document analysis methodology

document analysis – literature on the methodology

  • Bowen, G. A. (n.d.). Document Analysis as a Qualitative Research Method. Qualitative Research Journal, 9, 27–40.
    Document analysis is a systematic procedure for reviewing or evaluating documents—both printed and electronic (computer-based and Internet-transmitted) material. Like other analytical methods in qualitative research, document analysis requires that data be examined and interpreted in order to elicit meaning, gain understanding, and develop empirical knowledge(Corbin&Strauss,2008;seealsoRapley,2007).
    Document analysis is often used in combination with other qualitative research methods as a means of triangulation—‘the combination of methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon’ (Denzin, 1970, p. 291)
    The qualitative researcher is expected to draw upon multiple (at least two) sources of evidence; that is, to seek convergence and corroboration through the use of different data sources and methods. Apart from documents, such sources include interviews, participant or non-participant observation, and physical artifacts (Yin,1994).By triangulating data, the researcher attempts to provide ‘a confluence of evidence that breeds credibility’ (Eisner, 1991, p. 110). By examining information collected through different methods, the researcher can corroborate findings across data sets and thus reduce the impact of potential biases that can exist in a single study. According to Patton (1990), triangulation helps the researcher guard against the accusation that a study’s findings are simply an artifact of a single method, a single source, or a single investigator’s bias. Mixed-method studies (which combine quantitative and qualitative research techniques)sometimes include document analysis. Here is an example: In their large-scale, three-year evaluation of regional educational service agencies (RESAs), Rossman and Wilson (1985) combined quantitative and qualitative methods—surveys (to collect quantitative data) and open ended, semi structured interviews with reviews of documents (as the primary sources of qualitative data). The document reviews were designed to identify the agencies that played a role in supporting school improvement programs.
  • Glenn A. Bowen, (2009) “Document Analysis as a Qualitative Research Method”, Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 9 Issue: 2, pp.27-40, doi: 10.3316/QRJ0902027
  • Document Review and Analysis


  • Semiotics (studies the life of signs in society; seeks to understand the underlining messages in visual texts; forms basis for interpretive analysis)
  • Discourse Analysis (concerned with production of meaning through talk and texts; how people use language)
  • Interpretative Analysis (captures hidden meaning and ambiguity; looks at how messages are encoded or hidden; acutely aware of who the audience is)
  • Conversation Analysis (concerned with structures of talk in interaction and achievement of interaction)
  • Grounded Theory (inductive and interpretative; developing novel theoretical ideas based on the data)

Document Analysis
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. Analyzing documents incorporates coding content into themes similar to how focus group or interview transcripts are analyzed. A rubric can also be used to grade or score a document. There are three primary types of documents:

• Public Records: The official, ongoing records of an organization’s activities. Examples include student transcripts, mission statements, annual reports, policy manuals, student handbooks, strategic plans, and syllabi.

• Personal Documents: First-person accounts of an individual’s actions, experiences, and beliefs. Examples include calendars, e-mails, scrapbooks, blogs, Facebook posts, duty logs, incident reports, reflections/journals, and newspapers.

• Physical Evidence: Physical objects found within the study setting (often called artifacts). Examples include flyers, posters, agendas, handbooks, and training materials.

As with all research, how you collect and analyse the data should depend on what you want to find out. Since you haven’t told us that, it is difficult to give you any precise advice. However, one really important matter in using documents as sources, whatever the overall aim of your research, is that data from documents are very different from data from speech events such as interviews, or overheard conversations.So the first analytic question you need to ask with regard to documents is ‘how are these data shaped by documentary production ?’  Something which differentiates nearly all data from documents from speech data is that those who compose documents know what comes at the end while still able to alter the beginning; which gives far more opportunity for consideration of how the recepient of the utterances will view the provider; ie for more artful self-presentation. Apart from this however, analysing the way documentary practice shapes your data will depend on what these documents are: for example your question might turn out to be ‘How are news stories produced ?’ – if you are using news reports, or ‘What does this bureaucracy consider relevant information (and what not relevant and what unmentionable) ? if you are using completed proformas or internal reports from some organisation.

An analysis technique is just like a hardware tool. It depends where and with what you are working to choose the right one. For a nail you should use a hammer, and there are lots of types of hammers to choose, depending on the type of nail.

So, in order to tell you the bettet technique, it is important to know the objectives you intend to reach and the theoretical framework you are using. Perhaps, after that, We could tell you if you should use content analysis, discourse or grounded theory (which type of it as, like the hammer, there are several types of GTs).

written after Bowen (2009), but well chewed and digested.

1. Introduction: Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research?

excellent guide to the structure of a qualitative research

more on qualitative research in this IMS blog

9 Comments on document analysis methodology

  1. Naledi
    November 18, 2018 at 11:55 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you so much for sharing this, there’s a spelling error though lol.: *and there are lots of different hammers to choose from

    • Plamen Miltenoff
      November 18, 2018 at 1:31 pm (2 years ago)

      thank you for catching the typo; fixed!…
      pls share your resources/ideas on qualitative research / document processing

  2. Charie
    February 16, 2019 at 8:06 am (2 years ago)

    What if i’ll only use documentary analysis?since I can’t interview the hospital staffs about Acute Gstroenteritis because the symptoms, the causing factors and treatments can’t be identified by just looking at the patient

  3. Eric
    November 15, 2019 at 8:04 pm (11 months ago)

    Thank you for your article. I find it very insightful. How do i analyse documents in phenomenological research? I am researching into the lived experience of teachers teaching English literature in my country. And intend to study teachers documents such as lesson plan, class tests and exams paper by way of gathering data along interview and classroom observation. Now my concern is how to analyse these teacher documents in a phenomenological research. Thank you in advance.

  4. victor
    May 1, 2020 at 9:02 pm (6 months ago)

    How do i analyze data obtained through library research method?

    • Plamen Miltenoff
      May 5, 2020 at 2:47 pm (6 months ago)

      Thank you for the questions, Victor.
      Can you elaborate more?
      nVivo is the first application that comes to mind, but if you expand on your question, we may receive better suggestions

  5. shila malipenga
    May 16, 2020 at 2:41 pm (5 months ago)

    very good article.
    however i do need your help, what could affect the level of detail of the document analysis, in terms od library document analysis?

  6. Edson Chinhete
    May 25, 2020 at 10:22 am (5 months ago)

    Hi! I really like your article. At least it includes some of relevance information I’ve been looking for. Well, a question then. How can I analyse a physical material such as a coursebook? I am evaluating a coursebook but i can hardly decide what suitable evaluating technique I can use.

    • Plamen Miltenoff
      May 26, 2020 at 7:44 pm (5 months ago)

      Good afternoon Edson,
      thank you for your post.
      Are evaluating the coursebook from the position of an instruction and/or of a student?


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