Social Research

Fourth edition

by Sotirios Sarantakos

Chapter 13 - The Study of Documents

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Educational objectives
After completing this chapter, you will:
  1. be familiar with the nature, types and purpose of the study of documents in social research;
  2. have an understanding of the diversity of the study of documents and their place in quantitative and qualitative social research;
  3. have gained an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of document studies, content analysis and text analysis;
  4. have developed the competence to conduct research containing methods of text analysis;
  5. be aware of the ethical issues involved in research employing studies of documents.


  1. Document studies
  2. Meta-synthesis
  3. Content analysis
  4. Text and language
  5. Conversation analysis
  6. Discourse analysis
  7. The hermeneutic approach
  8. Postmodernism

Points to remember

The following are the major points introduced in this chapter. Ensure that you are very confident with their meaning, content, context and significance.
  1. Documentary methods are the methods that help gather data without direct participation of the respondents. They are also called unobtrusive methods or indirect methods.
  2. Examples of documentary methods are document analysis, content analysis and text analysis.
  3. Documentary studies involve a secondary analysis.
  4. Meta-analysis is a type of secondary analysis that attempts to standardise existing findings so that they can offer an integrated answer to the research question.
  5. The biographical method refers to the study of personal and biographical documents, which intentionally or unintentionally offer information about structure, dynamics and function of the consciousness of the writer.
  6. Documentary methods examine documents to determine behaviours and attitudes of people reported in the content of these documents.
  7. Such documents are public documents, archival records, personal documents, administrative documents, formal studies and reports.
  8. Documentary methods are very usefu
    l because of the following properties: retrospectivity, accessibility, spontaneity, low costs, high quality, possibility of re-testing and non-reactivity.
  9. Documentary methods do have certain limitations which the researcher must be aware of when deciding to include them in a project.
  10. The biographical method entails the study of personal and biographical documents.
  11. Biographical (and other) documents are analysed by means of one (or more) of the following: holistic method, particularistic method, comparative method, content analysis, quantitative method and classification method.
  12. Content analysis is a documentary method that examines the (manifest or latent) content of documents.
  13. In content analysis, data collection concentrates on presence, frequency, prominence, direction and intensity of the research units.
  14. In content analysis, data collection is facilitated by means of categories.
  15. In content analysis, quantitative data analysis is conducted by means of a descriptive analysis, categorical analysis, valence and intensity analysis, contingency analysis and contextual analysis.
  16. In content analysis, qualitative data analysis is conducted by means of an analysis based on summary, explication, structuration, objective hermeneutics and latent structures of meaning.
  17. The purpose of discourse analysis is to examine the way in which meanings of social phenomena, as they are employed by people to make sense of their lives, are constructed.
  18. Indirect methods are employed as the only methods of study or in conjunction with other methods.

Short-answer questions

Answer each question carefully (there is no need to write down the answer). Consult your Social Research text when your memory fails you or when you are in doubt about the accuracy of your responses.
  1. What are 'documentary methods' and how can they be used in social research?
  2. Why are documentary methods usually referred to as indirect methods?
  3. Are documentary methods primarily quantitative or qualitative in nature?
  4. What are the most common types of documents considered in documentary research?
  5. What are the major forms of documentary research?
  6. What are the major advantages and limitations of documentary research?
  7. How relevant is the biographical method to social research? How does it operate?
  8. What are the major methods of analysis of biographical documents?
  9. Is the biographical method a tool of qualitative or quantitative research?
  10. What is 'content analysis', and what is its structure and purpose?
  11. Is content analysis a quantitative or a qualitative method?
  12. What are 'categories' and how are they used in content analysis? Give examples.
  13. What are the major steps of category construction in content analysis?
  14. What are the methods and techniques of data analysis employed by quantitative researchers in content analysis?
  15. How is the method of objective hermeneutics employed in the analysis of qualitative data gathering through content analysis?
  16. In what areas can indirect methods violate the rules of objectivity and how can this be remedied (assuming that objectivity is to be observed)?
  17. How is meta-analysis employed in social research and what are its major advantages?
  18. What are the main characteristics of hermeneutic research?
  19. What are the major differences between conversation analysis and content analysis?
  20. In what areas can the systematic review be employed and why?
  21. What are the main criteria of secondary analysis?
  22. What is the focus of discourse analysis?
  23. Is it correct to say that postmodernism follows constructionist, interpretivist and critical principles?
  24. How can the study of documents violate ethics?
  25. In what ways can documentary methods assist in solving social problems in modern societies?
  26. How can documentary methods enrich social research? Explain why.
  27. If you were to criticise documentary methods, which elements would you criticise most and why?
  28. How credible is data obtained through documentary methods?
  29. What do postmodernists study?
  30. What are 'linguistic repertoires'?
  31. What are the strengths and weaknesses of conversation analysis?
  32. What are the major differences between meta-synthesis and meta-analysis?
  33. What are the research parameters of postmodernism?

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Practical exercises

  1. Construct a research design to investigate rural crisis in the 1970s in your area using content analysis as a method. Explain how this issue will be conceptualised and approached, how categories will be developed, and how the findings will be gathered, analysed and interpreted.
  2. You are using discourse analysis to investigate public attitudes to the role of women within the Church. Explain how you will proceed to address this issue.