Documentary research is defined as research conducted through the use of official or personal documents as a source of information. Documentary research, which serves as both a complement and an extension of biographical research, acquires different meanings.

Who does the documentary research?

Social scientists often conduct documentary research. According to Nichols (2001), it is carried out mainly to evaluate various documents for their social or historical value.

Documentary research is similar to content analysis, which consists of studying existing information recorded in media, texts and physical objects. In this case, it is not necessary to collect data from people to conduct the research. Therefore, this is an example of secondary research.

It is important to take into account the quality of documents when using them as evidence of social relations and social meanings.

Some examples

Below are some real examples of documentary research.

Documentary research for social research studies

Although documentary research is not widely used today, it is the most widely used research method for conducting social research studies. For example, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim used documentary research extensively for their research.

Karl Marx used documents such as the reports of Her Majesty’s factory inspectors, the reports of the Royal and Finance Commission, the reports of the medical officer of the Privy Council, the reports on the employment of children in factories, the maize laws, the banking laws and the census reports of 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 coherent use of documents for social research.

Documentary research for archival research

The field of sociology has a long and popular tradition of documentary research. Many historians reference and rely on primary documents for their research. Historians place more importance on historical documents when conducting their research.

Documentary research for aesthetic interpretation

This type of research is not limited to texts. Also, documentary researchers use these tools in addition to texts when studying the social sciences.

Documentary research methodology

Documentary research, if carried out exhaustively, can help develop a hypothesis or prove or disprove an existing hypothesis. Of course, this depends on the methodology applied and the depth of the research conducted. According to McCulloch, G. (2004), the researcher must conduct his own secondary research to analyze the content before extracting it. The data must be treated in a scientific manner.

The authenticity of documents

Authenticity involves knowing if the origin of the document is reliable, if the evidence is authentic, if the intentions are sincere, and what were the commitments to create the document. It is the main criterion of documentary research.

The credibility of the documents

It refers to the subjective and objective components that make one believe in the source of information and whether the data is free of distortion and error. The information must be trustworthy and must have a certain level of experience.

Representativeness of documents

Representativeness refers to whether the document represents a broader collection of the data point, and is an aggregation of the topic studied. However, 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

Meaning refers to whether the results are understandable and clear enough to call them tests. The purpose of the examination of documents is to understand their meaning and meaning.

Advantages of the documentary research method

According to Hill (1993), these are the advantages of the documentary research method:

Readily available data

The data is readily available from various sources.

Cheap and economical

The researcher does not need to spend money and time as he does to gather the ideas of market research and gather the data. They have to search and collect the available data from different sources.

Save time

Conducting a market study is time-consuming. Responses will not arrive quickly as expected, and gathering global responses will take a great deal of time.

No prejudice

Primary data collection tends to be biased. This bias depends on many factors, such as the age of the respondents, the time they take the survey, their mentality when taking it, their sex, their feelings towards certain ideas, to name a few. Also, the list is endless when it comes to polling bias.

The researcher is not required during data collection

The researcher does not need to be present during data collection. It is practically impossible for the researcher to be present at all points of the data source, especially thinking about the different data sources.

Disadvantages of the documentary research method

These are the disadvantages of the documentary research method:

Limited data

Data is not always available, especially when you need to contrast a theory or reinforce the argument based on different forms of data.


Being historical and published data, there is almost no way to find out if the data is accurate or not.

Out-of-context data

The data to which the researcher refers may be out of context and not in line with the concept that the researcher is trying to study. This is because the purpose of the research has not been thought of when creating the original data.

Documentary forms as archival research

The documentary medium as a form of archival research seems more pronounced in the realm of history, with many curriculum historians working extensively with primary documents. Ironically, within the tradition of the social sciences and the field of qualitative research, with its emphasis on data generation through various means of inquiry, the use of existing documents from the past and present seems to be somewhat relegated.

However, the field of sociology maintains a long and popular tradition of documentary research and, with the continuous evolution of hybrid and virtual documentary sources from the Internet and email, this form of data, evidence and documentation will become more common as qualitative and quantitative researchers recognize that they must assess and find out the provenance of information.

From this perspective, according to Scott (2006), material culture takes the form of documentation, which is divided into the basic categories of personal, public and official documents. Personal documents include correspondence, diaries, autobiographical writings, and memoirs. Public documents normally include documents published and presented publicly, such as newspapers-magazines, brochures, books, etc. Official documentation includes the administrative documents of agencies and organizations.

Documentary forms as an aesthetic interpretation

In another of its forms, documentary research couples dissonant paradigms of management and verification of documentary evidence, as conceived in the traditional social sciences, with the creation and formulation of aesthetic presentations, as conceived from the arts and humanities.

Theoretical perspectives of documentary research

With the use of primary and secondary materials, the researcher must evaluate and analyze the documents themselves before extracting the content.

Authenticity is often considered the most fundamental criterion for any documentary research in the field of education, since the confirmation of authorship, place and date are usually determined before any researcher continues to work with the document. Once the document is determined to be “genuine and of unquestionable origin”, the material becomes “valid” as an artifact, even though its content may remain questionable or is subsequently found to be “incorrect”.

Content Distortion

Although a story or any form of qualitative data may be original and genuine – authentic – its content may be distorted in some way. Therefore, a second criterion when evaluating materials is to determine the credibility and whether the information in the document is honest and accurate.

This interpretation was much easier before our postmodern era and the recognition of constructed truths. According to Austin (2008) sometimes classroom descriptions and narratives suggest that the author may not have been in a position to formulate a faithful explanation or that the description was intentionally made to alter the record for dubious reasons or unintentionally out of mere naivety or inexperience. All accounts become biased in some way, and the documentary researcher is constantly figuring out motives similar to those of the biographer as a way to detect the distortion of the material.


Representativeness seeks to determine whether the document is typical of these accounts – perhaps described as “reliable” – and whether the material represents a collection of materials produced rather than an idiosyncratic portrait. But, the representativeness of a document can be distorted over time, as the survival rate of certain materials is higher, as items may have been considered less valuable and therefore stored, rarely seen after their point of origin, and thus preserved.

The Procurement Process

The acquisition process – the staff of the archives “clears” the collection (eliminating what is considered non-essential) – can also distort provenance and representativeness.

Generalization and Reliability

Issues of generalization and reliability constantly loom over document researchers when they examine materials and decide which elements they should turn to in their work. Interestingly, Scott (2006) recognizes that determining whether documents are fully authentic, credible, and representative can never be confirmed by the researcher; therefore, he reverses the process and wonders if the materials can be considered as inauthentic, not credible or not representative. This has given rise to a perspective described as “methodological distrust”, in which researchers take a general approach of questioning all materials and demand that documents demonstrate their own authenticity, credibility and representativeness before being used.

The Significance

A final criterion – that of significance – is that of the textual analysis of the document and whether the evidence is clear and understandable. Together with this semiotic and intertextual examination, it is a question of determining whether the content of the document is properly placed in its historical context. This is determined, in part, by the method of constructing meaning and its perception by the target audience.

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Bibliographic References

Austin, T. & de Jong, W. (2008). Rethinking documentary: New perspectives, new practices.

London: Open University Press.

Hill, M. R. (1993). Archival strategies and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

McCulloch, G. (2004). Documentary research in education, history and the social sciences. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Scott, J. P. (Ed.). (2006). Documentary research.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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