Documentary Research – Concept, types, techniques and examples

We explain what a documentary investigation is, its types, characteristics and examples. Also, what techniques and methodology you use.

documentary research
The documents serve the investigator as a sample of the events that occurred.

What is a desk investigation?

A documentary investigation is one that It is characterized by using the consultation of written or recorded sources, that is, documentary sources, such as books, newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, recordings or footage, etc. These types of sources serve the researcher as a sample or representation of the events that occurred and they serve to try to draw conclusions regarding them.

Documentary research it is more frequent in humanistic fields and in the social sciences, given that the study of the human being or of societies, especially past ones, can only occur indirectly, that is, through the material left by their ways of life and the written record of their activities.

Such material is known as an archive or also as sources. In this sense, the sources to which this type of research goes are usually of two types: primary and secondary.

  • The primary sources They are those that provide first-hand information, that is, they consist of annotations or recordings of the event in question to be studied, such as the notes in a diary of a soldier in the middle of the war.
  • Secondary sources on the other hand, they are those that refer the facts indirectly, that is, from the reviews, criticisms or reconstructions made by someone. Such is the case of a biography of a famous person.

In all this, documentary research is distinguished from research of another nature, such as experimental (reproducing natural phenomena in a controlled environment) or field research (which comes out into reality to observe nature first-hand).

Characteristics of the documentary investigation

A documentary investigation is characterized by the following:

  • The investigator studies your object of interest through existing documents on the subject, that is, reading what others wrote about it.
  • Make up a document archive or durable sources of various kinds: written, audiovisual recordings, sound recordings, etc.
  • You go to the textual appointment as a verification or evidence mechanism, to support the arguments offered.
  • It takes place in documentary units: libraries, newspaper archives, film archives, databases, etc.
  • It has the limitation that can only access what is referred to in the sources.

Documentary research techniques

documentary research techniques
The researcher must indicate to the reader which documents were consulted.

A documentary investigation is based on different possible techniques of capture and fixation of the text, of the images or of the desired content, for their subsequent rational and practical use.

In general, desk investigations apply the citation or cited method, either textual or of any other type, to indicate to the reader where the assertions and / or information it shows come from, since the researcher is expected to demonstrate the journey he made through the archive material, and not that engage in irresponsible fiction, exaggeration, or generalization.

Types of documentary research

To differentiate the forms of a documentary investigation, it is enough to look at the type of sources they consult, as follows:

  • Bibliographic research. Its sources are published books and magazines, as well as printed texts of another nature, provided they are not of a periodic nature.
  • Hemerographic research. Its sources are mostly periodicals, such as newspapers, magazines, magazines, and so on.
  • Audiovisual research. As its name indicates, its sources consist mostly of sound-type records, footage, or other non-written formats, such as photographs.
  • Archive Research. In the latter case, the investigation draws on practically everything in a single file batch, such as someone’s family documents, or the correspondence of an author of interest.

Methodology for a documentary investigation

Each documentary investigation is particular and different, but in general terms it must comply with a methodology that consists of:

  • Arching sources. After choosing a topic or at least one area of ​​interest to investigate, the first step is to consult what texts are available and within our reach in this regard, going as specific as possible.
  • Revision of sources. Once we know what is on the subject, we can start filtering the content, discarding what has nothing to do with our specific point of view, and incorporating other new texts if necessary on the fly.
  • Material comparison. It is a more thorough review of the selected material, but this time taking verbatim citations that allow us to map the arguments that will sustain our research.
  • Interpretation of the material. The stage in which we put our grain of sand to what others have said, building our own point of view that relates what we have read and offers a new look, our own, of the material.
  • Conclusions. The closure of the investigation, which consists of reaching conclusions or final answers from all of the above, collecting the most important points and explaining their meaning in a broader framework of things.

Examples of documentary research

A couple of examples of desk research are as follows:

  • Apocalypse: World War II, an audiovisual documentary produced by CC&C and ECPAD, and broadcast on TV by France 2, uses material of the time filmed directly by war correspondents, soldiers and French resistance fighters, with the only exception that the images in white and black have been digitally colored.
  • The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, by the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, is an essay on the French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his most famous novel, exhaustively reviewing the sources of the novel and its relationship with its historical context. However, the author often allows himself moments of literary creation that are rare in this type of research.