  • National Readership Survey
  • Survey of Personal Incomes
  • New Earnings Survey
  • EC Labour Force Survey
  • National Travlel Survey

Activity 7.4.1
Look up the following statistics for the most recent year available and for a decade before. How have the figures changed? In each case also note the original source of the statistics and which parts of the United Kingdom are included in the total figures.
1. The number of divorces.
2. The number of people working in the manufacturing sector.
3. The average gross weekly earnings for men and for women.
4. The number of male and female prisoners.
5. The number of people who died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
6. The number of people who went to Spain on holiday.
7. The percentage of the population who were full-time students.

Time 45 minutes.



The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 allows Ministers to specify, in secondary legislation, non-Crown Bodies that produce official statistics. Crown bodies also produce official statistics. Crown bodies include central UK Government departments and agencies (including the Office for National Statistics) and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The non-Crown bodies that are currently regarded as producers of official statistics are listed in the the following secondary legislation:
The Official Statistics Order 2010; The Official Statistics (Scotland) Order 2008; The Official Statistics (Scotland) Amendment Order 2010; The Official Statistics (Scotland) Amendment Order 2012; The Official Statistics (Northern Ireland) Order 2012. If the statistics produced by a non-Crown body are official statistics it means that: they can be assessed to become National Statistics; the Code of Practice for Official Statistics applies to them; they can be monitored and checked by the UK Statistics Authority (correct as of March 2012).Return


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