documentary research

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Research that uses personal and official documents as a source material. Documents used by social scientists may include such things as newspapers, diaries, stamps, directories, handbills, maps, government statistical publications, photographs, paintings, gramophone records, tapes, and computer files.

The most important consideration in using documents is their quality as evidence on social meanings and social relations. Unlike survey questionnaires or interview transcripts, documents have generally been compiled for purposes other than research, and their value must be thoroughly assessed before they can be used. It has been suggested that documents must be assessed against four criteria: authenticity, credibility, representativeness, and meaning (see John Scott, A Matter of Record, 1990). The criterion of authenticity involves assessing documents for their soundness and authorship. Soundness refers to whether the document is complete and whether it is an original or a sound copy. Authorship concerns issues of forgery or fraud and matters of collective or institutional authorship. Authorship is assessed through both internal evidence on vocabulary and literary style and external evidence from chemical tests on paper and ink. The criterion of credibility concerns the sincerity and accuracy of a document. All documents are selective, as it is impossible to construct accounts independent of particular standpoints, but they can be more or less credible as accounts, depending on the motives from which a point of view is adopted and whether the account gives an accurate report from that standpoint. To assess the accuracy of a report it is necessary to look at the conditions under which it was compiled and, in particular, how close the author was to the events reported. The criterion of representativeness involves an assessment of the survival and availability of relevant documents. It is important to know whether the documents consulted are representative of all the relevant documents that once existed, and this depends upon what proportion of the relevant documents have been stored or retained and whether they are available for researchers to use. The availability of official documents may often be limited by considerations of confidentiality and official secrecy. The meaning of documents is the most important matter and arises at two levels. The first level is the literal understanding of a document, by which is meant its physical readability, whether it is in a language that can be read, and such issues as dating. Once this practical matter has been resolved the more fundamental interpretative meaning must be addressed. Interpretation is a hermeneutic task through which an appreciation of the social and cultural context and forms of discourse that structure a text is reached. This involves methods of textual analysis and content analysis.

A useful recent overview of documentary research can be found in Lindsay Prior's Using Documents in Social Research (2003). Scott's A Matter of Record covers the issues involved in handling a range of documents, while Ken Plummer's Documents of Life, 2 (2001) gives good coverage of personal documents. See also life-history; personal documents.

Subjects: Sociology.

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