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Qualitative Methods

5. Documents

Documentary sources are mainly used as ‘background’ material in social research. This is a pity because documents offer a source of data which can be both quick to collect and contain very rich material. Table 5 lists some of the advantages of working with documents.

Table 5

The Advantages of Documentary Data

Advantage Rationale
Richness Close analysis of documents reveals presentational subtleties and skills.
Relevance and Effect Documents influence how we see the world and the people in it and how we act --- think of advertisements and CVs!
Naturally-occurring Documents are instances of what participants are actually doing in the world - without being dependent on being asked by researchers.
Availability Texts are usually readily accessible and not always dependent on access or ethical constraints. Because they may be quickly gathered, they encourage us to begin early data analysis.

Unlike quantitative researchers, ethnographers are more concerned with the processes through which texts depict 'reality' rather than with whether such texts contain true or false statements. As Atkinson and Coffey (2004) put it:

“In paying due attention to such materials, however, one must be quite clear about what they can and cannot be used for. Documents are 'social facts', in that they are produced, shared and used in socially organized ways. They are not, however, transparent representations of organizational routines, decision-making processes, or professional diagnoses. They construct particular kinds of representations using their own conventions.”

While quantitative researchers, like legal practitioners, are concerned with the accuracy of documents, the concern here shifts to how documents represent reality. This generates a specific set of research questions, as follows:

Research Questions about Documents

  1. How are documents written?
  2. How are they read?
  3. Who writes them?
  4. Who reads them?
  5. For what purposes?
  6. On what occasions?
  7. With what outcomes?
  8. What is recorded?
  9. What is omitted?
  10. What is taken for granted?
  11. What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader(s)?
  12. What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them?

Source: Hammersley and Atkinson,1983:142-143.

Atkinson, P. and Coffey, A. (2004). Analysing documentary realities. In D. Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative research, London: Sage: 45-62.
Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1983) Ethnography: Principles in practice, Tavistock: London.