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Approaches for Document (Documents of Life) Analysis — Social Sciences (qualitative research) Essay Example

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Approaches for Document Analysis


Over time, there has been an increase in the number of qualitative research studies that use document analysis as their methodology (Bowen 2009). Consequently, a considerable number of scholars have directed their attention towards examining the various forms and approaches of document analysis and their validity in generating the desired research outcomes (Bowen 2009; Prior 2004; Rapley 2007). Drawing on various perspectives present in literature, this paper seeks to critically examine different approaches of document analysis, visual analysis, discourse and narrative analysis and institutional ethnography analysis. It particularly focuses on examining the nature of these approaches, contexts in which they are applied and their strengths and weaknesses.


Documents form a critical source of data/ information in qualitative research. They may contain texts/written words, images and cultural artifacts incorporated in books, journals, manuals, advertisements, minutes of meetings, attendance registers, agendas, maps, charts, diaries, brochures, scrap books, memoranda, artwork letters, photo albums, press releases, institutional reports, public records, event programs, newspapers among many other items printed or generated electronically (Bowen 2009).

As an approach of qualitative research, document analysis can be defined as a systematic process that involves reviewing, evaluating and interpreting different types of documents in order to form meaning, generate empirical knowledge or develop understanding (Corbin & Strauss 2008; Rapley 2007). In the past, document analysis was often employed in combination with other research methods so as to complement the data collected or as a means of triangulation. Mixed method research studies combining qualitative and quantitative approaches sometimes employ document analysis so as to corroborate findings across different data sets thus minimising potential biases that may emerge in a study. However, in recent times many scholars have began to use document analysis single-handedly as a research method (Anger & Machtmes 2005; Bowen 2009).

Over the years, scholars have developed different approaches or models of document analysis (Atkinson & Coffey 2004; Prior 2004). In their article, “Analysing documentary realities”, Atkinson and Coffey (2004) provide invaluable insight on three key approaches that can be used in document analysis. These approaches encompass taking into account; document language and form, intertextuality and the authorship and readership. This section specifically focuses on critically examining the intertexual approach of document analysis.

In this regard, Atkinson and Coffey (2004) argue that documents do not stand-alone. They do not construct reality as individual or separate entities. Instead, they have a referential value that is embedded in other texts. They further argue that like any system of message and signs, meaning can only be generated from documents because they have relationships with other documents. Based on this premise, Atkinson and Coffey (2004) postulate that the analysis of documents must extend beyond separate texts and explore how different documents relate with others. For instance, in a marketing firm when auditors want to scrutinise the performance of employees and the firm overall, they will not just rely on one document. Instead, they are likely to carryout an audit trail that may involve scrutiny of a wide range of documents. They may review the balance sheets, minutes of departmental meetings, progress reports and budgets among many other organisational records. Each of these organisational records has its distinctive characteristics in terms of content, function, style or formats. Furthermore, such documents are written in reference to other equivalent or interlinked documents. It is in this case that the element of intertextuality comes into play. Thus the analysis of documents is carried out in terms of intertextual relationships exploring dimensions of similarity and differences. The analysis may involve exploring how conventional formats are similar or different between texts (Atkinson & Coffey 2004). Similarly, Fairclough (1992) argues that document analysis based on intertextuality accentuates on the heterogeniality of texts. As a method of analysis, it sheds light on the similar, distinct and conflicting elements that constitute of text.

According to Agger (1999), intertextual analysis is both beneficial and problematic. This approach to document analysis is beneficial because it highlights the much-needed research on the nature of relations among texts. Moreover, this approach can be applied in the analysis of a broad range of documents of distinctive characteristics in terms of content, function, style or formats. In the process, it provides a broad coverage of issues and elements that may not have surfaced thus enabling the construction of rational patterns and decisions (Atkinson & Coffey 2004; Agger 1999). In support of these sentiments, Atkinson and Coffey (2004) argue that, the referential element embedded in this approach generates a dense network of shared textual formats and cross-referencing thus creating a powerful version of social reality.

Conversely, Agger (1999) argues that intertextual analysis is problematic since its application imposes the need to develop subdivisions and typologies. Each time intertextuality is employed, a dilemma emerges that leads to a loss of perspective to the extent where context, purpose and origin fade thus leading to uncertainty. Consequently, a number of subdivisions and typologies have to be developed so as to ensure a methodical application of the concept in practice. In line with the sentiments of Agger (1999), Fairclough (1992) suggests that one of the weaknesses of intertexuality is that it is a major source of text ambivalence. Given the fact that, texts are analysed based on other texts with different compositions, there is likelihood that textual surfaces may not be clearly or appropriately placed in relations to the intertextual network of the text. Moreover, their connotations may be ambivalent and may not be possible to determine the meaning (Fairclough 1992).

