What is Data? - Definition, Types, and Sources of Data

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What Is Data?

Irrespective of methodological dialectics in sociology, data, plural of datum, as defined in the Oxford dictionary of sociology, means a fact or statistic. Hence, data are records of observations. These might take a number of forms, for example, scores in IQ tests, interview records, fieldwork diaries, or taped interviews.

All of these provide data, that is, observations from which inferences may be drawn via analysis. Furthermore, data are the symbols, numbers, or alphabetical characters used to describe one or more attributes, such as age, sex, productivity, optimism, etc., which are then recorded.

Data is possible information that aids in the formation of knowledge. This implies that there is a difference between data and information, unlike how some people take the duo for the same thing. Therefore, while data are the input raw materials from which information is produced, information is data that has been assembled, processed, and interpreted in a meaningful way.

Data Collection

Data collection is a fundamental stage in carrying out research studies in sociology. The way and form in which data are collected informs the kind of statistical analysis to be employed, together with the subsequent reliability and power of the findings of a study.

However, the type of research design and research methodology are two basic factors to consider when deciding on the techniques to be employed in collecting data.

Typologies of Data in Sociology

1. Quantitative Data Or Qualitative Data

Quantitative data refers to information that appears in numerical form or in the form of statistics. On the other hand, qualitative data refers to information that appears in written, visual, or audio form, such as transcripts of interviews, newspapers, and web sites. (It is possible to analyze qualitative data and display features of it numerically.).

2. Primary Data Or Secondary Data

Secondary data are data that have been collected by previous researchers or organizations such as the government and international agencies such as WHO, UN, ECOWAS, etc. Quantitative sources of secondary data include official government statistics, and qualitative sources are very numerous, including government reports, newspapers, and personal documents such as diaries, as well as the staggering amount of audio-visual content available online.

Primary Sources of Data

Primary data are data collected firsthand by the researcher. Sociologists conduct unique research, which normally has specific research questions to be answered, and thus design methods to acquire targeted data fit for the work. The main methods sociologists use to generate primary data include social surveys (using questionnaires), interviews, experiments, and observations.

However, to generate secondary data purposely for research studies, official statistics, historical sources, life documentaries, mass media-analyzed content, and other examples of secondary data mentioned earlier are parts of methods that researchers employ to accumulate information from which findings are obtained.

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.

Albeit, the reliability and validity of secondary sources are sometimes questionable, for they can't provide the absolute information required by researchers. These methods (data collection, primary and secondary) will be discussed one after the other, as follows:.

Secondary Sources of Data

Sociologists often use secondary sources for practical reasons. They are cost-effective and can provide access to historical data that cannot be produced using the primary research data collection method because the event under investigation took place in the distant past. The following are the secondary methods of gathering data used by sociologists:.

1. Official Statistics

This entails the exploration of already-existing statistical data made available by government parastatals and international agencies. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the Nigerian Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), the Nigerian Population Census (NPC), etc. are examples of data banks in Nigeria from which sociological researchers can derive secondary data.

Similarly, international agencies like WHO, UN, UNESCO, AU, ECOWAS, etc. serve as data sources from which researchers can derive ready-made data suitable for developing research findings.

Demographers in sociology are more interested in using statistical data drawn from census data and elsewhere to examine a wide range of topics, which include birth rate, birth rate and fertility patterns, and divorce. Criminologists as well sometimes employ official crime statistics released by government bodies to help in the process of researching.

Much of the statistical information wouldn't have been successfully developed by researchers due to the amount of resources and power needed to be exercised in the process of gathering data. It is only a large organization that has the wherewithal to make such data available. The data are always from a very large population, which can be in the millions.

For instance, Emile Durkheim used suicide statistics to establish a correlation between suicide and other social facts.

Advantages of Using Official Statistics

  1. They are an unobtrusive measure of social life and alleviate the problem of reactivity.
  2. Data is easily made available.
  3. It is cost-effective.
  4. Findings from such a pool of data can be generalized. Inferences can be drawn, especially where the data are from the total population of a group of people. For example, countries like Nigeria.

Disadvantages of Using Official Statistics

  • The statistical data can be limited in use and scope.
  • Many sociological researchers do not accept the reliability and validity of the data because of possible alteration, either intentional or unintentional, by the source body.

2. Historical Document

Where past events are very important to bring to light in the course of research, sociological researchers find no usefulness in the primary method of data collection. The alternative in such a situation is to find and consult historical documents that are of vital importance and from which the needed data can be obtained.

According to Haralambos and Holborn (2008), "Historical documents are of vital importance to sociologists who wish to study social change that takes place over an extended period of time. Past events may be important in understanding how contemporary patterns of social life came about." Unfortunately, such information is prone to subjective and ideological imposition (including wrong interpretation) by those who produce it.

Therefore, it is risky to accept the findings as generalizable. But, without the use of historical documents, sociologists would be restricted to producing a rather static view of social life. Hence, Max Weber's work on the development of capitalism linked to religion would not have existed.

3. Life Document

Any document that details a person's life experiences and development through stages can serve as a source of data collection for the purpose of research. Such information contains a qualitative view of the individual's personal state.

Such life documents can be in the form of letters, diaries, autobiographies, biographies, etc., which can be historical or contemporary. This source shares advantages with historical documents in terms of method, but it is more limited in sample size due to the fact that only a few subjects can be studied.

A personal document is open to misinterpretation and is unrepresentative in nature. Similarly, such documents are always scarce and difficult to access for researchers.

4. The Mass Media

Although mass media as sources of data have always been criticized for rolling out distorted or misleading images of the society they try to project, the reports can also be useful to sociological researchers on the condition that a thorough assessment of the content is done before application.

The internet, as one of the most useful sources of generating data, especially for student researchers, makes a large amount of data available for research purposes. With access to the internet, data for various research topics can be accessed, including the works of other sociological researchers and other disciplines.

While the advantages of using mass media, which includes the internet, are the same as using the official statistics discussed above, it is expedient to highlight the danger of using mass media tools in collecting data for research.

Thus, a major problem with using mass media material results from little or no scrutiny of the contents before they are released to the public. As such, the reliability and validity of research findings are questionable.

Again, there is the problem of the authority of the authors and the conveyor of the materials on the platform of mass media, whether obsolete or updated, and the ideological orientation of the source. All these can erode the authenticity of data and information accumulated by the mass media.


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