Among the non-survey data collection methods, document study occupies a central position owing to its several advantages.
By document, we mean any written materials that contain information about the phenomena we are interested in studying. These documents are available generally in two forms: primary documents and secondary documents.
Primary documents are the eye witness accounts written by people who experienced a particular event or behavior.
Secondary documents are those compiled by people who were not present on the spot but received the information necessary to collect the document by questioning eyewitnesses or by examining primary documents.
Most documents are written primarily for some purpose other than research.
Primary documents are generally written for personal reasons. These include diaries, letters to friends or relatives, suicide notes, autobiographies, and letters of confession.
In some cases, the author remains anonymous. These documents are mostly unstructured. Nonpersonal materials are usually prepared in business organizations, and these documents are mostly structured.
In addition to personal writings and business records, a third major area of documents is the printed mass media, specifically newspapers, journals, magazines, newsletters, books, and periodicals.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Document Study
One of the basic advantages of a document study is that it allows research on subjects to which the researcher does not have easy physical access. It is also free from reactivity, particularly when the document is written for some other purposes.
The document study offers an opportunity for longitudinal analysis. The documents incorporated in a diary, for example, are, in most cases, spontaneous and thus reflect the author’s instant feeling and observation.
A document is more likely to record the confession of the author. A person is more likely to confess in a document, particularly one to be read-only, after his or her death, than in an interview or mailed questionnaire study.
Among the disadvantages are the bias stemming from the fact that the document was written for some other purposes (primarily for making money) rather than social research.
Thus the documents tend to be exaggerated and often fabricated to make a good story.
Some documents are generally written on papers, and they do not withstand the elements well unless care is taken to preserve them. Many documents are incomplete, unstandardized, and thus researchers encounter difficulties in coding and analysis.