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11.4 Analyzing Others’ Data

Learning Objectives

  1. Name at least two sources of publicly available quantitative data.
  2. Name at least two sources of publicly available qualitative data.

One advantage (or disadvantage, depending on which parts of the research process you most enjoy) of unobtrusive research is that you may be able to skip the data collection phase altogether. Whether you wish to analyze qualitative data or quantitative data sources, there are a number of free data sets available to social researchers. This section introduces you to several of those sources.

Many sources of quantitative data are publicly available. The General Social Survey (GSS), which was discussed in Chapter 8 "Survey Research: A Quantitative Technique", is one of the most commonly used sources of publicly available data among quantitative researchers (http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/GSS+Website). Data for the GSS have been collected regularly since 1972, thus offering social researchers the opportunity to investigate changes in Americans’ attitudes and beliefs over time. Questions on the GSS cover an extremely broad range of topics, from family life to political and religious beliefs to work experiences.

Other sources of quantitative data include Add Health (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/projects/addhealth), a study that was initiated in 1994 to learn about the lives and behaviors of adolescents in the United States, and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch), a study that has, for over 40 years, surveyed 10,000 women and men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Quantitative researchers interested in studying social processes outside of the United States also have many options when it comes to publicly available data sets. Data from the British Household Panel Study (http://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps), a longitudinal, representative survey of households in Britain, are freely available to those conducting academic research (private entities are charged for access to the data). The International Social Survey Programme (http://www.issp.org) merges the GSS with its counterparts in other countries around the globe. These represent just a few of the many sources of publicly available quantitative data.

Unfortunately for qualitative researchers, far fewer sources of free, publicly available qualitative data exist. This is slowly changing, however, as technical sophistication grows and it becomes easier to digitize and share qualitative data. Despite comparatively fewer sources than for quantitative data, there are still a number of data sources available to qualitative researchers whose interests or resources limit their ability to collect data on their own. The Murray Research Archive Harvard, housed at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, offers case histories and qualitative interview data (http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/mra). The Global Feminisms project at the University of Michigan offers interview transcripts and videotaped oral histories focused on feminist activism; women’s movements; and academic women’s studies in China, India, Poland, and the United States.These data are not free, though they are available at a reasonable price. See the Global Feminism’s order site for more on pricing: http://www.umich.edu/~glblfem/dvd.html; http://www.umich.edu/~glblfem/index.html. At the University of Connecticut, the Oral History Office provides links to a number of other oral history sites (http://www.oralhistory.uconn.edu/links.html). Not all the links offer publicly available data, but many do. Finally, the Southern Historical Collection at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill offers digital versions of many primary documents online such as journals, letters, correspondence, and other papers that document the history and culture of the American South (http://dc.lib.unc.edu/ead/archivalhome.php?CISOROOT=/ead).

Keep in mind that the resources mentioned here represent just a snapshot of the many sources of publicly available data that can be easily accessed via the web. Table 11.3 "Sources of Publicly Available Data" summarizes the data sources discussed in this section.

Table 11.3 Sources of Publicly Available Data

Organizational home Focus/topic Data Web address
National Opinion Research Center General Social Survey; demographic, behavioral, attitudinal, and special interest questions; national sample Quantitative http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/GSS+Website/
Carolina Population Center Add Health; longitudinal social, economic, psychological, and physical well-being of cohort in grades 7–12 in 1994 Quantitative http://www.cpc.unc.edu/projects/addhealth
Center for Demography of Health and Aging Wisconsin Longitudinal Study; life course study of cohorts who graduated from high school in 1957 Quantitative http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/
Institute for Social & Economic Research British Household Panel Survey; longitudinal study of British lives and well-being Quantitative http://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps
International Social Survey Programme International data similar to GSS Quantitative http://www.issp.org/
The Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University Large archive of written data, audio, and video focused on many topics Quantitative and qualitative http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/mra
Institute for Research on Women and Gender Global Feminisms Project; interview transcripts and oral histories on feminism and women’s activism Qualitative http://www.umich.edu/~glblfem/index.html
Oral History Office Descriptions and links to numerous oral history archives Qualitative http://www.oralhistory.uconn.edu/links.html
UNC Wilson Library Digitized manuscript collection from the Southern Historical Collection Qualitative http://dc.lib.unc.edu/ead/archivalhome.php?CISOROOT=/ead

While the public and free sharing of data has become increasingly common over the years, and it is an increasingly common requirement of those who fund research, Harvard researchers recently learned of the potential dangers of making one’s data available to all (Parry, 2011).Parry, M. (2011, July 10). Harvard researchers accused of breaching students’ privacy. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Harvards-Privacy-Meltdown/128166 In 2008, Professor Nicholas Christakis, Jason Kaufman, and colleagues, of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, rolled out the first wave of their data collected from the profiles of 1,700 Facebook users (2008).Berkman Center for Internet & Society. (2008, September 25). Tastes, ties, and time: Facebook data release. Retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/4682 But shortly thereafter, the researchers were forced to deny public access to the data after it was discovered that subjects could easily be identified with some careful mining of the data set. Perhaps only time and additional experience will tell what the future holds for increased access to data collected by others.

Figure 11.5

What do you think the future holds for making social scientific data publicly available, and how might the Harvard researchers’ experiences with their Facebook data shape that future?

Key Takeaways

  • Previously collected data sources enable researchers to conduct analysis without having to collect any of their own data.
  • Some publicly available data sources are quantitative; others are qualitative.

Exercises

  1. If you’re interested in learning about additional sources of publicly available data, check out the American Sociological Association’s lengthy and thorough list of public data resources: http://www2.asanet.org/student/pubdata00a.html. Which of those that you read about on the site are of most interest to you? Why?
  2. Read The Chronicle of Higher Education article on Harvard’s recent “privacy meltdown”: http://chronicle.com/article/Harvards-Privacy-Meltdown/128166/. What do you think the future holds for the public sharing of data? How might the incident described in the Chronicle article shape how, when, and whether public sharing of social scientific data occurs?