Documentary Studies

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Documentary Studies


Documentary studies constitute an important approach in social science research. Because institutions are keen on keeping a record on their actions, documentary sources form the basis for understanding institutional behaviors. In using documentary sources, researchers are able to develop classification schemes or taxonomies to clarify societal actions and individual choices. Documentary sources are often used in conjunction with other data collection methods, such as interviews, surveys, and site observations.

Documentary studies are well suited to examine the functions and operation of how government works. In the United States the separation of powers creates a functional division of responsibilities among the three branches of government. Constitutional studies clearly rely on court decisions, judicial reviews, and lower court opinions. Students of legislative decisions can focus on congressional debate, hearings, and actions. Presidential scholars can review volumes of White House papers and archival records (such as tapes of conversations between the president and his staff).

Governmental documents enable social scientists to understand decisions made at critical stages of the policy process. Documents from governmental sources provide policy objectives, options, and the rationale behind the chosen policy options. Analysis on the content of legislative proposals from initiation through committee hearings and the final votes on the floor have yielded theoretically rich perspectives. Theodore Lowis (1972) comparative analysis on the content of and actions on several federal legislations led to his argument that the nature of the legislation or policy determines political interrelationship among key actors. Policies that allocate jobs and contracts to congressional districts tend to receive broad political support, whereas legislations that aim at redistributing resources to the needy population are politically polarized.

Federalism in the United States tends to complicate documentary analysis, because many governmental decisions are dispersed across states and cities, and contextual variations tend to challenge research efforts to generalize the findings from a few study sites. At the same time, local variations offer an opportunity for experimentation. Researchers of urban reform are keen on analyzing mayors state-of-the-city speeches as well as city council minutes and voting outcomes. In public education, there are fifty state systems that define their own academic standards, and more than 14,000 locally elected school boards that govern their schools. Studies on school governance have drawn on school board minutes, collective-bargaining agreements, administrative guidelines, financial audits, and evaluation reports. In the context of intergovernmental relations, the literature on policy implementation pays particular attention to the goals of legislation, the definition of eligibility, and the extent to which the intended services and benefits are delivered to the targeted populations (Pressman and Wildavsky 1973). Studies of the federal implementation of education policy have relied on audit findings to identify if state and local agencies are meeting the federal program expectations (Wong 1990).

As the boundary between government and civil society changes, researchers are likely to pay more attention to a broader range of documentary sources. A study of congressional hearings suggests the rise of citizen-based action groups in shaping the direction of the governments role in social welfare since the postmaterialist era of the 1960s (Berry 1999). Using local newspapers as an information source, one study analyzed two major newspapers in one large city to examine editorial support for mayoral control of public schools (Wong and Jain 1999). Further, human conditions can be depicted through the making of, the study of, and the use of documentary films. This type of documentary work is carried out at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and at the Southern Oral History Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Documentary studies are likely to continue to play a prominent role in social science research. There has been a rapid proliferation and democratization of documentary sources as the World Wide Web has become more accessible to the public. Public-opinion polls, news articles, congressional hearings, and state audits of agencies, schools performance, and for-profit organizations performance, just to name a few, are now easily accessible through the World Wide Web. Archaeological sites and artifacts are often scanned into digitalized format for research purposes. The Internet search engine Google and some of the worlds major university libraries formed a partnership to convert their entire collections into electronic formats that will be widely accessible. Traditional barriers to access, such as transportation cost, will no longer impede documentary research, both domestically and globally.

Finally, the politics of documentary analysis must be taken into consideration. Documents come from many sources, including public-regarding and interest-based organizations. More often than not, documentary sources, especially secondary analyses conducted by think tanks, reflect a certain bias. Too often, students overlook the need to cross-validate the content of the documents. Furthermore, for students who are interested in in-depth research, there is still a need to navigate the labor-intensive process of obtaining permission to use certain documentary sources from governmental agencies.

SEE ALSO Film Industry; Narratives


Berry, Jeffrey. 1999. The New Liberalism. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Lowi, Theodore. 1972. Four Systems of Policy, Politics, and Choice. Public Administration Review, 298310.

Pressman, Jeffrey, and Aaron Wildavsky. 1973. Implementation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wong, Kenneth K. 1990. City Choices: Education and Housing. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wong, Kenneth, and Pushpam Jain. 1999. Newspapers as Policy Actors in Urban School Systems: The Chicago Story. Urban Affairs Review 35 (2): 210246.

Kenneth K. Wong