RESEARCHING THE REAL WORLD



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© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 29 May, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at qualityresearchinternational.com/methodology
All rights belong to author.


 

A Guide to Methodology

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)

5.3.1 Type of document
5.3.2 Physical characteristics of document
5.3.3 Author or creator
5.3.4 Circumstances
5.3.5 Time and place
5.3.6 Audience
5.3.7 Source of document
5.3.8 Authenticity
5.3.9 Credibility
5.3.10 Reliability of document
5.3.11 Representativeness
5.3.12 What is the document about?
5.3.13 Purpose

5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis
5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research
5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology

5.11 Narrative analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
There are some general principles for dealing with documents that make the process of analysing them simpler and consistent. These involve logging the origin, provenance and purpose of the document. Before commencing the analysis the researcher should normally identify, as far as possible, each of the following criteria for each document (remembering that document includes non-written artefacts). This is sometimes referred to external analysis of documents.

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5.3.1 Type of document
Specify the type of document and whether it is a private or public domain document. Was the document open to public scrutiny or challenge? Is there any evidence the document has been challenged. Contentious documents tend to be those created for legal or business reasons. Public record documents, it is claimed, are more likely to be accurate than documents not open to public scrutiny. This does not mean, though, that they are non-ideological.

If it is a written document, what language is it written in? Is the document in the original language or is it a translation, if so is the translation comprehensive and authoritative?

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5.3.2 Physical characteristics of document
What are the physical characteristics of the document? If a written document is it handwritten, typed or printed? If non-written describe the document. Is it an original document or a copy? If a copy is it official (such as a an authenticated copy birth certificate or court-recorded copy or otherwise bear an official seal)? Does the document have any particularly unique characteristics? Are the characteristics of the document consistent with its time and place? Are there any handwritten notations? Was the record created or signed under oath or attested to in court?

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5.3.3 Author or creator
Who was the author or creator of the document? Was it joint-authored? What is known about the author(s)? Is the author a public or private individual?

What was the author’s level of education or expertise in the subject discussed in the document?

If the document’s creator was a court clerk, parish priest, family doctor, newspaper columnist, or other third party, who was the informant?

Is the document anonymous? Is it a document that has evolved over time with no identifiable author, such as the recording of an oral tradition? Where there is an identifiable author the researcher should verify, or at least be satisfied, that the name inscribed on the document is that of the author. Instances exist where authors have been incorrectly named.

Many political speeches and government documents, signed or delivered by a minister, are not authored by the minister but are prepared in whole or in part by anonymous civil servants; likewise an organisation’s annual report signed by the chairperson of the governing board. While not able to be definitive about the authorship of such documents, the researcher can usually take them to be indicative of the government’s or an organisation’s policy at the time.

What motive (purpose) might the author have had in writing this document? (see also Section 5.3.13)What biases or assumptions might colour the views of the author? Is there any reason to think that the author is describing something about which there are doubts concerning its veracity?

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5.3.4 Circumstances
Under what circumstances was the document prepared or created? Was the document prepared for personal or private use? Was it created for public consumption? Was it created for financial gain? Was the document commissioned? Was it the outcome of an inquiry? Was it a standard output as part of someone’s job, such as a newspaper article?

Were other people involved in the creation of the document? If the document was a recorded copy, for example, of court proceedings, of a parliamentary session, of an election hustings, was the recorder an impartial party? An understanding of all parties and circumstances under which the document was produced aids interpretation of the evidence contained within the document.

If the document describes events, was the author a direct observer of the event or was the information obtained second-hand? Had the author any personal involvement in the events described or was the author a disinterested onlooker? Was the author knowledgeable about the events and any background leading up to the events?

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5.3.5 Time and place
Where was this document produced? Does the geographical location influence the content?

When was this document produced? Is it contemporary to the events or issues it describes? Is there a date on the document that indicates when it was produced. A date on a personal letter usually indicates the date the letter was written. The date on a published report or a book will be the date the document was formally published but the date the document was written will usually be several months prior to the publication date. In the case of journal articles, the delay between writing the article and formal publication may stretch to years due to the refereeing and slow processes of some learned journals. If a photograph has information including a date written on the back does this appear contemporaneous to the photo? A photograph published in a newspaper may have been taken weeks, months or even years before its publication.

If a written document is undated investigate the clues such as phrasing, form of address, spelling, handwriting to estimate its date of production. If a photograph look at the type of photograph, black and white or colour, its clarity, tonal variation, as well as what is depicted, can provide clues as to date of production. A painting might be of a particular style that might help date it, as might its condition, the medium used to create the artefact and what it is painted on.

