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How to... use secondary data and archival material

Options:     Print Version - How to... use secondary data and archival material, part 4 Print view

Secondary data as part of the research design

We have already mentioned, as part of our discussion of the two main types of secondary data, some considerations in respect to how they are used as part of the research. In this section, we shall look more generally at how secondary data can fit in to the overall research design.

Theoretical framework

Researchers take different views of the facts they are researching. For some, facts exist as independent reality; others admit the possibility of interpretation by the actors concerned. The two views, and their implication for the documents and data concerned, can be summed up as follows:

  • Positivists see facts as existing independently of interpretation, so documents are an objective reflection of reality.
  • Interpretivists, and even more so realists, see reality as influenced by the social environment, open to manipulation by those who are part of it. A document must be seen in its social context, and an attempt to make sense of that context.

The interpetivist/realist view can be expressed diagrammatically as follows:

Image: Interpetivist/realist view = wider political and social context; immediate context; text/document.

Some examples would be:

  • minutes of a sales meeting the purpose of which was to monitor sales, with sales being affected by external influences
  • brochure or flyer which was created for a particular item, and designed to appeal to current fashions
  • training records of people doing National Vocational Qualifications (used in the UK to acknowledge the value of existing skills).

Reliability and validity

Reliability and validity is important to any research design, and an important consideration with secondary data is the extent to which it relates to the research question, in other words how reliably it can answer it. You need to consider the fit very carefully before deciding to proceed. Some questions which may help here are:

How reliable is the data?

In the case of published data, you will be able to make a judgement by looking at its provenance: does it come from the government, or from a reputable commercial source? The same applies to the Internet – what is the source? Look for publisher information and copyright statements. How up to date is the material?

You also need to make intrinsic judgements, however: what is the methodology behind the survey, and how robust is it? How large was the sample and what was the response rate?

There are fewer obvious external measures you can use to check unpublished, archival material: that from businesses can be notoriously inconsistent and inaccurate. Records can be incomplete with some documents missing; sometimes, whole archives can disappear when companies are taken over. In addition, some documents such as letters, reports, e-mails, meeting minutes etc. have a subjective element, reflecting the view of the author, or the perceived wishes of the recipient. For example, meeting minutes may not reflect a controversial discussion that took place but only the agreed action points; a report on sales may be intended to put a positive spin on a situation and disguise its real seriousness. It helps when assessing reliability to consider who the intended audience is.

If you are using media reports, be aware that these may only include what they consider to be the most pertinent points.

Measurement validity

One of the biggest problems with secondary data is to do with the measurements involved. These may just not be the same as the ones you want (e.g. sales given in revenue rather than quantity), they may deliberately be distorted (e.g. non recording of minor accidents, sick leave etc.), or they may be different for different countries. If the measures are inexact, you need to take a view as to how serious the problem is and how you can address it.


Does the data cover the time frame, geographical area, and variable in which you are interested? For example, if you are studying a particular period in a company, do you have meeting minutes to cover that period, or do they stop/start at a time within the boundaries of that period? Do you have the sales figures for all the countries your are interested in, and all the product types?

You can greatly increase the validity and reliability of your use of secondary data if you triangulate with another research method. For example if you are seeking insights into a period of change within a company, you can use documentary records to compare with interviews with key informants.


"Leading beyond tragedy: the balance of personal identity and adaptability" (Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 26 No. 6) is a case study of the Norwegian company Wilhelmson's Lines loss of key employees in a plane crash, and uses archival research along with on-site interviews and participant observation as the tools of case study analysis.

"The human resource management practice of retail branding: an ethnography within Oxfam Trading Division" (International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 7) uses an ethnographic approach and includes scanning the company intranet along with participant observation and interviews.

Quantitative or qualitative?

Documentary data can be used as part of a qualitative or quantitative research design.

Much data, whether from company archives or from published data sets, is statistical, and can therefore be used as part of a quantitative design, for example how many sales were made of a particular item, what were reasons for absenteeism, company profitability etc.

One way of using secondary data in quantitative research is to compare it with data you have collected yourself, probably by a survey. For example, you can compare your own survey data with that from a census or other published survey, which will inevitably have a much larger sample, thereby helping you generalize, and/or triangulate, your findings.

Textual data can also be used qualitatively, for example marketing literature can be used to as backup information on marketing campaigns, and e-mails, letters, meeting minutes etc. can throw additional light on management decisions.

Content analysis is often quoted as a method of analysis: this involves analysing occurence of key concepts and ideas and either draw statistical inferences or carry out a qualitative assessment, looking at the main themes that emerge.