Visual Analysis

The social world is filled with visual images from nature, television, paintings, photo albums, publications movies and the World Wide Web that researchers in the social sciences can analyse in order to create meaning or learn about the social world. There are different approaches that researchers can employ in analysing visual texts or images (Alexander 2001). One of the notable approaches that can be used in visual analysis is the semiotic approach. Semiotic analysis can be described as a method of analysing visual texts that draws from Saussaure’s 1915 and 1959 theory of language. The basic premise of this approach is that firstly, signs have a signifier that point to a signified object. Secondly, the relationships between concepts and words are arbitrary. In essence, certain signs match-up to certain meanings. Thirdly, signs are not isolated. Rather they are rich in meaning because they are interrelated with other signs in the system. For example, if there are images of a hawk and dove, one is likely to think of aggressiveness and peace noticing their difference first despite the fact that they have similar qualities in that they are all birds that fly (Alexander 2001).

According to Stokes (2003) the semiotic approach involves putting into words how images work by linking them to an ideological structure that creates meaning. Drawing on the sentiments of Riggins (1994), Mitchell (2011) observes that using the semiotic approach in image analysis one looks at both connotative and denotative meaning of the object and its positioning. The term mapping comes into play when exploring the connotative meaning. This term describes the manner in which objects act as entry points for conveying stories about self. In this case, the ‘self’ uses objects (e.g photographs, gifts, artifacts etc) to represents its ideology and plot its social network. On the other hand, the denotative meaning may include exploring the socio-cultural element of the particular environment that the object is based. For instance, the denotative meaning of a toy car in Africa may lead to an exploration of the way in which the object is made and the social-cultural context in which it is made (Mitchell 2011; Riggins 1994).

According to Alexander (2001) one of the advantages linked to the semiotic approach is that it helps to uncover signs, explore how they work and exposes the relationship between signs thus creating a more profound meaning of the social world. Stokes (1996) further notes this approach provides a unifying conceptual framework that can be applied across a wide range of visual elements such as posture, photography, television, dress, gestures and film among many others. Moreover, this approach has been found to demand relatively limited resources. It is possible to carryout semiotic analysis of only one image since this approach is interpretive in nature, its reliability does not hinge on a large number of texts. Additionally, the generalisability of this approach is not relevant thus it is a suitable approach for analysing a limited number of images (Stokes 2003).

However, Stokes (2003) notes that one of the disadvantages of employing the semiotic approaches in visual analysis is that it requires one to have a high level of knowledge regarding the specific object of analysis. For example, if one is not knowledgeable in the area of rave culture, they may find it difficult to effectively carry out semiotic analysis of flyers since they do not understand the meaning of various conventions (Stokes 2003).

Discourse and Narrative Analysis

Discourse analysis is an umbrella term commonly used to describe approaches employed in the analysis of written or vocal language. On the other hand, narrative analysis focuses on analysing stories or accounts of individuals, communities or cultures. The distinction between discourse analysis and narrative analysis is somewhat blurred and subtle. The former focuses on discourse whereas the latter focuses on stories. Similar to narrative analysis, there are different approaches to discourse analysis (Chase 2005; Clandinin & Connelly 2000; Reissman 2008). In the article, “Hegemony and Political Discourse”, Phillips (1998) employs an interdisciplinary social constructionist approach to discourse analysis to examine the impact of Thatcherism (political and socio-economic ideologies linked to Margaret Thatcher). This approach draws on discourse theories of Foucault (1972) and Fairclough (1992) and social psychological approaches to discourse analysis.

This section specifically focuses on examining the Foucauldian approach of discourse analysis as depicted in this article.

Generally, the Faucauldian approach to discourse analysis focuses on power relationships and how they are expressed through language. The core premise of this method is that language is not a transparent medium through which formed attitudes identities and ideologies can be expressed. Rather, language creates representations of the world that are socially shared and constructs individuals as subjects. This approach to discourse analysis further holds that ideologies are propagated by mechanisms of discourse. Consequently, the process of analysis should emphasise on the manner in which ideologies are founded discursively and work to change or maintain power relations (Phillips 1998).

Moreover, this approach to discourse analysis holds that language is not a descriptive and neutral medium rather it constitutes of meaning. Therefore, language used in discourse must be the subject of study. It follows that, when using this approach to analyse discourse much attention is paid to the language of expression (Phillips 1998).