First-hand accounts created at the time of the event are generally more reliable than those created months or years after the event occurred, although this depends on the perspective of the author and purpose of the document (Section 5.3.13)

What is known about the period in which the document was produced and what might be germane to contextualising the document? The researcher needs to be aware of the broader historical context when analysing documents (Section 5.4)

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5.3.6 Audience
What is the intended audience of this document? Is it a personal document produced for the author alone, to be shared by one other person a small group? (See CASE STUDY Personal Document) Or was it a document meant for public consumption. If it was a public document is it a document on behalf of a specific group, maybe making representation to a wider public?

The language used, the style of writing and the level of knowledge assumed of the reader/viewer are all indicators of the intended audience. For example, has the author used technical terms to describe a process, assuming the intended audience would understand such terms? What would that tell you about the document?

Is it possible that the intended audience affects the veracity and reliability of the document (Section 5.3.10)?

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5.3.7 Source of document
Where has the document come from? How has it come to be where it is? How did the researcher obtain access to it? Where was it viewed? Was it the original that was viewed or a copy?

Has the document (and any series or collection it might be part of) been maintained and preserved by an archival repository (including government department)? If a manuscript collection or other item residing in a library or historical society, who was the donor? If a family item, how has it been passed down to the present day?

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5.3.8 Authenticity
Authenticity refers to whether the evidence is genuine and of reliable and dependable origin. Documents should therefore not be taken for granted. The researcher has ‘a duty and a responsibility to ensure that the document consulted is genuine and has integrity’ (Mogalakwe, 2006 p. X). Is the document an original or a copy (see Section 5.3.2)

Documents may be forged, falsified or attributed to an author who did not create them such as the so-called ‘Hitler Diaries’ in the 1980s (Scott, 1990). It is important to consider carefully whether the document could have been tampered with?

Platt (1981) argued that close scrutiny is necessary when the document does not make sense or has obvious errors or has internal style or content inconsistencies. The researcher should be wary if there are different versions of the same document or the version available is from a dubious, suspicious or unreliable secondary source or the document has been in the hands of a person or persons with vested interest in a particular reading of the text.

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5.3.9 Credibility
Credibility of documents refers to whether the evidence presented in them is free from error and distortion. Scott (1990) argued that credibility is about the extent to which an author is sincere in the choice of a point of view and in the attempt to record an accurate account from that chosen standpoint. Credibility is also judged by whether the evidence in the document is typical of its type (see Section 5.3.11).

This raises questions about the integrity of the author and any commissioning agent or funder who enabled the production of the document. Reports produced for government and other organisations often have clear terms of reference (which may circumscribe and restrict the scope of the research) or have steering groups who comment on and encourage adjustments in early drafts of the report; sometimes with the effect of supressing ‘bad news’. Scientists reporting outcomes of research in journal articles have been known to soften the conclusions when they are funded by a sponsor with an interest in the results.

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5.3.10 Reliability
Did the author have reasons to be truthful or untruthful, exaggerate or emphasise one side of an argument? Was the author a neutral party, or did the author have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded? What is the author’s point of view?

What perception might this author have brought to the document? All documents are prone to be influenced by its creator's prejudices, preconceptions and predilections. Knowledge about the author, such as the author’s social background, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, education, economic status, political persuasion and religion, the time, place and circumstances of the creation of the document help establish the document's reliability.

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5.3.11 Representativeness
Representativeness in relation to document analysis has three meanings.

First, is a given document typical of its kind, or if it is not, is it possible to judge the extent of its untypicality?

Second, is the information in the document representative of the population (as specified). For example, documents such as Household Income and Expenditure Surveys, prepared by professionalstatisticians using generally accepted sampling frames and random selection procedures are likely to be representative of the population as is possible to achieve short of a census.

Third, is the sample of documents representative of the totality of the relevant documents. In other words, are the documents a good varied selection or are they a biased selection, for example, are accounts of past conflicts always those of the winning side?

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5.3.12 What is the document about?
As a prelude to analysing the document an initial (skim) read or view would indicate what the document is about, what is going on in the document what information it contains and what it is trying to say. It would also provide a basis for situating it historically, socially and politically.

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5.3.13 Purpose
What was the purpose for the production of the document? What motivated the author to produce and what was it intended to do? What evidence is there within the document that indicates why it was written?

What point is the document trying to convey? Why was the document produced at the time it was produced?

If the document is from government, with what issue was it concerned, what law did it lead to or derive from? If a personal document, such as a letter, memoir, will, or family history, why was it created at the time and who was the intended audience?

How might the purpose affect the analysis of the meaning of the document?

Concerns with purpose and reliability are taking us into the analytic stage as both impact directly on the construction of the document and thus are elements to engage in the search for the documents’ meaning, which is the main focus of most document analysis.

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Next 5.4 Approaches to document analysis