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In Chapter 11, I mentioned that in your results chapter, you are supposed to present your analysis without additional context; the additional context is described within the discussion chapter. Along with your literature review, this is one of the main areas where you can present your own, original analytical thoughts. These are essential for obtaining a high grade. I did a (completely unscientific – it’s lucky I’m not being graded!) search of the internet for marking schemes for dissertations, and selected elements relating to the discussion chapter from them. They included:

  • analysed, argued, and reached conclusions that are informed by independent inquiry and other available information (University of Auckland, New Zealand, Maths);1

  • independent and original thought (University of Bristol, UK, Deaf Studies);2

  • comprehension and analysis of the issues involved (University of Nottingham, UK, Business School);3

  • contribution to practice & research (National University of Singapore, Singapore, Business School);4

  • critical evaluation (University of York, UK, Health Sciences).5

As you can see, the wording varies, and there may be particular elements that are emphasised within your department. You should review your dissertation handbook and marking scheme to see which skills are emphasised in your department (see also Chapter 3).

A wide range of factors can fall within this sub-heading, including variation by the type of document that you use. Depending on whether new references can be introduced in your discussion chapter, you could include some references that relate to quality and bias issues in sources similar to yours; for example, defending the value of the type of document regardless of its faults.

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It is really important that you understand that the amount and type of data you need varies hugely between analysis strategies. For example, I analysed thousands of social media posts in one project. By contrast, during my undergraduate years, a fantastic social policy lecturer, Paul Lodge, spent around 15 hours of lectures taking us through a single speech delivered by Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the UK, which was less than two sides of A4 long. We interrogated it as thoroughly as possible, using something akin to discourse analysis, but associated with a detailed knowledge and application of historical social policy. To choose a form of analysis, think about your ontological and epistemological position (see Chapter 2) and the impact this has on your research paradigm and methodology. Positivistic approaches tend not to interrogate data in depth, whereas interpretivist, pragmatist and other non-positivist approaches consider meaning and context as part of analysis in various ways. Approaches such as content analysis and thematic analysis can be used in ways that are more positivistic, such as the use of pre-defined (deductive) codes, or more interpretivistic, such as the use of inductive codes.

Traditional approaches to undertaking documentary analysis are situated within positivistic research paradigms and focus on a relatively superficial and uncritical consideration of the contents (both written and graphical) of documents (Prior, 2003). One of the most common approaches within this tradition is content analysis, although this has been built on in recent years by qualitative content analysis, which is more interpretative in nature.

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Data management is not an exciting topic, but it can save you hours and hours. If you do not back up your work and then have some sort of accident, you may be left without a copy of your most recent work. Can you remember when you last backed up your work? How many hours of work have you put into your dissertation since then?

I wasn’t always as good at backing up my work as I am now. In Box 11.1, I describe the day that I thought I would need to quit my PhD because my USB stick was empty when I opened it.

Box 11.1: The day I thought I’d lost all of my data, and why I don’t want you to feel this way!

This is an example of how not to manage your data. Please learn from my mistake; when I think of it now, I can still feel that complete dread wash over me!

When I was doing my PhD, I interviewed participants, undertook nonparticipant observation, and analysed patient case files. One day, I came into the office, plugged my trusty USB stick (they were reasonably new and cool at the time and thought to be considerably more reliable than CDs or floppy disks) into my aged university computer. When I opened the file explorer, expecting to see all the interviews that I had conducted so far, there was nothing. I wrote in my research diary, I can’t possibly collect that data again. Those people will never say the same things even if they will let me speak to them again. All of those hours of scanning patient files: lost.

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It has absolutely been my pleasure writing this book. In academia, it is very rare to get the chance to write without large amounts of challenging reading, and frequent citations as you write: like many of you readers, I don’t love referencing!

Doing Your Research Project with Documents aimed to enable students completing a dissertation using documents as data to better understand both the process of undertaking research with documents, and how to write their dissertation. I presented the process in three stages: Getting going, Making decisions, and Getting it done! I hope that you have found this structure accessible and useful in your work, even though your work is likely to have gone off this faux-linear path. Furthermore, if you have followed the book through each chapter, the small pieces of writing that you have regularly done in response to the resources will add up to a useful foundation for your dissertation. There will hopefully also be some useful content to contribute toward each chapter in your research diary. If you haven’t completed these as you’ve gone through the process, you can still benefit by going to the resources in each chapter and seeing if any can provide retrospective clarity.

