Whenever I say that I ‘do documentary analysis’ or ‘research with documents’ I tend to get a confused look. I think this is because unlike ‘doing interviews’, it’s not clear what documentary analysis means! So, let me start out by telling you a little bit about documentary analysis, and then I’ll move on to my experience of doing documentary analysis and explain why I think it’s a fantastic leveller for students and researchers with a wide variety of needs.
At its most basic, documentary analysis is research which involves documents as the data. Going back to the ‘doing interviews’ analogy, instead of talking to a person to find out about their views or experiences, we would find and then analyse things that people have written. This also allows us to understand something about their views and experiences of the thing they’re writing about. The type of data that are used for documentary analysis aren’t only things that are in hard copy; these days we also look at the things people are creating online. We also don’t restrict ourselves to words but also include images in our analysis, because sometimes images are used to imply things that are so offensive they could not be ‘said out loud’ (Stuart Hall talks about this). Examples of documents include images like adverts on the side of buses (and anywhere else), packaging of products we use and buy, passports, meeting notes, letters, diaries and anything else with words or images on it.
Moving on to analysis and there are dozens and dozens of qualitative analysis techniques. What may be surprising to know is that there is not a single analysis technique called ‘documentary analysis’. This is something that is definitely not as clear as it could be. Instead, returning to our comparison with interviews, any analysis technique can be used to consider the data using both methods. This includes things like thematic analysis, discourse analysis and content analysis. Detailed examples of documentary analysis using each of these analysis methods can be found in my first book, Doing Excellent Social Research with Documents.
My experiences of using the method stem from my research using documents as data as part of my undergraduate dissertation (looking at how UK Housing Benefit procedures contribute to homelessness). As part of my masters (examining an example of a policy failure) and PhD (on lived experiences of welfare reform for disabled people and staff), I used this method again, alongside other qualitative methods. To be honest, at that time I used the documents as ‘second-class’ data, placing more emphasis on the interview and observational data that I undertook. I had greater knowledge of how to handle this data, which I supplemented and triangulated with the available documents. Following my PhD, however, I moved out of academia. As a disabled academic awaiting multiple surgeries, I did not have the luxury of taking a job that required me to move out of my local NHS trust area, which severely limited my academic job opportunities.
That said, I definitely didn’t feel that I was ‘done’ with being an academic, and so I started to look for ways that I could continue my research. One major issue was that without being part of a university, I did not have access to an ethics committee. This led me back to documents – many documentary analysis studies don’t require ethical approval. The exception to this in general seems to be where you would need to log in to a website to access the content you wish to analyse. That said, as researchers, we need to be careful to consider the ethical implications of using data when ethical review isn’t required (see chapter 4 of my new book, Doing your Research Project with Documents).
Another barrier was that I worked full time 9-5 in a charity, and then for the NHS. Using documents as research data allows you to do the research whenever or wherever you want to, unlike for example, needing to interview somebody. I remember sitting on a Megabus on the way to visit friends in London, for example, while coding newspaper articles relating to treatment targets (like the UK four-hour waiting time) in A&E departments. Likewise, when my day job looked like it wasn’t going to produce any journal articles for a while, I was able to do an analysis of comments about breastfeeding in public on the Mail Online website (the online version of the Daily Mail) and also compare it to content relating to the same incident on Twitter.
Documentary analysis also allowed me to apply for small pots of funding, and to know that there would be a piece of research which could be published from it; for example this research involved an analysis of Twitter content relating to waterpipe smoking, with Dr Hannah O’Mahoney working for me for two months. Had we needed to interview people, or conduct observations, those two months would likely have been taken up with data collection alone, which was an issue that Dr Dawn Mannay and I found with interview-based projects that used visual methods; the data was brilliant, but it was challenging to do these pieces of work with tiny pots of seed funding.
To conclude, documentary analysis is a flexible method which can be used with and without theory and using a wide range of analysis approaches. It has many advantages for researchers and students alike who are disabled, working alongside their studies or research careers, or who have caring responsibilities. I would be surprised if there were a single topic in the world that could not be at least partially understood through critically reading things that have been written about it. If you are carrying out your first research project using documents, or feel like you are not confident with the methodology, you may wish to read my new book, published by Policy Press, Doing your Research Project with Documents.
Aimee Grant is a qualitative researcher with a long-standing interest in documentary analysis. She is based at Swansea University’s Centre for Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translational Research.
Doing Your Research Project with Documents: A Step-By-Step Guide to Take You from Start to Finish by Aimee Grant is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £21.99.
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