Qualitative Research Methods: Documentary Research

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We shall discuss several issues: the nature of a document, and ways of classifying it; conceptual and practical matters of documentary research; ways of analysing documents; and finally some critical remarks on documentary research.

Documentary research method has had little attention compared to other methods because of the dominance of positivism and empiricism so that statistics and quantification are popular forms of data collection and analysis. Also, documentary research is associated with historical research, and history sits uneasily alongside social science disciplines. Documentary research is regarded as being not clear-cut, not having a method and nothing on how a researcher uses it. Yet these criticisms are misplaced. History as a discipline provides us with a sense of our past and with that the ways in which our present came about, and employing a range of documentary sources (e.g., state government files) enables researchers to reflect on contemporary issues.

Researchers can also see how new questions arising from contemporary concerns (e.g., gender issues, racism and nationalism) may turn them back towards an interrogation of history to uncover those aspects of the past that had remained hidden from view.

A broad definition of a document is a written text. Writing is the making of symbols representing words and involves the use of a pen, printing machine and other tools for inscribing messages on some material medium (such as paper). Similarly, electronic means of storing and displaying texts (files and documents) are also true documents. Documents may be regarded as physically embodied texts, where the containment of the text is the primary purpose of the physical medium. Sources of documentary research include historical documents such as laws, declarations, statutes and people’s accounts of events and periods. Also, reports based on official statistics would be covered, as well as governmental records, mass media, novels, plays, drawings, and personal documents such as dairies and biographies. To this list, photographs can be added – though they lie between aesthetic and documentary record.

There are three ways of classifying documents.

The process of documentary research

Conceptualising documents

There are several ways in which researchers might conceptualise a document and frame their research questions accordingly.

According to positivists, documents (e.g., news reports and crime statistics) represent an objective reflection of reality. They become mediums through which the researchers search for a correspondence between their descriptions and the events to which they refer. Here, documents account for social facts that exist independently of interpretations.

In contrast, for interpretivists (in particular, ethnomethodologists), documents (indeed, news and crime reports) are representatives of practical requirements and constructed for those purposes. Here, documents are seen as ‘accomplishments’ that construct what happened, based on a form of practical reasoning that renders the social order accountable and comprehensible, and yet also open to negotiation and manipulation by interested parties. Documents are to be used to examine unstated, tacit and implicit meanings and structures embedded within the documents, as they refer to some underlying social patterns or values. Like interviews and statistics, documents are seen as topics, not as resources – i.e., to be used to make sense of how social actors construct reality, rather than to be used to reflect it.

For critical realists, documents cannot be read in a detached manner. Instead, researchers must approach documents in an engaged, not detached, fashion. The analysts must consider the differences between their own frames of meanings and those found in the text. A researcher begins with an analysis of the common sense procedures that came to formulate the document (for instance, short term cost saving measures generating part-time and temporary employment contracts), and then locates it within a wider social and political context (e.g., free market forces and weakening collective bargaining and trade union powers). Researchers next examine the factors surrounding the processes of its production and social context (say, neo-liberalism and marketisation of society). It then becomes necessary to rise above the particularity of the text and the rules of the context to produce an understanding and explanation of the text in the context of wider political, economic and social forces. Here, documents are viewed as media through which social mechanisms, structures and powers are expressed. They are approached in terms of the cultural and economic context in which they were written, and may be viewed as attempts at persuasion. Approaching documents in this way tells researchers a great deal about the societies in which writers write and readers read. A document (e.g., a newspaper) might, for example, reflect the marginalisation of particular groups of people and the social characterisation of others (say, social deviant groups such as gays and lesbians).

For feminists, a text (e.g., an advertisement featuring scantily-dressed women) is a reading to revise its premises and also an act of refusal. The researcher concentrates on the way in which the text constructed the contribution of women to an event, but the strategy of refusal enables women to see their contemporary social and political situation in a new light (i.e., women exploitation and oppression). Here, feminist researchers, and women in general, must understand the assumptions behind the text, and resist, refuse and revise them to enable themselves and women to liberate themselves from patriarchal powers.

