Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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)
5.4 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 Critical media analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.5 Evidence of occurence
The simplest form of document analysis is to use a document or series of documents as evidence in establishing the occurrence of an event, action, behaviour, assertion, opinion, or any other activity or situation pertinent to a particular enquiry.

This is sometimes assumed to be a confirmation of fact, although non-positivists are circumspect about using the term 'fact' as it has connotations as being self-evident and unchallegeable, which phenomenologists and critical social researchers argue is not the case, as a fact is contextual and depends on an underlying theory, which may be overturned (see theory laden nature of observation, Section 1.4.2).

In the main, confirmation of an evidential instance just requires locating a document that contains the evidence to confirm (or not confirm) the instance. For example, a point of law might be confirmed by locating a court ruling that acts as a precedent. Whether a military commander was present at a massacre might be established by a photograph showing the commander next to a mass grave.

These examples are evidence of a single issue and may be seen to corroborate a thesis or indeed be seen as 'proof' of an action or opinion. This kind of document analysis actually involves very little internal analysis. It is a process of trawling through and locating the instance to confirm the 'fact'.

What is fundamental in using documents in this way is that the external analysis is undertaken scrupulously (see Section 5.3). Is the document credible, authentic, unbiased? Is there any reason to doubt the authenticity of the photograph? Does the court ruling cover the circumstances of the research enquiry?

Some confirmatory document analysis involves changes and thus more than one incident is required. Asking 'has the percentage of people out of work increased over a decade?' would require obtaining records for at least the start and end of the period. The data would need careful external analysis to see whether the method of counting people out of work had changed over the decade, how the data was gathered and how reliable the data was.

The number of children admitted to hospital following an incident of self-harm might be discovered by examining hospital records or, as the NSPCC did in 2016, by asking the question under the United Kingdom freedom of information act. Again the external analysis is vital: is this just data relating to the National Health Service or to all hospitals including private ones?

Whether a British minister has changed position on an issue might be established by locating speeches by the minister in Hansard (the record of Parliamentary proceedings) that reveal a changed stance on the matter. The speeches may not provide a clearcut change but may be nuanced to show a subtle change, which would require appropriate internal analysis to demonstrate.

So, documents can provide veritication or 'proof' of events, actions, attitudes and so on, if they can be located. The internal analysis is limited and the key issue is to ensure that the external analyis is undertaken scrupulously.

One has to bear in mind that this kind of approach tends to take the document at face value, once the external analysis confirms the genuineness of the document, and makes no attempt to analyse any underlying meanings in the document or to deconstruct it within a given historical or social context.


Next 5.6 Content analysis