I’ll be honest – when I first started my PhD, I wasn’t planning to use documents as data. I envisaged a mixed-methods or even experimental design to explore the influence of rationality and bias on police decision-making in tackling organised crime. I was thinking of documents as something that would probably be part of my literature review; legislation or policy documents that drive decision-making, but not as ‘proper’, juicy, qualitative data. Even when, in a scoping interview with a potential participant during my first year, he showed me these documents (that I have now spent almost two years studying, analysing and reflecting on), I still thought ‘they look interesting, maybe they’ll be worth a read’. When I ran my first thematic analysis on them a few weeks later, I decided that they can be part of my theoretical framework and inform the next, ‘real’ part of my research. What I wasn’t realising, was that the documents – as any data inevitably does – had already driven my research to a different direction than the one I was hopelessly trying to hold on to. I didn’t happen to find them, they found me; and were begging to be discovered.
Reflecting on this first encounter with the reports that are now some of the units of analysis in my PhD, I realise that I had adopted the same misconception as many other social researchers who view documents as resources to gather information rather than as data which should be viewed as ‘collective social products’ (Prior, 2003). Documents are of particular importance in criminological research where typically impenetrable groups and organisations such as law enforcement or police forces might be difficult for students to access. The annual reports these agencies are required to produce, like the ones I’m analysing, can provide a plethora of detailed information on the structure and activities of an organisation (Noaks & Wincup, 2004). They can also reveal a great deal about the force’s relative priorities on crime control and their changes over time which is what I am trying to untangle in my research.
This unexpected shift towards documentary methods has motivated me to organise a workshop on methodological approaches to document analysis funded by the GW4 alliance which brings together the universities of Cardiff, Bristol, Bath and Exeter and aims to provide researcher-led and innovative training to postgraduate students, among many other objectives. As a result I have already networked with many postgraduate researchers who are using, considering or have a general interest in documents as data. It has become evident to me that document analysis is one of the most widely used methods in social sciences research, yet even the training available to postgraduate researchers is very limited. This can be mainly attributed to a general attitude among social scientists that documents are merely ‘common sense’ versions of social phenomena that do not necessitate any particularly sophisticated scientific approach and analysis. As a result, many doctoral researchers do not feel entirely confident about using documents as data (they might only use them as resources instead) and do not reap their advantages: their ‘richness’ (Atkinson and Coffey (2011) argue that they form their distinct forms of ‘documentary realities’), demonstrations of ‘relevance and effect’, the fact that they are ‘naturally occurring’, and of course their ‘availability’ (Silverman, 2014).
I am confident that the DRN will be an extremely useful platform for all these researchers to network, find training opportunities, seek support and information about methodological approaches to documents and generally discover their awesomeness to use as data – just like I did.
Atkinson, P., & Coffey, A. (2011). Analysing documentary realities. In D. Silverman, Qualitative Research (pp. 56-75). London: Sage.
Noaks, L., & Wincup, E. (2004). Criminological Research - Understanding Qualitative Methods. London: Sage.
Prior, L. (2003). Using documents in Social Research. London: Sage.
Silverman, D. (2014). Doing Qualitative Research. London: Sage.
I was pleasantly surprised when Aimee Grant offered me to co-convene this blog and group. I couldn’t hide the smile on my face when I checked my emails during a mid-class break. We had only properly chatted after her thought-provoking seminar for the Ethnography Study Group that I attend at Cardiff University. After exchanging some literature and ideas on using documents as data sources and in mixed qualitative methods designs, I was delighted to be one of the lucky few to soon look at some of Aimee’s forthcoming book chapters. Aimee was kind in considering me part of the Cardiff group, and her welcome showed the strength of cross-university thinking and collaboration. I hope that my different, yet complementary, academic background and experience with documents-based research and other qualitative methods approaches will help provide a balanced, interdisciplinary perspective.