Critical theorists share much of critical realists’ approach to texts. They focus not only on the relationship between the author and the document, but the ways in which the use of a document (say, a mythical story) is linked to the present as acts of historical writings are inevitably linked to current uses (say, nationalism and identity).

The post-structuralist approaches suggest that a text (e.g., media) does not refer to anything beyond itself nor to the intentions of its author. Here, the debate whether the text is (which would include an interview transcript or observation field notes) a topic of social research, or a resource for social research is revived.

Generally, theorists suggest that a researcher should approach a document in terms of three levels of meaning and interpretation:

Using documents

There are often practical impediments to the research aims of collecting and analysing documents:

In such cases, imagination, along with an understanding of the issues and methods of social research, is often required to gather data from a wide range of documentary sources (i.e., primary, secondary and tertiary sources, private and public documents and solicited and unsolicited reports).

Assessing documents

There are four criteria for assessing the quality of the evidence available from documentary sources.

The analysis of documents

Documents do not stand on their own, but need to be situated within a theoretical frame of reference in order that its content is understood. For this purpose, we can use content analysis, which compromise three stages: stating the research problem, retrieving the text and employing sampling methods, and interpretation and analysis. Content analysis takes both quantitative and qualitative forms.

Quantitative content analysis

It seeks to show patterns of regularities in content through repetition. The analyst would seek to derive categories from the data (e.g., a daily newspaper) in order that it can be compared with other data. Words and phrases (say, ‘truth’, ‘liberties’, ‘freedom’, ‘opposition parties’, ‘civic associations’, and so on) in the documents are transformed into numbers. The number of times in which a word or phrase occurs in the text is taken as an indicator of its significance in the text (e.g., more references to ‘freedom’ than ‘authoritarianism’ may show the political tendencies of the editor and owner of the newspaper). This quantification strategy is assumed to enhance both the reliability and validity of the classified data. It is taken for granted that there exists a defensible correspondence between the transformed account and the way the information was meant in its original form.

However, there are several weaknesses with this quantification approach.

In short, the approach negates the idea that a text is open to multiple and contradictory readings by its audience. It is wrong to assume that the textual interpretation can be simply read off without considering the readers’ understanding. The frequency with which words or phrases occur in a text may therefore say nothing about its significance within the document.

Qualitative content analysis

For researchers to grasp a document’s significance, they must concentrate on intended, received, and content/internal meanings. Qualitative analysis views the author as a self-conscious actor addressing an audience under particular social and political circumstances. The task of the researcher is to read the text in terms of its symbols – as an anthropologist does with rituals. This ‘reading’ may be derived from secondary sources and/ or other research methods such as observational studies. The researcher considers not only how existing interpretations are constructed, but also how new ones are developed and employed. While author’s intended meanings are important, analysing the reader’s social situation is also crucial to interpreting the text.

Aside from the emphasis on intended and received meanings, there is also content meaning upon which content analysts and semioticians focus their attention. This examines the relationship between a signifier (i.e., a symbol or word) and a signified (i.e., a concept or idea to which the signifier refers to), and its relationship to a referent (i.e., a material object or language system). The signified may not refer to a material object, but instead refer to the way in which a system of language (through its signs) organises the world. Content analysts focus upon the relationships within the text, and its relationship to other texts. A critical-analytic stance considers how the document (e.g., a government news report) represents the events that it describes and closes off potential contrary interpretations (e.g., oppositional understandings) to the reader. This stance considers the way in which a text attempts to stamp its political, cultural and economic authority upon the social world it describes. In so doing, the social world might be characterised by the exclusion of valuable information (e.g., on women and minority groups) and the characterisation of events and people in particular ways according to certain powerful interests.

Issues in documentary research

There are several criticisms of documentary research methods.