What are “documents” and how can researchers use them?

Categories: Data Collection, Other, Research

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May logo- Finding Data in Documents and Datasets

In May we are focusing on Finding Data in Documents and Datasets. You will find the unfolding series through this link. Explore the whole 2021 series on stages of the research process: Finding the Question,  Choosing Methodology and MethodsDesigning an Ethical Study, and  Collecting Data from & with Participants.


In a SAGE Research Methods Foundations essay, Lindsay Prior (2019) defined documents as:

Document is a word derived from the Latin verb for teaching: docere. A document in that sense is something that functions to explain, instruct, warn, exemplify, substantiate, or prove. [T]he word document tends to be used as a noun—to denote a physical or electronic container of some kind, and what is contained is typically text and related forms of inscription. Thus, letters, diaries, laboratory notebooks, clinical notes, kitchen recipes, transcribed speeches and interviews, reports, notices on posts and doors, graffiti on walls, musical scores, text messages, tweets, and train tickets all qualify as documents along with a myriad of other forms. … In an age in which communication using images (via, e.g., social media, selfies, and emoticons) can take precedence over communication using text, the notion of what a document “is” has, necessarily, to be broad. Essentially, however, what marks an object as a document is not what it contains nor its physical or electronic format, but its role and use as a conveyor of information.

Prior (2011, 2019) offers four ways to use documents in research, illustrated in Table 1:

Focus of Research ApproachDocument as ResourceDocument as Topic
Content is prime(1) Document as archive. Approaches that focus almost entirely on what is “in” the document(2) “Archaeological” approaches that focus on how document content comes into being
Use and function are prime(3) Approaches that focus on how documents are used as a resource by human actors for purposeful ends(4) Approaches that focus on how documents function in, and impact on, schemes of social interaction, and social organization
Table 1. Four approaches to the study of documents. Prior (2008, p. 825).

The structure of the table suggests that social researchers have tended to concentrate their research efforts on either document content or use and function (the rows of the table). Equally, they have tended either to use documents as a research resource (especially a source of data), or they have positioned documents as the topic of inquiry asking how the materials have come into the world and/or what role they play in schemes of social interaction (the columns of the table). In the messy world of research practice, these various approaches can overlap and intermingle; in that respect, the 4-fold categorization is offered primarily as a heuristic device rather than a summary description of empirical social scientific practice. Although whichever we look at things, it is clear that there can be no single or unified approach to data collection or to data analysis.

Prior, L. (2008). Repositioning documents in social research [Special issue on Research Methods]. Sociology, 42, 821–836. doi:10.1177/0038038508094564
Prior, L. (2011). Using documents and records in social research (4 Vols.). London, England: SAGE.
Prior, L. (2019). Documents in Social Research. In P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. Cernat, J.W. Sakshaug, & R.A. Williams (Eds.), SAGE Research Methods Foundations. https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781526421036807682


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