Personal Documents in Sociology Research

By Saul Mcleod, published October 03, 2022


Personal documents refer to a wide variety of papers and other documentary material which can be used as a valuable source of secondary data

Personal Documents are usually made up of written texts, including diaries, letters, and other expressive documents such as biographies and autobiographies.

Almost any personal document can be of interest to a sociologists, but among those more frequently used are letter, diaries, school reports, photographs, birth, marriage and death certificates, rent books, and other documents realting to property, and wills.

These can provide a sociologist with a rich source of qualitative data, i.e. about experiences, feelings, attitudes, emotions, motives for behaviour etc. They can be contemporary or historical.

However, as with all secondary data, personal documents need to be treated with caution, but they can reveal significant insights, particularly into the past.

Strengths of Personal Documents

  • They are a cheap source of large amounts of qualitative data because someone else has already gathered the information.
  • Such documents can give a rich, detailed and valid insight into the everyday experiences, attitudes, feelings and practices of criminals or criminal justice officials whilst in their natural criminal or legal environment.
  • They are often used to supplement quantitative secondary data such as official statistics, e.g. a judge’s diary or letters can be used to support statistics about the treatment of criminals.
  • They may also be used where no other source of data exists. For example, sociologists might not be able to gain access to criminal gangs. The autobiography or diary of a gang member may give us important insights into criminal behaviour.
  • They are often the only insight sociologists have into the past. In other words, personal documents may also be historical documents, e.g. a first-hand account in the form of a diary or novel written in the 19th century may give us insight into crime or attitudes towards crime in this period.
  • Interpretivist sociologists are very keen on personal documents because they believe diaries etc. give a more valid insight into the meanings people apply to their actions. They enable sociologists to get close to people’s interpretation of reality. For example, suicide notes can be taken to be the final thoughts of the individual committing suicide. The biographies of criminals may be nostalgic and sentimental but nevertheless, they can still offer insights into, for example, the role of masculinity, violence and the importance of maintaining a ‘reputation’ among serious criminals.

Limitations of Personal Documents

  • It is not always possible to gain access to documents such as diaries because people regard them as private and confidential. For example, the nature of criminal activity means that few criminals leave personal records that may incriminate them and leave them open to prosecution.
  • There is always the danger of such documents being biased and therefore invalid because the person doing the writing might want to justify their actions and consequently he or she may not present an objective view of the situation. Such documents are always going to be too subjective.
  • There may be doubts about the authenticity and therefore the validity of the document – letters and diaries can be forged, e.g. the Hitler diaries.
  • A document may lack credibility if it was written long after the events it describes because key details might have been forgotten or exaggerated or downplayed or distorted.
  • There is always the danger that the sociologist will interpret what the writer is saying in a different way to what the writer intended. Furthermore different sociologists might interpret the same document differently.
  • If the people who wrote the personal documents are still alive, the sociologist will need to be aware of the ethics of using material which might have negative consequences for the author.
  • Positivists are not keen on documents because they see this type of data as unreliable because it cannot be checked for accuracy by the sociologist. Documents are not standardised, e.g. every person’s diary is unique even when they are recording the same events.
  • The uniqueness of personal documents also undermines their representativeness. Diaries, letters and novels tend to be mainly the product of middle-class professionals, e.g. literary or political people and therefore are not representative. Moreover, the illiterate and those with limited leisure time are unlikely to keep diaries.
  • Also, not all documents survive – are the surviving ones typical of the ones that get destroyed or lost? According to interpretivist sociologists, all these problems of representativeness make it difficult to draw generalisations from this type of evidence.