An Introduction to Documentary Research

An Introduction to Documentary Research

Documentary research, serving as both a complement to and extension of biographical inquiry, takes on different meanings in the field of education. In one sense, documentary research becomes synonymous with archival research and addresses issues related to the role and use of documents and public and private records. In another sense, documentary research produces artifacts and material culture through artistic representation, moving and still imagery, and sound recordings.

Documentary Forms as Archival Inquiry

The documentary milieu as a form of archival inquiry seems most pronounced in the area 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 upon generating data through various means of inquiry, the use of extant documents from the past and present seem somewhat overshadowed. Yet, the field of sociology maintains a longstanding and popular tradition of documentary inquiry and, with continual evolution of hybrid and virtual documentary sources from the internet and email, this form of data, evidence, and documentation will become more commonplace as qualitative and quantitative researchers recognize that they must appraise and ascertain the provenance of information (McCulloch, 2004). From this perspective, material culture takes the form of documentation, falling into basic categories of personal, public, and official documents (Hill, 1993). Personal documents include correspondence, journals, autobiographical writings and memoir. Public documents typically comprise published and publicly presented documents including newspapers-magazines, flyers, books, etc. Official documentation includes administrative documents representing agencies and organizations.

Documentary Forms as Aesthetic Interpretation

In another of its forms, documentary research couples dissonant paradigms of managing and ascertaining documentary evidence, as conceived in the traditional social sciences, with creating and formulating aesthetic presentations, as conceived from the arts and humanities. Fundamental documentary perspectives include modes of representation (images, diaries, publications, sound recordings, monuments and memorials, etc.) and modes of engagement as a creative enterprise of presentation, i.e., the aesthetic presentation of documentary radio, film, and photography (Nichols, 2001). The aesthetics of documentary studies brings attention to the modes of narration (documentary as a form of storytelling) and the protocols of subjectivities (the alignment of different perspectives and interpretations as part of the documentary items) (Austin & de Jong,  2008).

Theoretical Perspectives of Documentary Research

With the use of primary and secondary materials, the researcher must assess and analyze the documents themselves before extracting content. Appraising documents typically includes four criteria: authenticity, credibility, representativeness, and meaning (Scott, 2006). Authenticity addresses whether the materials are genuine or of questionable origin, and whether their production is original and reliable and has not been subsequently altered. If the document has been transformed, through textual editing, marginalia, or other means, the researcher seeks to clearly identify those alterations. Authenticity is typically viewed as the most fundamental criterion for all documentary research in education since the confirmation of authorship, place, and date are typically determined before any researcher continues working with the document. Once determined that the document is “genuine and of unquestionable origin,” the material becomes “valid” as an artifact, although its content may still be questionable or subsequently found to be “incorrect.”

While a narrative account or any form of qualitative data may be original and genuine—authentic—the content may still be distorted in some manner. Thus, a second criterion in appraising materials is determining credibility and whether the document’s information is honest and accurate. Such a rendering was much easier before our post-modern era and the recognition of constructed truths. At times, 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 motives or unintentionally made merely by witlessness or inexperience. All accounts become biased in some manner, and the documentary researcher is constantly ascertaining motives similar to the biographer as a way to detect distortion of the material.

A third criterion, representativeness, seeks to determine whether the document is typical of such accounts—perhaps described as “reliable”—and whether the material represents a collection of produced materials rather than an idiosyncratic portrayal. A document’s representativeness may be distorted with the passing of time as the survival rate of certain materials becomes greater since the items may have been viewed as less valuable and, thus, stored away, rarely seen after their point of origination, and thus preserved. The acquisitions process—archival staff members “weeding” the collection (eliminating what are considered non-essential items)—may also distort provenance and representativeness. Similarly, some important documents do not survive because their great significance caused them to become used and worn and, subsequently, discarded while less important documents survive because they are so little used. Matters of generalizability and reliability are constantly hovering above documentary researchers as they examine materials and decide what items should be drawn upon in their work. Interestingly, Scott (2006) recognizes that determining whether documents are fully authentic, credible, and representative may never be able to be confirmed by the researcher; thus, he reverses the process and asks whether the materials may be deemed as inauthentic, non-credible, or unrepresentative. This has led to a perspective described as “methodological distrust” where researchers take a general approach of questioning all materials and demanding that documents must prove their own authenticity, credibility, and representativeness before being used.

 A final criterion—meaning—represents the textual analysis of the document and whether the evidence is clear and comprehensible. Coupled with this semiotic and intertextual examination is whether the document’s content is appropriately situated within its historical context; this is ascertained, in part, by the method in which meaning is constructed and perceived by its originally intended audience. While these four criteria are fundamental, McCullough (2004) underscores a fifth criterion of document analysis: theorization—the anticipated theoretical, hermeneutic framework for interpreting the material. Such theoretical perspectives are commonplace for those in the field of curriculum studies. Documentary research, however, underscores an important dimension to theorization and the construction of meaning of a document: the reconstruction of a text’s meaning as it moves from author to audience. Scott (2006) notes the transition of intended content (the author’s intended meaning), the received content (meaning as constructed by the reader/perceiver), and internal meaning (transactional understandings derived from the intended and received meanings).

Related analysis and assessment of documents occurs as materials are ascertained as being public or private, primary or secondary (noting that a primary source need not be the sole original document; primary materials are first-hand documents), and whether the researcher has direct-proximate contact (being able to examine the original or primary document) or indirect-mediate access (facsimile or scanned e-version).

The Biographical and Documentary Research SIG will be making a concerted effort to develop further our involvement and programming in the area of documentary research theory. We encourage all members to begin exploring this research realm. A wonderful introduction to this area is (SIG member) Gary McCulloch’s Documentary Research in Education, History and the Social Sciences.


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. 

By Craig Kridel, University of South Carolina