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An Introduction to Document Analysis

❶What was the author's motive or purpose for creating the document?

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A jam-packed but neatly indexed scrapbook of hate mail to a well-known abolitionist tells students about how he was viewed by the scrapbook compiler, not just by the correspondents. But students need to be explicitly instructed to stop and read a document closely, from start to finish — especially when they are first asked to make observations about physical characteristics.

Most primary sources do not lend themselves to the type of superficial scanning we all increasingly do online. Deciphering 18th- and 19th-century handwriting requires slow, focused reading. Having small groups work collaboratively to transcribe brief manuscripts forces students to read word by word and prepares them to effectively analyze the source.

Directed prompts which do this are especially helpful in courses that do not explicitly practice formal analysis. Guided questions in a handout should help students identify important points in the document they are studying. Visits to the archives ideally end with a wrap-up exercise in which students articulate what they observed, read, and discussed.

One way to do this is to have students give an impromptu speech summarizing their experience. Interpret Students new to archives should, with the right guidance, be able to make initial interpretations of documents. Prompts and wrap ups should guide students to question assumptions, recognize bias, and discern audience.

When necessary, provide them with contextual information that they might need to make interpretations, or help them connect secondary materials that they have already read to the documents in front of them. Pose Questions Students should identify questions they need to answer in order to more fully understand and use their source. These questions may be as simple as looking up a new vocabulary word or as complicated as trying to understand social norms of a previous era.

Consider requiring students to keep a running list of such questions, having students conduct research between visits, or providing illustrative secondary sources alongside archival documents. Contextualize the Documents Effective primary source analysis requires synthesizing observations and inferences with contextual knowledge.

Instructors must determine ahead of time what information to provide before, during, or after visits to the archives so that students can make meaning of primary source documents. Of course, students will realize that primary sources often raise more questions than they answer. Document analysis is a social research method and is an important research tool in its own right, and is an invaluable part of most schemes of triangulation, the combination of methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon Bowen, In order to seek convergence and corroboration, qualitative researchers usually use at least two resources through using different data sources and methods.

The purpose of triangulating is to provide a confluence of evidence that breeds credibility Bowen, Corroborating findings across data sets can reduce the impact of potential bias by examining information collected through different methods. Also, combining qualitative and quantitative sometimes included in document analysis called mixed-methods studies. Before actual document analysis takes place, the researcher must go through a detailed planning process in order to ensure reliable results.

There is the question of how many documents the researcher should gather. Bowen suggests that a wide array of documents is better, although the question should be more about quality of the document rather than quantity Bowen, The first is the issue of bias, both in the author or creator of the document, and the researcher as well The researcher must consider the subjectivity of the author and also the personal biases he or she may be bringing to the research.

Bowen adds that the researcher must evaluate the original purpose of the document, such as the target audience He or she should also consider whether the author was a firsthand witness or used secondhand sources. Latent content refers to the style, tone, agenda, facts or opinions that exist in the document. Bowen adds that documents should be assessed for their completeness; in other words, how selective or comprehensive their data is One is the interview technique. Essentially, the researcher determines what is being searched for, then documents and organizes the frequency and amount of occurrences within the document.

Bowen notes that some experts object to this kind of analysis, saying that it obscures the interpretive process in the case of interview transcriptions Bowen, However, Bowen reminds us that documents include a wide variety of types, and content analysis can be very useful for painting a broad, overall picture This analysis takes emerging themes and makes them into categories used for further analysis, making it a useful practice for grounded theory.

It includes careful, focused reading and re-reading of data, as well as coding and category construction Bowen, It is not just a process of lining up a collection of excerpts that convey whatever the researcher desires. The researcher must maintain a high level of objectivity and sensitivity in order for the document analysis results to be credible and valid Bowen, There are many reasons why researchers choose to use document analysis.

Firstly, document analysis is an efficient and effective way of gathering data because documents are manageable and practical resources. Documents are commonplace and come in a variety of forms, making documents a very accessible and reliable source of data. Obtaining and analysing documents is often far more cost efficient and time efficient than conducting your own research or experiments Bowen, Document analysis is often used because of the many different ways it can support and strengthen research.

Document analysis can be used in many different fields of research, as either a primary method of data collection or as a compliment to other methods. Documents can provide supplementary research data, making document analysis a useful and beneficial method for most research. Documents can also contain data that no longer can be observed, provide details that informants have forgotten, and can track change and development.

Document analysis can also point to questions that need to be asked or to situations that need to be observed, making the use of document analysis a way to ensure your research is critical and comprehensive Bowen, The disadvantages of using document analysis are not so much limitations as they are potential concerns to be aware of before choosing the method or when using it.

An initial concern to consider is that documents are not created with data research agendas and therefore require some investigative skills. A document will not perfectly provide all of the necessary information required to answer your research questions. Some documents may only provide a small amount of useful data or sometimes none at all.

Other documents may be incomplete, or their data may be inaccurate or inconsistent. Sometimes there are gaps or sparseness of documents, leading to more searching or reliance on additional documents then planned Bowen, Also, some documents may not be available or easily accessible. For these reasons, it is important to evaluate the quality of your documents and to be prepared to encounter some challenges or gaps when employing document analysis.


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This article examines the function of documents as a data source in qualitative research and discusses document analysis procedure in the context of actual research experiences. Targeted to research novices, the article takes a nuts-and-bolts.

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Introduction Document analysis is a form of qualitative research in which documents are interpreted by the researcher to give voice and meaning around an assessment topic (Bowen, ). Analyzing documents.

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Document Analysis as a Qualitative Research Method Glenn A. Bowen WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY ABSTRACT This article examines the function of documents as a data source in qualitative research and discusses. This article examines the function of documents as a data source in qualitative research and discusses document analysis procedure in the context of actual research experiences. Targeted to research novices, the article takes a nuts‐and‐bolts approach to document analysis. It describes the nature and forms of documents, outlines the advantages and limitations of document analysis, and.

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documents exist that are relevant to your question if you did not analyze them, you would have a hole in your research can’t observe or do interviews with your population. This article examines the function of documents as a data source in qualitative research and discusses document analysis procedure in the context of actual research experiences. Targeted to.