Analysis Types

Documentary Analysis – Methods, Applications and Examples

Documentary Analysis

Documentary Analysis


Documentary analysis, also referred to as document analysis, is a systematic procedure for reviewing or evaluating documents. This method involves a detailed review of the documents to extract themes or patterns relevant to the research topic.

Documents used in this type of analysis can include a wide variety of materials such as text (words) and images that have been recorded without a researcher’s intervention. The domain of document analysis, therefore, includes all kinds of texts – books, newspapers, letters, study reports, diaries, and more, as well as images like maps, photographs, and films.

Documentary analysis provides valuable insight and a unique perspective on the past, contextualizing the present and providing a baseline for future studies. It is also an essential tool in case studies and when direct observation or participant observation is not possible.

The process usually involves several steps:

  • Sourcing: This involves identifying the document or source, its origin, and the context in which it was created.
  • Contextualizing: This involves understanding the social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances during the time the document was created.
  • Interrogating: This involves asking a series of questions to help understand the document better. For example, who is the author? What is the purpose of the document? Who is the intended audience?
  • Making inferences: This involves understanding what the document says (either directly or indirectly) about the topic under study.
  • Checking for reliability and validity: Just like other research methods, documentary analysis also involves checking for the validity and reliability of the documents being analyzed.

Documentary Analysis Methods

Documentary analysis as a qualitative research method involves a systematic process. Here are the main steps you would generally follow:

Defining the Research Question

Before you start any research, you need a clear and focused research question. This will guide your decision on what documents you need to analyze and what you’re looking for within them.

Selecting the Documents

Once you know what you’re looking for, you can start to select the relevant documents. These can be a wide range of materials – books, newspapers, letters, official reports, diaries, transcripts of speeches, archival materials, websites, social media posts, and more. They can be primary sources (directly from the time/place/person you are studying) or secondary sources (analyses created by others).

Reading and Interpreting the Documents

You need to closely read the selected documents to identify the themes and patterns that relate to your research question. This might involve content analysis (looking at what is explicitly stated) and discourse analysis (looking at what is implicitly stated or implied). You need to understand the context in which the document was created, the author’s purpose, and the audience’s perspective.

Coding and Categorizing the Data

After the initial reading, the data (text) can be broken down into smaller parts or “codes.” These codes can then be categorized based on their similarities and differences. This process of coding helps in organizing the data and identifying patterns or themes.

Analyzing the Data

Once the data is organized, it can be analyzed to make sense of it. This can involve comparing the data with existing theories, examining relationships between categories, or explaining the data in relation to the research question.

Validating the Findings

The researcher needs to ensure that the findings are accurate and credible. This might involve triangulating the data (comparing it with other sources or types of data), considering alternative explanations, or seeking feedback from others.

Reporting the Findings

The final step is to report the findings in a clear, structured way. This should include a description of the methods used, the findings, and the researcher’s interpretations and conclusions.

Applications of Documentary Analysis

Documentary analysis is widely used across a variety of fields and disciplines due to its flexible and comprehensive nature. Here are some specific applications:

Historical Research

Documentary analysis is a fundamental method in historical research. Historians use documents to reconstruct past events, understand historical contexts, and interpret the motivations and actions of historical figures. Documents analyzed may include personal letters, diaries, official records, newspaper articles, photographs, and more.

Social Science Research

Sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists use documentary analysis to understand social phenomena, cultural practices, political events, and more. This might involve analyzing government policies, organizational records, media reports, social media posts, and other documents.

Legal Research

In law, documentary analysis is used in case analysis and statutory interpretation. Legal practitioners and scholars analyze court decisions, statutes, regulations, and other legal documents.

Business and Market Research

Companies often analyze documents to gather business intelligence, understand market trends, and make strategic decisions. This might involve analyzing competitor reports, industry news, market research studies, and more.

Media and Communication Studies

Scholars in these fields might analyze media content (e.g., news reports, advertisements, social media posts) to understand media narratives, public opinion, and communication practices.

Literary and Film Studies

In these fields, the “documents” might be novels, poems, films, or scripts. Scholars analyze these texts to interpret their meaning, understand their cultural context, and critique their form and content.

Educational Research

Educational researchers may analyze curricula, textbooks, lesson plans, and other educational documents to understand educational practices and policies.

Health Research

Health researchers may analyze medical records, health policies, clinical guidelines, and other documents to study health behaviors, healthcare delivery, and health outcomes.

Examples of Documentary Analysis

Some Examples of Documentary Analysis might be:

  • Example 1: A historian studying the causes of World War I might analyze diplomatic correspondence, government records, newspaper articles, and personal diaries from the period leading up to the war.
  • Example 2: A policy analyst trying to understand the impact of a new public health policy might analyze the policy document itself, as well as related government reports, statements from public health officials, and news media coverage of the policy.
  • Example 3: A market researcher studying consumer trends might analyze social media posts, customer reviews, industry reports, and news articles related to the market they’re studying.
  • Example 4: An education researcher might analyze curriculum documents, textbooks, and lesson plans to understand how a particular subject is being taught in schools. They might also analyze policy documents to understand the broader educational policy context.
  • Example 5: A criminologist studying hate crimes might analyze police reports, court records, news reports, and social media posts to understand patterns in hate crimes, as well as societal and institutional responses to them.
  • Example 6: A journalist writing a feature article on homelessness might analyze government reports on homelessness, policy documents related to housing and social services, news articles on homelessness, and social media posts from people experiencing homelessness.
  • Example 7: A literary critic studying a particular author might analyze their novels, letters, interviews, and reviews of their work to gain insight into their themes, writing style, influences, and reception.

