Using Documents In Research

Do you know what a document is? Of course you do – yet there is no agreed definition of a document. In her first book on the subject of using documents in research, Aimee Grant offers a helpful definition of a document as something that includes:

‘written, graphical or pictorial matter, or a combination of these types of content, in order to transmit or store information or meaning’ (p 11).

So documents have a range of purposes, and can come in a wide variety of forms and formats: digital or hard copy; reports, letters, emails, social media posts, forms, meeting minutes, web pages, leaflets, shopping lists; and so on. Documents are rarely just containers of information, they are also tools for people to use in the world. Documents are used for purposes such as communication (letters, emails etc), or enforcement (legislation and legal judgements), or to make something happen (a child’s birthday present wish-list or an adult’s last will and testament).

Documents can be rich sources of data for research. They may be collected, from libraries, the internet, archives etc, or constructed, such as when a researcher asks participants to keep a diary of relevant events for a specific time period. Collected documents are secondary data, and using secondary data where possible is an ethical approach to research, because it reduces the burden of primary data collection for participants and for researchers.

There are many ways to analyse documentary data: thematic analysis, content analysis, discourse analysis, narrative analysis and metaphor analysis are just a few. And documents are being used as data for research across a wide range of disciplines and fields: psychology, ecology, education, health, technology, linguistics and many others too. Innovative work is being done with documents in research all around the world.

What does not yet exist is an edited collection of chapters to give a sense of the breadth and depth of possibilities offered to research by documents. So I am delighted that Aimee Grant has invited me to co-edit just such a book, which we intend to showcase some of the excellent work being done with documents by researchers worldwide. We formulated our call for proposals last week; the deadline is midday BST on 24 April 2023. Please help us to spread the word!

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