Over the years, social scientists have used documentary research to understand series of events that have occurred or happened in the past. Here, they explore available recovered or existing documents and material to get information and gain insight into a research question or particular topic.

In this article, we would define the concept of documentary research, the various types of documentary research, its applications, and some valid examples.

Let’s dive right in.

What is Documentary Research?

In simple terms, documentary research is a form of research that uses records to get accurate information about a particular subject. It is a systematic investigation and analysis of existing records or documents. These documents can be in written forms, visual/audio materials, photographs, videos books, etc.

Documentary research is a valuable approach used in exploring historical events, cultural phenomena, and societal trends to get deep insight into a topic, subject or research question.

Documentary research is somewhat similar to content analysis, which also entails studying existing information/documents.

One of the most vital considerations when using documentary research is the quality of the material being utilized, hence the danger of falling into the single-story phenomenon. 

To forestall this, the documents being reviewed must be assessed thoroughly before it is used. (see John Scott, A Matter of Record, 1990). The criteria for authenticity involves checking the documents thoroughly to ensure their genuineness.

List of Documentary Research Methods

  • Social Research Studies: This form of documentary research is commonly used in social research studies. For instance, Karl Max used documentary research extensively for his research and the documents he used include The Royal Commission, Inland revenue reports, and Her Majesty Inspectors of Factory reports, to mention a few. Emile Durkheim one of the founders of sociology authored a book on suicide and his work was recognized as the first modern example of consistent use of documents for social research.
  • Archival Inquiry: This is a field of sociology explored in documentary research. It entails using primary source documents stored in archives. This form of research is popular amongst historians and the archival documents are referred to as references in their research.
  • Content Analysis: This method involves the examination and interpretation of content in documents like articles, books, and speeches in other to find a connection, verify events, and identify patterns or trends.
  • Historical Analysis: This is the study and analysis of occurrences that took place in the past, but were documented in records like newspapers, government records, and diaries to understand past events accurately and use the information to understand the present.
  • Textual Analysis: This form of analysis is focused on printed texts, in a bid to understand pictures, symbols, and language in other to understand events or occurrences that happened in the lives of the subject.
  • Oral Tradition: Oral history involves gathering information via oral summations of people who had direct experience of the events or subject being researched. These interviews are recorded and transcribed, and then analyzed as documents.
  • Ethnographic Research: This form of research involves documenting the daily experiences of people in their natural environment, in other to understand how interactions in their personal space affect or impacts their experiences.
  • Comparative Analysis: Comparative analysis entails comparing documents from multiple sources to understand context, and periods and uncover any similarities or differences. The goal is to understand cultural or political variations.
  • Cross-Sectional Analysis: Cross-sectional analysis involves reviewing documents from multiple perspectives to understand changes, trends, or developments over a specific period.
  • Aesthetic Interpretation: This is analyzing visual documents, like paintings, photographs, and footage from videos. This is often used as a supplement to text to authenticate discoveries uncovered in text documents.


Understanding the Documentary Research Methodology

Documentary research involves several key steps, such as defining the objective or research question, identifying relevant resources, revising them, and drawing up a well-informed and accurate conclusion based on fact.

Here are some key points to help you understand the documentary research methodology:

  • Purpose: The essence of documentary research is to review existing documents to have insight into a research problem or question. The documents reviewed include written texts, such as books, articles, letters, diaries, newspapers, official reports, government publications, and archival materials, and non-written materials like videos, audio recordings,  photographs, and digital documents.
  • Data Collection: This phase is when researchers gather relevant documents required for the research topic. These documents are evaluated carefully based on credibility and relevance. 

Explore – Data Collection Methods: Definition + Steps to Do It

  • Data Analysis: Here, the gathered documents are analyzed systematically using relevant document research methodologies. This involves reading, grouping similar resources, and extracting information based on similarities, trends, etc.
  • Interpretation: After data analysis, the discoveries are interpreted and the answers are applied to the research question or objective.

Read More: What is Data Interpretation? + [Types, Methods & Tools]

  • Ethical Considerations: Ethical principles should be considered when carrying out documentary research. Copyright and intellectual property rights should be respected and all necessary permissions should be obtained before using confidential materials.
  • Strengths and Limitations: The documentary research methodology has several advantages. One of which is that it helps researchers study past events by providing relevant documentation that sheds light. It also offers rich and detailed insights into social, cultural, and historical contexts. However, as with every good thing, there are limitations, such as some form of biases in the selected documents, which could emanate from the author or source of the document, missing data, and validity of the findings.


Related: What are Ethical Practices in Market Research?


