Chapter 31: The Role of Documents in Social Research
Lindsay Prior In her history of research methods in America, Platt (1996) outlined the different ways in which the conduct of social research was heavily dependent on the collection and analysis of documentary data during the first half of the twentieth century. And as a measure of their importance she pointed out how the role of documents and records in empirical inquiry was appraised and assessed on a number of occasions under the auspices of the (US) Social Science Research Council. The authors of those appraisals – Allport (1942), Blumer (1939) and Gottschalk et al. (1945) – are probably unfamiliar to modern readers, yet in their day they exerted considerable influence on the development of various fields of social science; ranging from anthropology and criminology to politics, sociology and social psychology. The materials that they reviewed covered such items as family letters written by members of Chicago’s Polish community during the 1910s, the personal diaries of immigrants and criminals, life histories of delinquent boys and jackrollers, Navaho Indians and Chicago gang members – Angrosino (1989) and Plummer (2001) have provided excellent and more recent assessments of the work involved in many of the relevant studies. In addition, of course, mid-century social scientists were also aware of the importance to the design and support of empirical social research projects of various public and administrative documents such as the census, as well as court, crime, educational, financial, newspaper, and other kinds of record. Indeed, it was often the role of the public and administrative record...
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