In contrast to the Foucauldian approach used by Phillips (1998), Potter (2001) argues that discourse analysis should focus on the analysis of texts and talks in social practices instead of language as an abstract element such as lexicon and a set of grammatical rules in linguistics. He further notes that discourse analysis approaches should focus on what people do.

A key strength evident in the Foucauldian approach as used by Phillips (1998) is that it provides invaluable insight on role of discourse in society. This approach effectively frames the subjects and explores the specific semantic of the words used and how they relate to objects. Another distinguishing aspects of this approach is that it exposes power relationships as expressed through language (Given 2008; Phillips 1998). There are also several weaknesses associated with the use of this approach. Firstly, the fact that the use of this approach focuses on language there is likelihood that relevant contextual experiences may be overlooked. Secondly, analysis of language may be problematic especially in instances when a particular element of the language has single or multiples meaning (Given 2008; Phillips 1998).

Institutional Ethnographic Analysis

Institutional ethnography can be described as a sociological approach of inquiry that focuses on studying people’s everyday lives, experiences, what they do and say in specific context. It often involves a longitudinal approach that may involve open-ended interviews, analysis of documents and artifacts and participant observation in their natural settings for an extended period of time (Smith 2006). Smith (2006) suggests that institutional ethnography as an approach of inquiry, is designed to offer an alternative to the objectified subject of knowledge particularly in social scientific discourse. It creates an entry point for discovering the social that is not subordinate to objectified forms of knowledge regarding the political economy or the society. Moreover, it is a method of inquiry that is based on the actualities of the everyday experiences of people’s lives. Nonetheless, it extends beyond experiences and further touches on the ruling relations in the contemporary society (Smith 2006; Turner 2006).

There are different approaches of institutional ethnographic analysis that have been developed over time. In her book, “Institutional Ethnography”, Smith (2006) provides in-depth insight on different approaches of institutional ethnography. Using Smith’s approach, the research begins by taking into account the everyday activities of the people being studied. In this case, the researcher keenly observes and engage people in their social setting. The researcher then begins to track and map the way in which people are linked together in their various chains of activities across time and geography. By taking into account these factors, it is evident that Smith’s approach extends beyond the knowledge or experiences of any informant and extends to the broad organisation of people’s life and interactions (Smith 2006; Turner 2006).

One of the key strengths of Smith’s approach is that it provides a framework for researchers to progress from ethnographic description of the people’s life experiences to the exploration of the ruling relations that coordinate people’s knowledge and activities (Smith et al 2006). Generally, this approach helps in tracking and mapping the broad and complex social, political and economic relations that play a critical role in governing the day-to-day activities and experiences of people (Smith et al 2006; Smith 2006). Another distinctive contribution of Smith’s approach of institutional ethnography is its depiction of discourse from the standpoint of practical activities particularly in institutional texts. As observed by Bowen (2009) and Atkinson and Coffey (2004) texts are ubiquitous and critical in today’s knowledge economy. Texts generally insert institutional relevancies and interests into local settings where local participants adopt them. Consequently, people’s reading and use of texts coordinates and influences what goes on and what can be known authoritatively about the settings. Thus Smith’s approach is beneficial in that it provides a framework for exploring how texts work particularly in the institutional settings. In this regard Smith (2006, pp. 118-119) notes that «institutional discourse is set in texts … texts are of central importance to IE because they create this essential connection between the local of our (and others’) bodily being and the translocal organisation of the ruling relations.» Thus observation and analysis of texts and how individuals engage with texts offers insights on the institution and its practices. Despite of the various contributions that Smith’s (2006) approach provides, one of the key limitations of this approach is that it is susceptible to biased selectivity. Using this approach a researcher is likely to emphasise on one aspect of people’s life experiences and its link to the ruling relations while overlooking others. Consequently, this limits the generalisability of the findings established through Smith’s approach of institutional ethnography. Additionally, this approach requires one to have a high level of knowledge regarding the specific object of analysis.


This paper has examined different approaches of document analysis, visual analysis, discourse analysis and ethnographic analysis. According to the findings of this paper, it is apparent that documents are social facts, which are constructed, used and shared in a socially organised manner. Despite of the fact they form specific types of representations, they are not transparent representations of ideologies, routines or decision-making processes. As a result, document analysis is essential in order to establish what they are, what they are used to accomplish, their distinctive forms, their place within the organistional settings and the cultural values that are attached to them. Although the approaches discussed in this paper have certain limitations or disadvantages, they provide a framework of analysing texts, images, stories and cultural artifacts among many other elements in order to create meaning and learn more about the social world.


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