Researching Documents and Texts

Documents and texts are an important source of information about politics and society. Researchers use them for a variety of purposes, in many different kinds of projects, so it is important to learn how to conduct an analysis in a rigorous way that can support a research argument. One way that researchers use documents is through document analysis, where primary and secondary sources are used to help learn what occurred or was said; document analysis includes a critical evaluation of the documents, including understanding their origins, perspectives, and contexts. Another key way of working with texts is by conducting textual analysis, where the texts themselves, and not what they record or report, are the object of study. Textual analysis can be divided into content analysis, which focuses on the objective analysis of texts, and discourse analysis, which uses texts to uncover broader trends in ways of thinking in society. Both forms of textual analysis focus on the manifest content of the text (what it says) as well as the latent content (underlying messages and implications that are not explicitly said).

Both content and discourse analysis rely on different processes of selecting texts and analyzing them. Important to content analysis is the process of coding, where information about the text (both its content and its structural features) is sorted and recorded for analysis. Codebooks, which explain how to code a text, are an integral part of that process. Data about texts can be coded by software or manually by a person. In content analysis, often that data is analyzed quantitatively, though qualitative analysis is also common. In discourse analysis, texts are analyzed through a variety of techniques, identifying key themes and structures, paying attention both to what is said and what is not said. Regardless of what method is used, it is important, when reading research based on texts, to examine and evaluate any causal claim, to think about how results can be extended or generalized, and to evaluate whether the measures used in the study were appropriate, complete, and of high quality.