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A Step-By-Step Guide to Take You from Start to Finish
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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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This article presents empirical findings from part of a larger study on welfare reform conducted between 2007 and 2009. Semi-structured in-depth interviews occurred with eight Incapacity Benefit personal advisers, and Work Focused Interviews conducted by advisers with Incapacity Benefit claimants were observed. Two areas of advisers’ experience will be discussed. First, how advisers were subjected to the need to comply with directives, and how their performance was monitored via targets. Second, the article will examine advisers’ attitudes and behaviours towards sanctions, which were primarily used against those who did not attend compulsory Work Focused Interviews (DWP, 2002).

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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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We all have ideas about what our research paradigm is, but we don’t always put this into words, and we can be in danger of assuming that what we think is the correct way of doing things is the only way. This is where disciplinary backgrounds, such as sociology, psychology, medicine and geography, are important. In addition to this, you may have heard words that sometimes terrify students (and even experienced researchers), such as epistemology and ontology. These terms refer to how we understand the construction of knowledge and how it is interpreted in research. Those ideas may seem abstract if you haven’t studied any social theory, and you may want to skip ahead to a chapter that feels less painful, but try not to be concerned. This chapter aims to give you enough information to have relevant conversations with your supervisor, if applicable, or to help you discount approaches that you feel don’t suit you, so that the amount you need to read from other sources is smaller.

When we think about research paradigms, what we are really thinking about is the nature of the research approach, which is a combination of ontology and epistemology. In Box 2.1, traditional approaches to research paradigms are described through three layers: ontology, epistemology and research design. If these approaches do not feel suited to you, Helen Kara (2017) provides a more complete, but still highly accessible, exploration of ‘methodologies, approaches and theories’, including ‘transformative methodologies’ (p 46), such as feminist, participatory and decolonising methodologies.

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Throughout the book you will find the suggestion to back up your research and writing; I would hate for you to lose your work. Before you begin searching for the information you need in order to get a high grade, I suggest setting up an electronic folder where you can save all the information.

Box 3.1 provides a potential filing structure for your research project that you may find helpful to use or modify. It is important that the structure makes sense to you, and helps to avoid wasted time searching for things you have already found, or duplicating effort in other ways.

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Towards the beginning of your final year of study, if you are undertaking a dissertation, you will be allocated a supervisor. The allocation of supervisors varies between countries, institutions and even departments within institutions. In some instances, students will be expected to take the initiative and identify potential supervisors themselves. In other institutions, a list of supervisors and topics will be advertised, and students will be asked to choose from this list, not necessarily being allocated their first choice. This process may feel awkward and uncertain, in comparison to the way in which you have been able to select modules throughout your degree. In my experience, it is relatively rare for undergraduate dissertation students to change supervisors part way through the dissertation period, as it is relatively short. What this means in practice is that students have little opportunity to do anything other than make the situation work as best as they can. This is not always easy and may feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels unfair. And that absolutely sucks. In dissertations that take place over a longer period, such as master’s and doctoral projects, changing supervisors is more likely to occur if a formal complaint is made.

Students sometimes think that they have done something wrong or are disliked by their supervisor when their supervisor is not supportive. Often, however, it is that the supervisor is overloaded with work, or sometimes they just don’t prioritise students and teaching commitments above research, which is given more prestige by many universities. Knowing it isn’t personal might make things feel easier if you have a difficult working relationship with your supervisor.

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The time available to develop dissertations and other research projects is almost always less than ideal. Thinking has to be done quickly, and dead ends may be encountered before finding suitable data. For this reason, it may be inconvenient to consider the ethical issues in using data that are available to be collected. However, we really must make time for this, not only because of the importance of ethics themselves but also because your examiners will be assessing your research design and conduct based on this.

Research with pre-existing documents is often seen as ethically uncomplicated. If the documents are in the public domain, it can be argued, they are ‘fair game’ for researchers. Similarly, if documents are in an archive, the fact that the researcher can access them may lead to a sense of security in relation to ethics. However, this is false. We now have robust rules and ethical procedures for undertaking observations in public spaces. This is a far cry from invasive observations of the past, such as Humphreys’ (1970) Tearoom Trade, where the PhD student purposely observed gay sexual encounters in public toilets, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The unethical acts further included keeping car registration numbers, which could have incriminated the men who were unknowingly under study. These days, that sort of study would not get through ethical review. However, if a similar study looked at, for example, an online community associated with illegal but consensual sexual acts (such as sadomasochistic sex in England and Wales, at the time of writing) and the data they mined contained IP addresses, a similar ethical breach will have occurred.

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While it is likely most dissertation students will have heard of ethics and ethical review, some of you will be unfamiliar with the terms positionality and reflexivity. I imagine that few readers will feel fully confident to consider their position in the research process and document it for their dissertation. Increasingly, assessments of reflexivity are a standard part of the methods chapter of social science dissertations, and they are sometimes expected in the strengths and limitations section of the discussion chapter.

When I was first introduced to these concepts, I believed that they were much more complicated – and frightening – than they really are. To be reflexive, to be aware of your demographics and the privileges they bring, spend time considering your views and experiences in relation to the topic of your research, and do this throughout the research process. Within this chapter, I will introduce you to tools to help you consider your own positionality. Undertaking research on sensitive topics or becoming more aware of social injustice can be emotionally demanding. For this reason, at the end of the chapter you will find self-care strategies that you can apply to yourself, but also to friends and peers.

Over the past 30 years, there has been increasing recognition that researchers should be reflexive. What this means in practice is that researchers should be aware of, and declare, their epistemology and ontology: that is, the basis on which they draw their understanding of the world. This includes the research paradigm (e.g. interpretivist vs. positivist) that you subscribe to, and any theory that you are using to frame your research.

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One area where many dissertation students feel ‘stuck’ is undertaking a review of relevant literature. It is not that the students are not clever, or that they lack the skills: it is that they are worried about not getting it right. Fears include missing out a single highly influential source, which would lead to embarrassment and potentially invalidate the entire project, or missing out a body of work in a related discipline. In this chapter, I hope to convey that these fears are rarely well-founded. In academia at large, there is now so much literature that it is not possible for even eminent scholars to engage in detail with all of it; therefore, we certainly would not expect undergraduate or master’s students to achieve this impossible feat. Furthermore, often students will have the opportunity to have their planned literature informally assessed by their supervisor through discussions in supervision and reviewing a draft of the literature review chapter, usually at a relatively early stage. This means that any omissions that need to be addressed can be identified before the work is formally assessed. If you feel unsure or worried about what to include in your literature review, Box 7.1 provides a guide to the purpose of literature review chapters, which you can return to and ask yourself whether you are responding to this requirement. You may choose to use it in line with Resource 7.3 at the end of the chapter.

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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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