Applications of Documentary Research

The documentary research methodology has a broad range of applications across various disciplines. They include:

  • Historical Research: Documentary research is used extensively in historical studies to explore past events, in other to predict the future. Researchers review historical documents, like letters, diaries, government records, newspapers, and photographs, to better understand historical narratives, social and cultural contexts, and see how individuals or communities conducted their activities in the past.
  • Social Sciences: In social sciences, documentary research helps investigate social concepts and trends. Documents like surveys, census data, and organization records are studied and analyzed, in other to understand public opinion, social inequality, and organizational behavior.
  • Legal Research: Documentary research plays a vital role in legal studies. Lawyers, legal scholars, policymakers, etc analyze legal documents, regulations, court cases, and legal antecedents all in a bid to understand the legal framework and ways in which law evolves. Documentary research can support legal arguments, influence the development of legal theories, and inform policy-making.
  • Education Research: Documentary research is used to understand educational policies, curriculum development, and teaching practices. Researchers review educational documents, such as textbooks,  educational policies, and assessment materials, to access educational systems, approaches, and the effect of these on learning outcomes.


Examples of Documentary Research

  1. The Russian Revolution (1891 – 1924), With the aid of newspaper documents and personal diaries Orlando Figes, a British historian narrated the most important milestones of the revolution in that period and proffered a comprehensive portrait of everyday occurrences as it occurred then the book Figes. depicts how the Russian Revolution was a historical process that changed the lives of its people and had its influence globally.
  2. The Vietnam War. The 990 minutes audiovisual documentary by Ken Burns narrates the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Throughout 10 episodes, the military operations of the Vietnam War were addressed, as well as the opposition to the war by the US.
  3. Bios. Lives that marked yours: Luis Alberto Spinetta. This two-hour audiovisual documentary, produced by National Geographic, intimate and deeply details the life of  Luis Alberto Spineta, an artist referred to as one of the fathers of Argentine rock. His family was part of the production,the100 hours documentary was directed by Catarina Spinetta and she used recordings, and testimonies from family members to review her father’s childhood until his final moments.
  4. The Secret Decrees of the Dictatorship. This publication was released between March and May 2019, and more than 7000 secret decrees issued by the Military Juntas in Argentina between 1976-1983 were reviewed by the Data Unit of the news portal. These decrees signed by different dictators focused on deportations, the prohibition of books, and the sale of weapons. All of these materials were analyzed and presented along with eight notes, published in 2019.
  5. World War II in Photographs, David Boyle. This book is an example of aesthetic documentary research. 900 high-quality photographs from various sources were used to portray World War II (1939–1945). The images uncover the scenarios as the warfare took place. The images were arranged in chronological order with images of the steppes of Russia, the deserts of Africa, the jungles of the South Pacific, and the seas of the Arctic and each one of them has a detailed explanation of the course of events.
  6. The Silence of the Others. This documentary by the Spanish Pedro Almodóvar took 7 years to produce and over 450 hours of review of materials to uncover the crimes carried out during the Franco regime and the plight of the victims seeking justice. 
  7. The Berlin Wall. The border through a city, Thomas Flemming. This is another example of documentary research, with documents, photos, and illustrations, this book illustrates the history of the Berlin Wall. The daily life of the people who lived to the west and east of the city was portrayed in the book as well as the events that led to the fall of the border in 1989.

Purpose of Documentary Research

The purpose of documentary research is to gather verifiable evidence, that can help researchers understand clearly events that occurred in the past/present and also uncover new knowledge by analyzing existing documents and materials. It aids researchers in exploring topics that are difficult to decipher through other research methods and proffers a historical or contextual perspective on the subject being studied.


When to Use Documentary Research

Documentary research is best when researching events that occurred in the past, especially in instances where direct observation is not applicable. Here are some instances where documentary research is particularly useful:

  • Historical Studies: Documentary research is ideal when conducting historical research. Researchers can then analyze historical records or documents left behind to better understand past events, chronologically.
  • Exploratory Research: In cases where there are gaps in research studies. documentary research can serve as an exploratory method to fill gaps in knowledge by exploring different perspectives that can uncover new knowledge.
  • Policy Analysis: Documentary research is useful in examining policies and similar regulations. By analyzing policy documents, over a period, researchers can measure the impact policies had or have on a particular subject. Based on their review of existing documents, they can make recommendations and supervise their implementation. This method is particularly useful in fields such as public policy, education, healthcare, and social welfare.
  • Comparative Studies: Documentary research is useful for comparative analysis. Researchers can analyze documents from different sources and geographical locations to identify patterns, verify results or simply identify contradictions and uncover areas that require further investigation.


