Data Sets for Social Sciences

Searching for Data

To help locate the best data for your research, ask yourself the following: What kinds of data do I need? Who would collect this data? How would this data have been collected? Keep reading below for tips on how to answer these questions.  Remember to contact a librarian if you need assistance!

Questions to Ask

Before you search for a data source, think about what kind of data you need. Ask yourself the following:

What are your key concepts? 

  • Race, gender, age, educational attainment...

What unit of analysis do you need?

  • Individuals, families, households...
  • Companies, schools...
  • Automobiles, commodities...

What geographic unit do you need?

  • National: U.S., country level
  • State, regional, county. local, cities...
  • International

NOTE: Not all data is available at the geographic level you need. Some data is only available at the state or county level.

What time period/years do you need? What is the frequency?

  • Fixed time: most recent available, past 5 years, historical...
  • Time series: annual, quarterly, every 10 years...

Not sure the answer to these questions about your research interest? Start by conducting a literature review. Find studies related to your topic and look for the data used by other scholars. What data points did they analyze? Where did they find the data?

Knowing what you need is an important first step. Don't skip it! You need to have a strong idea of the specific data needed to answer your research question before you meet with a librarian.

When searching for data, think carefully about what organizations might have collected the data you need.  Governments and international organizations often maintain and provide access to the data they collect, while businesses and independent researchers' data are less available to the public. For the later, subscriptions to data archives and business databases are sometimes a solution.

Here are some possible data collectors to consider:


  • Generally free, may be on the internet or in print (e.g. books, almanacs)
  • Data format varies widely
  • Collected through research to help aid policy decisions
  • Also collected through administrative processes as a result of work the government does
  • Examples:
    • U.S. Federal level: Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Center for Disease Control
    • U.S. State & Local level: Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, New Orleans Department of Information Technology & Innovation
    • Non-U.S. government: Indonesia Central Statistical Agency, Mozambique Instituto Nacional de Estatística, Statistics Canada
      Use to locate these national statistical agencies.

International Organizations

  • May be free or subscription/fee based
  • Data format varies widely
  • Collected through research to help aid policy decisions
  • Examples:
    • International Government Organizations (IGOs): United Nations, World Health Organization, OECD, World Bank
    • International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs): Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières

Data Archives

  • Usually subscription/fee based
  • Often includes data collected by individual scholar/researchers
  • Data generally available in formats like SPSS, SAS, Stata or Excel
  • Examples: ICPSR, Roper

Businesses & Trade Groups

  • Usually proprietary, requiring subscription if available outside a company
  • Examples: Market research, industry-wide statistics, individual company financial data

Don't ignore the scholarly literature (books & articles). Bibliographies and existing research may help you identify what types of data are available, and where to access them.

It can be helpful to think about how the data you need might have been gathered. There are two broad types of data collection:


  • Data collected to answer a specific research question or to aid policy decisions

Administrative or Procedural

  • Data collected during a procedural operation of an organization