When to use Documentary Analysis

Documentary analysis can be used in a variety of research contexts, including but not limited to:

  • When direct access to research subjects is limited: If you are unable to conduct interviews or observations due to geographical, logistical, or ethical constraints, documentary analysis can provide an alternative source of data.
  • When studying the past: Documents can provide a valuable window into historical events, cultures, and perspectives. This is particularly useful when the people involved in these events are no longer available for interviews or when physical evidence is lacking.
  • When corroborating other sources of data: If you have collected data through interviews, surveys, or observations, analyzing documents can provide additional evidence to support or challenge your findings. This process of triangulation can enhance the validity of your research.
  • When seeking to understand the context: Documents can provide background information that helps situate your research within a broader social, cultural, historical, or institutional context. This can be important for interpreting your other data and for making your research relevant to a wider audience.
  • When the documents are the focus of the research: In some cases, the documents themselves might be the subject of your research. For example, you might be studying how a particular topic is represented in the media, how an author’s work has evolved over time, or how a government policy was developed.
  • When resources are limited: Compared to methods like experiments or large-scale surveys, documentary analysis can often be conducted with relatively limited resources. It can be a particularly useful method for students, independent researchers, and others who are working with tight budgets.
  • When providing an audit trail for future researchers: Documents provide a record of events, decisions, or conditions at specific points in time. They can serve as an audit trail for future researchers who want to understand the circumstances surrounding a particular event or period.

Purpose of Documentary Analysis

The purpose of documentary analysis in research can be multifold. Here are some key reasons why a researcher might choose to use this method:

  • Understanding Context: Documents can provide rich contextual information about the period, environment, or culture under investigation. This can be especially useful for historical research, where the context is often key to understanding the events or trends being studied.
  • Direct Source of Data: Documents can serve as primary sources of data. For instance, a letter from a historical figure can give unique insights into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. A company’s annual report can offer firsthand information about its performance and strategy.
  • Corroboration and Verification: Documentary analysis can be used to validate and cross-verify findings derived from other research methods. For example, if interviews suggest a particular outcome, relevant documents can be reviewed to confirm the accuracy of this finding.
  • Substituting for Other Methods: When access to the field or subjects is not possible due to various constraints (geographical, logistical, or ethical), documentary analysis can serve as an alternative to methods like observation or interviews.
  • Unobtrusive Method: Unlike some other research methods, documentary analysis doesn’t require interaction with subjects, and therefore doesn’t risk altering the behavior of those subjects.
  • Longitudinal Analysis: Documents can be used to study change over time. For example, a researcher might analyze census data from multiple decades to study demographic changes.
  • Providing Rich, Qualitative Data: Documents often provide qualitative data that can help researchers understand complex issues in depth. For example, a policy document might reveal not just the details of the policy, but also the underlying beliefs and attitudes that shaped it.

Advantages of Documentary Analysis

Documentary analysis offers several advantages as a research method:

  • Unobtrusive: As a non-reactive method, documentary analysis does not require direct interaction with human subjects, which means that the research doesn’t affect or influence the subjects’ behavior.
  • Rich Historical and Contextual Data: Documents can provide a wealth of historical and contextual information. They allow researchers to examine events and perspectives from the past, even from periods long before modern research methods were established.
  • Efficiency and Accessibility: Many documents are readily accessible, especially with the proliferation of digital archives and databases. This accessibility can often make documentary analysis a more efficient method than others that require data collection from human subjects.
  • Cost-Effective: Compared to other methods, documentary analysis can be relatively inexpensive. It generally requires fewer resources than conducting experiments, surveys, or fieldwork.
  • Permanent Record: Documents provide a permanent record that can be reviewed multiple times. This allows for repeated analysis and verification of the data.
  • Versatility: A wide variety of documents can be analyzed, from historical texts to contemporary digital content, providing flexibility and applicability to a broad range of research questions and fields.
  • Ability to Cross-Verify (Triangulate) Data: Documentary analysis can be used alongside other methods as a means of triangulating data, thus adding validity and reliability to the research.

Limitations of Documentary Analysis

While documentary analysis offers several benefits as a research method, it also has its limitations. It’s important to keep these in mind when deciding to use documentary analysis and when interpreting your findings:

  • Authenticity: Not all documents are genuine, and sometimes it can be challenging to verify the authenticity of a document, particularly for historical research.
  • Bias and Subjectivity: All documents are products of their time and their authors. They may reflect personal, cultural, political, or institutional biases, and these biases can affect the information they contain and how it is presented.
  • Incomplete or Missing Information: Documents may not provide all the information you need for your research. There may be gaps in the record, or crucial information may have been omitted, intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Access and Availability: Not all documents are readily available for analysis. Some may be restricted due to privacy, confidentiality, or security considerations. Others may be difficult to locate or access, particularly historical documents that haven’t been digitized.
  • Interpretation: Interpreting documents, particularly historical ones, can be challenging. You need to understand the context in which the document was created, including the social, cultural, political, and personal factors that might have influenced its content.
  • Time-Consuming: While documentary analysis can be cost-effective, it can also be time-consuming, especially if you have a large number of documents to analyze or if the documents are lengthy or complex.
  • Lack of Control Over Data: Unlike methods where the researcher collects the data themselves (e.g., through experiments or surveys), with documentary analysis, you have no control over what data is available. You are reliant on what others have chosen to record and preserve.

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer