What is Data? The answer might surprise you

I like to compare my discovery of Sociolinguistics to my love of swimming. I like to consider myself a competent swimmer, and I love being underwater. But discovering sociolinguistics was like coming up for air and noticing air and dry land. A fundamental element that led to this feeling is the difference in data.

In survey research, we rarely think about what data looks like, unless we are training new hires for jobs like data entry. Data can be visualized as a spreadsheet. Each line is a case, and each column is a variable. The variables can be numeric or character and vary in size. We analyze the numbers using statistics and the character variables using qualitative analysis. Or, we can try quantitative techniques on character fields.

The field of survey research has been feeling out its edges increasingly in the past few years. This has led us to consider new data sources, particularly data sources that do not come from surveys. Two factors shape this exploration

1.) Consideration for the genesis and representativeness of the new data. What is it, and what does it represent?

2.) A sense of what data should look like. We expect new data to resemble old data. We think in terms of joining files; collating, concatenating, merging, aggregating and disaggregating. New data should look and work like this. And so our questions are more along the lines of: how can we make new data look like (or work with) old data?

Sociolinguistics could not be more different, in terms of data. In sociolinguistics, everything is data. Look around you: you’re looking at data. Listen: you’re listening to data. The signs that you passed on your way into work? Data. The tv shows you watch when you get home? Data. Cooking with recipes? Data. Talking on the phone? Data. Attending a meeting? Institutional discourse!

In sociolinguistics, we  call analytic methods our ‘toolkit,’ and we pride ourselves on being able to analyze any kind of data with that toolkit. We include ethnographic methods, visual semiotics, discourse methods, action-based studies, as well as traditional linguistic means and measures. Each of these methods can be addressed quantitatively or qualitatively. The best studies use a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. To me, these methods and data sources are nothing short of mind blowing, and they redefine the prospect of social science research.

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