Research Writing

What is documentary research/Characteristics/methodology

What is documentary research?

Documentary research is defined as research conducted by using official documents or personal documents as a source of information.

The documents can be the following:

  • Newspapers
  • Diaries
  • Maps
  • Brochures
  • Directories
  • Paints
  • Government statistical publications
  • Audio records
  • Photographs
  • Computer files
  • Ribbons

Some of these examples may not fit the traditional invoice of a “document”, but because they contain information, they can be used for documentary research.

Social scientists often conduct documentary research. It is mainly carried out to evaluate various documents in the interest of social or historical value. Sometimes researchers also conduct desk research to study various documents about events or people.

Documentary research is similar to content analysis , which consists of studying the existing information recorded in the media, texts and physical elements. In this case, the collection of personal data is not required to conduct the research. So this is an excellent example of secondary research .

Another characteristic of documentary research is that the quality of the documents must be taken into account when using them as evidence about relationships and social meanings.

It should be noted that, unlike surveys and research interviews, documents are originally published / generated without regard to the purpose of the research. It is good practice to check documents against similar ones before making a decision.

Characteristics of the documentary investigation

In these examples you will be able to distinguish how a documentary investigation is applied in real life:

Documentary research in social research studies

Although documentary research is not widely used today, it is the research method used to conduct social research studies .

For example, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim used documentary research extensively for their research.

Karl Marx used documents on the employment of children in factories, corn laws, banking laws, and census reports from Wales and England to name a few.

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

Documentary research for archival research

The field of sociology has a long-standing popular tradition of documentary research. Many historians refer to and depend on primary documents for their research.

Historians place more emphasis on historical documents while conducting research. Of course, as we evolve, virtual documents like emails will play an important role in the research activities carried out by these researchers.

Documentary research for aesthetic interpretation

Documentary research is not limited to text only. Images, paintings, videos, audio files, monuments are also used to conduct research.

Documentary researchers use these tools in addition to texts while studying social science. The use of these tools increases the authenticity of the textual investigation, or may very well point out deviations in the findings. This bias suggests that researchers do more research to draw accurate conclusions.

Documentary research methodology

Another characteristic of documentary research is that if done thoroughly, it can help to develop a hypothesis or to prove or disprove an existing hypothesis. This, of course, depends on the applied methodology and the depth of the research carried out.

The investigator should conduct his or her own secondary research to analyze the content before extracting it. The data must be scientifically managed.

Follow this 4-step approach to control content quality:

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

Let’s take a look at each of these points.

The authenticity of the documents

Authenticity implies if the origin of the document is reliable, if the evidence is genuine, if the intentions are sincere and what were the commitments to create the document. The authenticity of the source is the main criterion of the documentary investigation.

The credibility of the documents

By credibility we understand the subjective and objective components that make the information source believe and if the data is free from distortion and error. The information must be reliable and you 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 is an aggregation of the topic under study.

That said, documents become distorted over time due to the inclusion of new factors, and the documents must be verified to be representative.

The meaning derived from the documents

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

Advantages of documentary research

Here are some other characteristics of documentary research that are favorable for choosing to undertake this type of research:

Readily available data: Data is available from various sources. You just have to know where to look and how to use them. Data is available in different forms, and leveraging it is the real challenge.

Cheap and inexpensive : Data for research is already collected and published in print or other forms. The researcher does not have to spend money and time as he does to gather the knowledge of the market research and gather the data. You need to search and compile the data available from different sources.

Saves time: Conducting market research is time consuming. Responses will not arrive quickly as expected, and collecting global responses will take an enormous amount of time. If you have all the referenced documents (or know where to find them), the research is relatively quick.

No biases : The collection of primary data tends to be biased. This bias depends on many factors, such as the age of the respondents, the time they spend on the survey, their mindset when taking the survey, their gender, their feelings towards certain ideas, to name a few. The list goes on and on when it comes to survey biases.

The presence of the researcher is not necessary during data collection : The researcher does not need to be present during data collection. It is virtually impossible for the researcher to be present at every point in the data source, especially with the various data sources in mind.

Useful for hypotheses : Use historical data to make inferences from current or future events. Conclusions can be drawn from the experience of past events and the data available to them. 

Disadvantages of documentary research

Here are the downsides of the documentary research method:

Limited data : Data is not always available, especially when you need to verify a theory or reinforce the argument based on different forms of data.
Inaccuracies : Since the data is historical and published, there is almost no way to determine whether the data is accurate or not.

Incomplete documents : Often the 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 consistent with the concept the researcher is trying to study. This is because the purpose of the research is not thought about when creating the original data. Researchers often have to settle for the data at hand.

These were some characteristics of the documentary research that will be very useful to you in deciding if this is the type of research you need to carry out. 

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