Document Analysis

A useful tool for data checking, often combined with analysis of project records and interviewing, is document analysis.

This technique can also be used in theory-based evaluations. By analysing key documentation and reports relating to your project and the problem it is tackling, you can get a better understanding of the context and the factors that are causing the problem. You can also triangulate your findings and check your assumptions by asking whether they are borne out in the documentation.


So, your survey of a local village has shown that men have attended family planning courses along with their wives and that they are now regularly using contraceptives. Yet your analysis of local reports (e.g. hospital records) show that there is an increase in unplanned births, teenage pregnancies and the spread of infectious diseases. The documentation appears to contradict your survey and you may need to ask some discreet questions of villagers in order to get to the bottom of this.

What counts as document analysis?

The points raised below draw heavily on the work of Glenn A. Bowen (‘Document Analysis as a Qualitative Research Method’)

Document analysis is a systematic procedure for reviewing or evaluating documents—both printed and electronic (computer-based and Internet-transmitted) material

Documents that may be used for systematic evaluation as part of a study take a variety of forms including:

advertisements; agendas, attendance registers, and minutes of meetings; manuals; background papers; books and brochures; diaries and journals; event programs (i.e.,printed outlines); internal correspondence; letters and memoranda; maps and charts; newspapers (clippings/ articles); press releases; program proposals, application forms, and summaries; radio and television program scripts; organisational or institutional reports; survey data; and various public records. 

Scrapbooks and photo albums can also furnish documentary material for research purposes. These types of documents are found in libraries, newspaper archives, historical society offices, and organisational or institutional files.

Why use this technique?

Document analysis helps you to triangulate the claims about your project because it allows you to refer to multiple sources and to combine this document review with, for example, interviews.

So, documentary evidence drawn from school brochures and school websites in Namibia may tell you that the overriding priroty of schools in Winhoek is on pupil safety.

Yet police records may reveal that there is a high incidence of rape of young school girls, including by secondary school teachers. Interviews may be required to tease out why the documentary evidence is contradictory.

Documents serve various purposes. They provide context and historical background, point to possible interview questions, offer a means of tracking developments and monitoring progress over the course of a project, and provide a means of verifying (or questioning) that progress or indeed other claims.

Advantages & Disadvantages


  • Document analysis helps you focus on the questions you might ask in interviews and also helps you understand what to look out for with participant observation.
  • It is particularly useful when you want to drill down and focus on a particular case study, be it a particular patient, school pupil, village, sub-sector or workshop.
  • It is relatively cost-effective and rapid where data is readily available (e.g. via the internet).
  • Documents offer specific and stable data, which is unaffected by the presence of researchers (with participant observation by contrast, project participants may behave differently when they know they are being observed).


  • Documents may not be complete or written in an objective fashion so you will have to adopt a critical stance and not assume that the information contained within them is precise or unbiased.
  • The number of documents involved can lead to information overload. Which parts of which document are most relevant to your question? Which is largely about the progress of your project and the factors that have helped or hindered that progress?
  • Documents may need to be anonymised and scrutinised against other documents. Is the one document that you end up using most representative or is it stating something very different to all the other documents? If so, why is this? Is the source or research design or the purpose of the document different?
  • Note that artifact analysis can be an alternative or complement to document analysis. It involves interpreting different artifacts such as tools, sculptures, weapons or even pieces of equipment. For ways of analysing such artifacts, see for example the National Archives website.

Where to next?

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