What are the Most Common Means for Collecting Data?

Categories: Data Collection, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Research Skills

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We will define our April focus broadly to include any qualitative or quantitative methods that involve questioning, prompting, or working with participants to collect or generate data. Find the unfolding series here. Dr. Zina O’Leary, author of numerous SAGE books including the new Doing Your Research Project, is a Mentor in Residence for April.

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Primary data is data collected by researchers expressly for their research purposes – it is data that does not exist independent of the research process. Primary data is current, it is wholly owned by the researcher and, most importantly, it is targeted to specific issues the researcher is exploring.

The most common way to collect primary data is through surveys and interviews. Surveying is the process of collecting data through a questionnaire that asks a range of individuals the same questions related to their characteristics, attributes, how they live or their opinions. Interviewing, on the other hand, involves researchers seeking open-ended answers related to a number of questions, topic areas or themes.

These methods put you, as the researcher, in charge. Not only do you get to ask what you want, when you want, you also get to ask it how you want – you get to choose the wording, the order, the prompts, the probes.

Observation studies, a systematic method of data collection that relies on a researcher’s ability to gather data through his or her senses, are similar in that you set up the protocols for data collection – you decide what you will observe, when you will observe it, what you will record as ‘data’. In all three approaches, data collection is directed with some precision towards your research question, hypothesis, aims and objectives, and this has real appeal. The data collected is not superfluous but is, in fact, custom-built for your research project.

But there are some challenges associated with the collection of primary data. For one, it is a lot of work. Whether it be surveys, interviews or observation studies, it is not easy to design your own research protocols. Survey instruments are notoriously difficult to get right. Getting through a series of interviews and thoughtfully analysing them can be an exercise in frustration. And observation studies can be complex and leave you with a pile of messy data. There are also a host of ethical issues that you will need to work through to ensure you do no harm to your respondents though your research processes.

Primary data collection is also time-consuming, often expensive and doesn’t always go to plan. Getting enough survey respondents within your timeframe, racing around different parts of the city or state to conduct an interview, and the prolonged engagement that observation sometimes demands – all those need to be factored into the research design decision-making process.

If you can overcome these challenges, however, there can be great rewards. You have data expressly generated for your own research purposes, which can give you insights not available if you had used a pre-existing data set.

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