What is documentary research?

Documentary research is defined as the research conducted through the use of official documents or personal documents as the source of information.

Documents can include anything from the following: 

  • Newspapers
  • Stamps
  • Diaries
  • Maps
  • Handbills
  • Directories
  • Paintings
  • Government statistical publications
  • Gramophone records
  • Photographs
  • Computer files
  • Tapes

The above may not fit the traditional bill of a “document” but since they contain information, they can be used towards documentary research.

Social scientists often conduct documentary research. It is mainly conducted to assess various documents in the interest of social or historical value. Sometimes, researchers also conduct documentary research to study various documents surrounding events or individuals.

Documentary research is similar to content analysis, which involves studying existing information recorded in media, texts, and physical items. Here, data collection from people is not required to conduct research. Hence, this is a prime example of secondary research.

It is important to consider the quality of the documents while using it as evidence on social relations and social meanings. Keep in mind that unlike surveys and research interviews, the documents are originally published/generated without keeping the purpose of research in mind. It is good practice to cross-verify documents against other similar documents before reaching a decision.

Documentary research examples

Here are a few real-life examples of documentary research.

Documentary research in social research studies

Although documentary research is not used extensively today, it is the go-to research method to conduct social research studies. For example, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim used documentary research extensively for their research.

Karl Marx used documents like – Her Majesty Inspectors of Factories Reports, Royal Commission and Inland Revenue Reports, reports by the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, reports on children’s employment in factories, the Corn-laws, the Banking Acts, and Census Reports for Wales and England to name a few.

Durkheim, one of sociology’s founders, wrote a book on suicide which is recognized as the first modern example of an organized and a consistent use of documents for social research.

Documentary research for archival inquiry

The field of sociology has a popular, longstanding tradition of documentary inquiry. Many historians refer to and rely on primary documents for their research. Historians give historical documents more emphasis while conducting research. Of course, as we evolve, virtual documents like emails will play a large role in research activities conducted by these researchers.

Documentary research for aesthetic interpretation

Documentary research is not limited to text only. Pictures, paintings, videos, audio files, monuments are also used to conduct research. Documentary researchers use these tools in addition to texts while studying social sciences. The use of these tools adds to the authenticity of the textual research, or may very well point out deviations in the findings. This deviation suggests researchers to research more to draw accurate conclusions.

Documentary research methodology

Documentary research, if conducted thoroughly, can help develop a hypothesis or prove or disprove an existing hypothesis. This of course depends on the methodology applied and the depth of research conducted. The researcher must conduct his/her own secondary research to analyze the contents before extracting it. The data must be handled scientifically.

Follow this four-step approach to control the quality of the content:

  1. Authenticity of the documents
  2. Credibility of the documents
  3. Representativeness of the documents
  4. Meaning derived from the documents

Let’s take a look at these in detail.

The authenticity of the documents

Authenticity implies whether the origin of the document is reliable, is the evidence genuine, are the intentions sincere, and what were the commitments to creating the document. The authenticity of the source is the primary criterion of documentary research.

The credibility of the documents

Credibility means the subjective and objective components that make one believe the source of information and whether the data is free from distortion and error. The information must be trustworthy and must have some level of expertise.

Representativeness of the documents

Representativeness refers to whether the document represents a larger collection of the data point, and it is an aggregation of the topic being studied. That said, documents get distorted with time due to the inclusion of new factors, and a check has to be made to ensure the documents are representative.

The meaning derived from the documents

Meaning means whether the findings are understandable and clear to be called evidence. The goal of examining documents is to understand its significance and meaning. Researchers must find out whether the document fits within the historical context or not.

Advantages of documentary research method

Here are the advantages of the documentary research method:

  • Data readily available: Data is readily available in various sources. You only need to know where to look and how to use it. The data is available in different forms, and harnessing it is the real challenge.
  • Inexpensive and economical: The data for research is already collected and published in either print or other forms. The researcher does not need to spend money and time like they do to collect market research insights and gather data. They need to search for and compile the available data from different sources.
  • Saves time: Conducting market research is time-consuming. Responses will not come in quickly as expected, and gathering global responses will take a huge amount of time. If you have all the reference documents available (or you know where to find them), research is relatively quick.
  • Non-bias: Primary data collection tends to be biased. This bias depends on a lot of factors like the age of the respondents, the time they take the survey, their mentality while taking the survey, their gender, their feelings towards certain ideas, to name a few. The list goes on and on when it comes to surveying bias.
  • Researcher not necessary during data collection: The researcher doesn’t need to be present during data collection. It is practically impossible for the researcher to be present at every point of the data source, especially thinking about the various data sources.
  • Useful for hypothesis: Use historical data to draw inferences of the current or future events. Conclusions can be drawn from the experience of past events and data available for them. 

Disadvantages of documentary research method

Here are the disadvantages of the documentary research method:

  • Limited data: Data is not always available, especially when you need to cross-verify a theory or strengthen your argument based on different forms of data.
  • Inaccuracies: As the data is historical and published, there is almost no way of ascertaining if the data is accurate or not. 
  • Incomplete documents: Often, documents can be incomplete, and there is no way of knowing if there are additional documents to refer to on the subject.
  • Data out of context: The data that the researcher refers to may be out of context and may not be in line with the concept the researcher is trying to study. Its because the research goal is not thought of when creating the original data. Often, researchers have to make do with the available data at hand.