Characteristics of Documentary Research

  • Uses Existing Documents: Documentary research is based on existing documents as a primary source of data. These documents can be written(letters, diaries, articles, books)or unwritten documents(videos, photographs, inscriptions). These documents are analyzed to gain insight and understanding into a specific phenomenon. 
  • Non-Experimental In Nature: Documentary research does not involve manipulated variables, meaning that the researcher can not change the outcomes by directly intervening in the research. All the results derived are based on phenomena that have d occurred, which have documented records to attest to their occurrence. 
  • Data Analysis: Documentary research involves rigorous data analysis, as researchers have to carefully read, extract relevant information, categorize data, and use qualitative/quantitative analysis to derive results.
  • Interpretation of Findings: After data analysis. The findings of the research must be interpreted in a way that gives insight and deep understanding to anyone reading about the subject being researched. The interpretation phase involves synthesizing and relating the findings to the research questions or objectives.
  • Contextual Understanding: Documentary research emphasizes the importance of understanding the social, cultural, and historical, events in the context, in which the documents were recorded, reviewed, and analyzed.By context we mean, the period, cultural norms, political climate, socio-economic factors, etc where the events being studied took place and under what circumstances. This contextual understanding helps to interpret the findings and draw accurate conclusions.
  • Cross Reference and Validation: Documentary research is characterized by cross-referencing or triangulation, which involves using multiple sources or methods to corroborate findings. The combination of documentary research with other research methods strengthens the validity and reliability of their findings. This enhances the robustness of the research and helps minimize potential biases or inaccuracies.
  • Ethical Considerations: Documentary research requires that researchers respect ethical guidelines and principles. Copyright and intellectual property laws must be adhered to and necessary permissions obtained when using sensitive or confidential documents, as well as the privacy and anonymity of individuals mentioned in the documents. 

Advantages of Documentary Research

  • Access to Existing Data: In documentary research, existing data is readily available for review and analysis. There is no need to collect new data, via surveys and the like which can take time or require intensive resources. This makes documentary research a cost-effective and efficient method.
  • Rich and Dynamic Data: Documents and materials used in documentary research offer a rich pool of information and insights. This method covers a wide range of topics, periods, and perspectives. There is access to primary sources, such as original letters or historical documents, as well as secondary sources like scholarly articles or reports. This variety of data allows for a comprehensive and clear understanding of the research topic.
  • Longitudinal and Historical Perspectives: Documentary research allows researchers to study phenomena over extended periods and explore historical contexts. By examining documents spanning different periods, researchers can analyze patterns, trends, changes, and continuity across social, cultural, or organizational aspects. 
  • Non-Intrusive Method: Since documentary research relies on existing documents, there is no direct involvement with research subjects or settings. Hence there is no need to disturb or manipulate the research environment or intrude on the lives of individuals. This makes it an ethical and practical method, especially for sensitive or personal topics.
  • Exploration of Inaccessible or Historical Data: Documentary research allows researchers to access data that cannot be duplicated anymore due to timelapse and changing circumstances. For instance, researchers can analyze archived documents, historical records, or rare texts which provide unique insights into the past or specific contexts. 
  • Large-Scale Data Analysis: Documentary research deals with or involves large volumes of data. Numerous documents, texts, or media materials to identify patterns, themes, or trends can be examined. This exposure to extensive data sets enables comprehensive analysis and enhances the reliability of research findings.


Limitations of Documentary Research

  • The Danger of Biased Perspectives: The documents used in documentary research are subject to bias, as they could reflect the perspectives, agendas, or limitations of the authors or organizations that produced them. Critical evaluation is necessary to ensure the credibility of the documents.
  • No Control Over Data Collection: Documentary research relies on existing data that may not have been aimed at the research question it is being applied to. As researchers have limited control over the collection process, there is the potential for missing or incomplete information.
  • Subjective Interpretation: Documents analyzed require interpretation of findings, which can be subjective as different researchers can interpret the same document differently, leading to variations in findings and conclusions.


Documentary research is a valuable form of research methodology as it provides access to existing documents and materials for analysis and interpretation. There are many advantages of these methods, such as diverse sources of data, historical perspectives, and access to large volumes of data from analysis.

However, there are also limitations like biases based on the author’s perspective, no control over data collection, and challenges in interpretation. A clear understanding of the pros and cons of this research method would help users make informed decisions on how to apply documentary research to their subject of study.

  • Angela Kayode-Sanni
  • on 13 min read


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