I must confess that I never studied anthropology or sociology on a formal basis. Instead, I read exercise and sport sciences at the University of Exeter, and continued to postgraduate level, where I specialised in the sociology of sport and qualitative research of physical culture as part of the former Qualitative Research Unit (QRU). My PhD, which investigated the experiences of long-term practitioners of Chinese martial arts (Jennings, 2010), involved a life history approach, which followed from my previous ethnographic study of a Wing Chun Kung Fu association (Jennings, Brown & Sparkes, 2010). Up to that point, I had encountered the use of documents in martial arts cultures through the circulation of pirated DVD instructional tapes among core members of the said association, and the photocopied (and equally copyrighted!) syllabi of certain groups that marked the right of passage as new members. During my subsequent doctoral research, numerous participants eagerly mentioned the names of authors, websites and associations that were recommended for me to better understand their lifeworlds and social practices. However, due to the depth and density of the interview and observational data, I have to admit that I overlooked this possibility of using broader documents of life.
At a later point, when I had already written some articles and chapters using the interview and fieldwork data as an independent researcher and English teacher in Mexico, new possibilities emerged for me to return to the data sources cited by my former research participants. In Jennings (2014), I combined case study interviewee data with an examination of the official websites of their martial arts institutions. Within the same special edition of the open-access journal Societies, I published another article with my former PhD supervisors on a Tai Chi Chuan association and its cosmopolitan approach towards an environmental awareness (Brown, Jennings & Sparkes, 2014). Not long after that, I was able to look at new cases, as one of my students and I engaged in an analysis of an online petition calling for greater gender equality in terms of weight categories for female Olympic boxers that considered the narratives of legacy of London 2012 (Jennings & Cabrera, 2015).
Shortly before my return to the UK and full-time academia to work at Cardiff Metropolitan University, I teamed up with a colleague at the Health Advancement Research Team (HART) for a pedagogical study of the use of digital documents and media before, during and after formal Kung Fu training sessions – first published as lengthy blog article (Jennings & Vaittinen, 2016). This project coincided with another analysis of the official Facebook group, YouTube channel and website of the Xilam Mexican Martial Arts Association in terms of its engagement with the idea of a deeper, hidden Mesoamerican civilisation driving the destiny of the country (Jennings, 2016), which has now paved the way for several ongoing articles, invited talks and conference papers on the invention of this and various other Mexican fighting systems. These will continue to scrutinise the discourses, narratives and core philosophies of these emerging groups with the assistance of cultural and anthropological theory. Finally, I am fortunate to have been invited to write a chapter (Jennings, Forthcoming a) on the concept of sexuality as seen through the Aztec philosophy that is embodied in Xilam, using a strategy which juxtaposes observations, personal interviews and analysis of shared online documents. This coincides with another invited contribution on Mexican conchero dance as embodied, living heritage (Jennings, Forthcoming b) – a case study focusing on an archive lecture “The Path of Quetzalcoatl” given by the late shaman, university professor and pre-Hispanic dance pioneer, Andres Segura Granados.
Brown, D., Jennings, G. & Sparkes, A.C. (2014). Taijiquan the ‘Taiji World’ way: Towards a cosmopolitan vision of ecology. Societies, 4(3), 380-398.
Jennings, G. (Forthcoming a). Aspects of Mexican sexuality in the martial art of Xilam. In J. Piedra (Ed.), LGBTIQ people in Latin American sport. New York: Springer.
Jennings, G. (Forthcoming). Crossing borders and forms of heritage: Following the path of Quetzalcoatl of Andres Segura’s Conchero Dance. In V. Lo Iacono (Ed.), Dance as living, embodied heritage.
Jennings, G. (2016). Ancient wisdom, modern warriors: The (re)invention of a warrior tradition in Xilam. Martial Arts Studies, 2, 59-70.
Jennings, G. (2015). Transmitting health philosophies through the traditionalist Chinese martial arts in the UK. Societies, 4(4), 712-736.
Jennings, G. (2010). Fighters, thinkers and shared cultivation: Experiencing transformation through the long-term practice of traditionalist Chinese martial arts. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter.
Jennings, G., Brown, D. & Sparkes, A.C. (2010). “It can be a religion if you want”: Wing Chun Kung Fu as a secular religion. Ethnography, 11(4), 533-557.