My hope was to write a book that meant that students – especially those from marginalised backgrounds – would find their dissertation less daunting. If you have enjoyed undertaking your dissertation, you may wish to continue your studies, undertaking a postgraduate taught or research degree. In general, if you achieve a 2:1 in your dissertation, you are considered capable to progress (although sometimes marking is undertaken by those who have epistemological differences to you, so a low mark does not always mean a poor piece of research).

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My plan for this section is to help you get words on paper (or screen); editing comes later. This is often the most difficult part for students, who can find a lot of innovative ways to procrastinate! They have enthusiasm when it comes to collecting data and can excitedly tell me what they have found during their analysis. If you feel like this, all the information that needs to be written down is already in your head. I hope this is a relief, although I imagine some of you are thinking ‘but you really don’t know how bad I am at writing’. Like many things in life, writing is a skill that improves with time; you are not expected to be experts at writing at your career stage. So, it is important to do something about getting words on the page. I like the approach of having to stay at my desk for a certain amount of time writing something; even if that something is that I don’t know anything about a topic. That just means that when I come back to review my notes, I know that I need to do some reading. In Box 13.1, I include my top tips for getting words on the page quickly.

Box 13.1: How to quickly get words on the page – Aimee’s approach

  • Wear comfortable clothes.

  • Go to the toilet, get a drink, eat a snack if you are hungry (but do not procrastinate cooking elaborate food).

  • Put your phone on silent and tell anybody at home not to disturb you unless it’s very important.

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A Step-By-Step Guide to Take You from Start to Finish

Students and researchers have an abundance of materials and sources available to them via the internet for use in their projects. However, there is little practical guidance available on the fundamentals of performing qualitative research with documents.

This valuable book enables readers to undertake high-quality, robust research using documents as data. Encouraging critical consideration of research design, the book guides readers step-by-step through the process of planning and undertaking a research project based on documentary analysis. It covers selecting a research topic and sample through to analysing and writing up the data.

The book includes:

• a wealth of case studies demonstrating how lessons can be applied in practice;

• summary boxes and suggestions for further reading in each chapter to guide learning;

• helpful online resources to facilitate designing your own research.

Accessible and comprehensive, this book will be invaluable for both students and researchers alike who are new to documentary analysis.

All the resources included in this book are available to download on the book’s webpage at https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/doing-your-research-project-with-documents/online-resources. Look for the Online Resources logo throughout the book.

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Sometimes a data source jumps out at me and I think that I simply must write about those data in relation to some literature or a theory I already know about. One example is my research with Hannah O’Mahoney (Grant and O’Mahoney, 2016) where we looked at content on Twitter relating to waterpipe smoking. Prior to starting the application for funding, I had noticed that a lot of businesses were promoting shisha nights in a glamorous way that is no longer seen in relation to cigarette smoking, due to legal restrictions. At other times, I start thinking about a type of data and wondering if anybody has done any research on that particular thing. This happened to me in relation to ‘baby product awards’ where magazines rate new baby gadgets; I wondered who the vested interests were and the sorts of language used in the write-ups, to see if it was emotive, classist, or if it broke the law in relation to undermining breastfeeding. These two examples illustrate that there is not a single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to find your documents. Sometimes you may find documents and get excited about them, and then realise they aren’t quite right; that’s OK too.

There is no fixed answer to this question, unfortunately, depending on the way that you are being guided to undertake your project! In general, I – someone who is not at all laid back – would choose to start looking as soon as possible.

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This book is designed to support students who are undertaking dissertation projects which use documents as data, and researchers who are new to documentary analysis. If you are a second- or third-year undergraduate, this book is likely to give you a solid enough grounding in documentary analysis to get you through all stages of your research project. Of course, you are likely to benefit from the use of some additional book chapters or journal articles recommended in each of the chapters of this book, and discipline-specific texts as advised by your supervisor. If you are a master’s or doctoral student or a researcher who is new to documentary analysis, I would say that this book is a good starting point. A decent skim of this book will give you a solid knowledge base, and you should then supplement your reading with reference to other core documentary analysis texts, which will be signposted for advanced readers at the end of each chapter.

In this book, each chapter will take you through the process of doing one part of your research project and will guide you to write notes that will contribute to your dissertation or report. The book is structured chronologically in three parts. First, Getting going describes being clear on your research approach, planning your time, maintaining good supervisory relationships, and good scholarship in the form of ethical research and reflexivity. These lessons are valuable to you throughout your project. Second, Making decisions describes the process of searching for literature, documents and a methodology (analysis strategy and theory) and how to combine these into a research question.

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