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How to... use secondary data and archival material

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Using published data sets

What are they?

As discussed in the previous section, these are sources of data which have already been collected and worked on by someone else, according to a particular research design. Other points to note are:

  1. Mostly they will have been collect by means of a survey, which may be:
    • a census, which is an "official count", normally carried out by the government, with obligatory participation, for example the UK population censuses carried out every ten years
    • a repeated survey, which involves collecting information at regular intervals, for example government surveys about household expenditure
    • an ad hoc survey, done just once for a particular purpose, such as for example a market research survey.
  2. Interpreted data as referring to a particular social unit is termed a data set.
  3. A database is a structured data set, produced as a matrix with each social unit having a row, and each variable a column.
  4. Sometimes, different data sets are combined to produce multiple source secondary data: for example, the publication Business Statistics of the United States: Patterns of Economic Change contains data on virtually all aspects of the US economy from 1929 onwards. Such multiple source data sets may have been compiled on:
    • a time series basis, that is they are based on repeated surveys (see above) or on comparable variables from different surveys to provide longitudinal data
    • a geographical basis, providing information on different areas.

Key considerations

There are a number of points to consider when using data sets, some practical and others associated with the research design (yours and theirs).

Practical considerations relate to cost and use:

  1. Whilst much data is freely available, there may be a charge. For example, Business Statistics of the United States: Patterns of Economic Change is priced US$147. So, when deciding what data to use it's a good idea to check what's already in your library.
  2. Is the data available in computerized form, or will you have to enter it manually? If it is available in computerized form, is it in a form suitable to your research design (see below) or will you have to tabulate the data in a different form?

Research considerations include:

  1. Is the data set so important to your research that you cannot ignore it? For example, if you were doing a project which involved top corporations, you could not afford to ignore the publications which provided data and statistics, such as Europe's 15,000 Largest Companies 2006.
  2. Does the data generally cover the research question?
    • Is the coverage relevant, or does it leave out areas (e.g. only Asia as opposed to Australasia) or time periods (e.g. only starting in 1942 when you wanted data from 1928)?
    • Are the variables relevant, for example if you are interested in household expenditure does it break down the households in ways relevant to your project?
    • Are the measures used the same, for example, is growth in sales expressed as an amount or a percentage?
    • In the case of data from different countries, has the data been collected in the same way? For example, workers affected by strikes may include those directly affected in one country, and those indirectly affected in another.
  3. Is the data reliable, and current? Note that data from government, and reputable commercial sources, is likely to be trustworthy but you should be wary of information on the Internet unless you know its source. Data from trustworthy sources is likely to have been collected by a team of experts, with good quality research design and instruments.
  4. The advantage of survey data in particular is that you have access to a far larger sample than you would otherwise have been able to collect yourself.
  5. There is an obvious advantage to using a large data source, however you need to allow for the time needed to extract what you want, and to re-tabulate the data in a form suitable for your research.
  6. How has the data been collected, for example it it longitudinal or geographical? This will affect the type of research question it can help with, for example, if you were comparing France and Germany, you would obviously want geographical data.
  7. How intrinsic to your research design will the use of secondary data be? Beware of relying on it entirely, but it may be a useful way of triangulating other research, for example if you have done a survey of shopping habits, you can assess how generalizable your findings are by looking at a census.
  8. While use of secondary data sets may not be seen as rigourous as collecting data yourself, the big advantage is that they are in a permanently available form and can be checked by others, which is an important point for validity.

And finally...

  • Will the benefits you gain from using secondary data sets as a research methods outweigh the costs of acquiring the data, and the time spent sorting out what is relevant?


Producers of published secondary data include:

  1. Governments and intergovermental organizations, who produce a wide variety of data. For example, from the US Government come such titles as Budget of the United States Government, Business Statistics of the United States: Patterns of Economic Change, County and City Extra (source of data for every state), and Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics.
  2. Trade associations and organizations representing particular interests, such as for example the American Marketing Association. These may have data and information relevant to their particular interest group.
  3. Commercial providers. These are often the best source of information for commercial and financial data. Their focus may be:
    • company information: for example AMADEUS provides pan European information on companies that includes balance sheets, profit and loss, ratios, descriptive etc., while FAME does a similar job for companies in the UK and Ireland.
    • market research: for example, Mintel specializes in consumer, media and market research and published reports into particular market sectors, whilst Key Note "boasts one of the most comprehensive databases available to corporations in the UK", having published almost 1,000 reports spanning 30 industry sectors.

Where to find such information? The key is to have a very clear idea of what it is you are trying to find: what particular aspects of the research question are you attempting to answer?

You may well find sources listed in your literature review, or your tutor may point you in certain directions, but at some point you will need to consult the tertiary literature, which will point you in the direction of archives, indexes, catalogues and gateways. Your library will probably have Subject Guides covering your areas of interest. The following is a very basic list:

  • UK Economic and Social Data Services (ESDS). Contains links to: UK Data Archive (University of Essex); Institute for Social and Economic Research (University of Essex); Manchester Information and Associated Services (University of Manchester); and Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research (University of Manchester). These contain access to a wide range of national and international data sets.
  • Biz/ed. A [UK] gateway covering economics, accounting, leisure, sport & recreation and travel & tourism.
  • Statistics of the European Union.
  • University of Michigan. Gateway to statistical resources on the Web.
  • Hoovers Online. Company information on US and international companies.