Jennings, G. & Cabrera, B. (2015). Gender inequality in Olympic boxing: Exploring structuration through the online resistance to weight category restrictions. In A. Channon & C. Matthews (Eds.), Women Warriors: International Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports (pp. 89-103). Palgrave MacMillan.
Jennings, G. & Vaittinen, A. (2016). Mediated transformation: The role of multimedia in Wing Chun pedagogies. In www.chinesemartialstudies.com (Kung Fu Tea blog).
I’ve had a long-standing interest in using documents as data. However, it has taken me several years to fully explore the potential within documents that I have collected as part of research projects. For example, I can now see that within my PhD thesis (Grant, 2011), I did not undertake a reflexive and critical enough view when working with NHS patient files to fully explore their meanings.
In recent years, I have also been able to move beyond more quantitative, content analysis based, approaches, see for example Grant (2015), into a consideration of more discourse related analysis strategies, for example Grant (2016) where I undertook further analysis of the data within Grant (2015).
Over the past three years, I have returned to critically interrogate the documents collected as part of my doctoral studies alongside observational and interview data collected. In doing so, and in undertaking new projects using documents as data (Grant & Hoyle, 2017; Grant, Mannay, & Marzella, 2017; Grant & O’Mahoney, 2016; Meek, Hurt, & Grant, 2015) I have grown increasingly confident in understanding how projects which use documents as data should be designed, including elements such as sampling, data quality and analysis techniques.
Whenever I have presented my research using documents as data, I have mostly had small to moderate sized audiences, but they were very engaged and hoping to learn methodological lessons that they could apply to their own work, such as at the British Sociological Association medical sociology conference 2016. As a result of this, I have written a case study with an accompanying practice data set for the SAGE Research Methods Platform guide on undertaking critical discourse analysis with documents (Grant, 2017).
I am further addressing this gap through writing an accessible ‘how to guide’ for research involving documents, to be published by Routledge in 2018 (Grant, 2018).
In March 2017, I presented a draft of a methods paper I am preparing for peer review, based on an expanded analysis of the documents in my doctoral research, to the ethnography research group at Cardiff University. In the audience, there were many PhD students and early career researchers who wanted additional guidance on how to use the documents that they had collected.
I decided that it was time to bring together a research network. I had already previously written a small advert in the British Sociological Association Network Magazine for those with an interest in using documents as data to contact me, in order to set up a BSA special interest group. However, discussion following the ethnography group highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of these challenges.
As such, I decided that an independent network would be most beneficial, and I asked Dr George Jennings, a researcher with a wide range of experience in using documents as data, to co-convene the network with me.
We hope that you find the network useful in your research.
Grant, A. (2011). New Labour, Welfare Reform and Conditionality: Pathways to Work for Incapacity Benefit Claimants. Phd thesis: Cardiff University.
Grant, A. (2015). “#discrimination”: the online response to a case of a breastfeeding mother being ejected from a UK retail premises. Journal of Human Lactation, 32(1), 141–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890334415592403
Grant, A. (2016). “I… don’t want to see you flashing your bits around”: Exhibitionism, othering and good motherhood in perceptions of public breastfeeding. Geoforum, 71(May 2016), 52–61.
Grant, A. (2017). Analysing online news comments using critical discourse analysis. SAGE Research Methods Platform. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781473999138
Grant, A. (2018). Doing EXCELLENT social research with documents: Practical examples and guidance for qualitative researchers. Abingdon: Routledge.
Grant, A., & Hoyle, L. (2017). Print media representations of United Kingdom Accident and Emergency treatment targets: winter 2014-15. Journal of Clinical Nursing. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.13772
Grant, A., Mannay, D., & Marzella, R. (2017). “People try and police your behaviour”: the impact of surveillance on mothers’ and grandmothers’ perceptions and experiences of infant feeding. Families, Relationships and Societies.
Grant, A., & O’Mahoney, H. (2016). The portrayal of waterpipe (shisha, hookah, nargile) smoking on Twitter: a qualitative exploration. Public Health.
Meek, A., Hurt, L., & Grant, A. (2015). An Independent Evaluation of The Filter. Cardiff: ASH Wales.