"Offer an insight into the interpretations people make about their lives"
A diary is a record of personal experiences and events which is created by an individual.
Diaries are a rich source of qualitative data for the social researcher as they can be interpreted either as the construction of social reality from an individual's perspective or as a source of information about unfolding events or the ongoing daily lives of individuals.They offer an insight into the interpretations people make about their lives, their everyday activities and behaviour.
Advantages of researching through the use of diaries
First it is a physically unobtrusive method that does not require the researcher to be present. Diarists are able to make entries 'in their own time', perhaps when they have had time to consider the significance of unfolding events or experiences. As such they may provide the basis of subsequent interviews, enabling the researcher to maintain a close link with 'life as lived'. As a result diaries often generate more sensitive material which respondents may have difficulty in expressing in interviews or through other methods requiring personal contact with the researcher. As longitudinal data, diaries provide evidence of expectations which can then be compared to subsequent entries.
Forms of diaries
Diaries can take a number of different forms and can serve different research purposes.
They may be kept at the request of the researcher for a limited period of time. The information recorded may be open with a full and detailed commentary in the respondent's own words, or it may be based on pre-categorised spaces or tick-boxes for ease of completion.
The diary may also take the form of a log, which only records the occurrence of events with little reflection and detail.
Most diaries are kept on a daily basis with specified space being allocated to each day, but short-term diaries may be organised on an hourly basis and others may solicit accounts on a weekly basis.
Some diaries are unsolicited; they are written without the specific intention of use in research and without payments or incentives.
The unsolicited personal diary may include little more than times of meetings, travel expenses, the state of the weather, or a record of sales and purchases. Alternatively they may record private thoughts, personal events and feelings which are recorded without intentional censorship.
If a diary is unsolicited and a private possession, it can also be very difficult for a researcher to gain access to this information as there is often no public record of its existence (Alaszewski, 2006, 61).
Furthermore there are ethical considerations in using diaries which have not been written for the purpose of research.
There is also another type of unsolicited diary, not written on the request of a researcher, yet still purposefully written with an audience in mind and with the considered possibility of eventual publication. Such a diary may form part of an eventual autobiography or similar literary project.
Limitations to the use of diaries
There are some limitations to the use of diaries in social research, notably the respondents must have the literacy capabilities to be a diary keeper (Corti, 1993), and the extent of the writing skills of the diarist obviously influences the quality and recording of the information.
Such difficulties can be countered through the use of tick boxes or proxy diarists. However, even if the respondent has the ability to record the information there are issues to consider about what is recorded.
How important these issues are is dependent on the intentions of the researcher. For example a researcher who requires a detailed, reliable, accurate and contemporary record of events and emotions may encounter problems such as the under-recording of information or of inadequate recall, particularly if information is being recorded some time after the event.
Similarly the act of diary keeping may influence and alter the way in which respondents report their data, choosing to include more favourable data or data which more closely fits the project's remit. However, these are only problems if they do not fit with the researcher's intentions.
It could also be that an analysis of what is recorded and what is not could be equally as revealing if the diary is collated with an in-depth interview. Some researchers may be particularly interested in the narrative construction of a diary: how people frame their stories, what they chose to include and the words they use. Therefore these recording practices are not problems necessarily but rather could be seen as an interesting source of data in their own right.
The World Wide Web has created new opportunities and ways of keeping diaries, such as blogs and postings on sites like Facebook and MySpace. Individuals are now able to post detail about their lives online in new and innovative forms. These new forms of diary keeping and logging of personal information will be discussed in more detail in the section on online data collection.
Study Number: SN5631
Study Title: Media Consumption and the Future of Public Connection, 2004-2005
Principal Investigator(s): Couldry, N., Markham, T. and Livingstone, S.
Date of Fieldwork: February 2004-June 2005
Abstract: This project was conducted to gather data on whether and how people's practices of media consumption give them the resources to connect to wider public spaces. The research also examined what implications for forms of democratic citizenship and participation that consumption may have. The research covered the ways that people's practices as media consumers were connected (or not) to their practices as citizens; how individual consumers might themselves understand the relationship between consumption and citizenship; and how far consumers think their media consumption provides them with the resources for citizenship they feel they need and ought to have.
Citation: Couldry, N., Markham, T. and Livingstone, S., Media Consumption and the Future of Public Connection, 2004-2005 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], July 2007.