Documentary research: types and characteristics

Many people mistakenly think that all research involves administering questionnaires or performing experiments.

However, not all information depends solely on the experimental methodology. By searching for documents, it is possible to broaden knowledge on a given subject, or to expose the state of the matter.

This is where the concept of documentary research comes in. which, although very present in the social sciences, is essential in any branch of science.

    What is documentary research?

    Documentary or bibliographic research is that in which obtains, selects, organizes, interprets, compiles and analyzes information on an issue under study from documentary sources. These sources can be of all kinds, such as books, newspaper archives, audiovisual documents, newspaper clippings, among others. It is a technique widely used in social sciences and of a qualitative nature.

    There is purely documentary research, such as a bibliographic search on a historical event, the point of view on an aspect of psychology or the biography of a famous person. however, most scientific research has a documentary part, especially when writing the theoretical framework and relate the results obtained to their experimentation.


    There are several defining characteristics in the literature search: Let’s see.

    Data collection and use

    Data is collected and used with the intention of being able to analyze it, offering logical results from it.

    Follow a logical order

    When consulting the bibliography, events and discoveries from the past are researched, trying to organize them from oldest to oldest, See how the question under study has been defended or refuted and consult the research aids previously used.

    Specific to the theoretical or referential survey

    That is to say that documentary research is that which is carried out to know the information on a question, exposing the theories that try to explain it in addition to making known to the world the lines of research of the same.

    This is typical of the social sciences, although there are also many natural science books in which this type of research is used., Especially when literature searches are presented on the effectiveness of a particular drug or treatment.

      It allows you to find gaps and reinterpret approaches

      When researching a topic, it is possible to find aspects that have not yet been addressed, i.e. gaps in scientific knowledge.

      It may also be found that a particular scientific theory or discovery has not been properly analyzed, reinterpreting and modifying its approach.

      Types of literature searches

      The types of literature searches that exist are

      1. Exploratory

      Exploratory documentary research it aims to test whether one or more hypotheses are valid. In addition, it makes it possible to understand the complexity of a given problem to be treated, through its analysis and the formulation of possible solutions. Essentially, it explores what is known about the object of study.

      2. Dissemination

      Informative documentary research it aims to report on what is relevant to a specific topic. The object of study is described in every possible detail, sorting and selecting all the existing information before writing the work itself.

      Types of information sources

      When we talk about the types of information sources, we can classify them according to two criteria. The first refers to the source source, while the second refers to the type of document itself, that is, its format.

      According to the origin

      Depending on the criterion of their origin, the types of information sources for documentary research are as follows.

      1. Primary

      Primary research sources these are the ones that offer first-hand information. This is original and relevant information.

      A clear example of a primary source of information is an autobiography, a person’s civil documents, such as their birth certificate, or the recording of a historical event.

      2. Secondary

      Secondary sources of research are those in which the information has gone through a process of prior analysis, judgment, restructuring or criticism. In other words, it is information that can be sensitive unless it is completely reliable or has the point of view of the person who processed it.

      An example of this would be, for example, the biographies of a famous person made by a relative, the history books of times after the events which describe …

      According to the format

      Depending on the format, information sources can be classified into these types.

      1. Printed documentation

      The printed documentation par excellence is the bookHowever, there are many others that can be used in documentary research, such as journals, theses, research projects, statistical publications …

      2. Electronic documentation

      Since we live in a world where information and communication technologies (ICT) are practically essential, these cannot be missing in documentary research.

      Electronic documentation is everything materials that can be found on the internet, Such as books, digital journals, online scientific articles, blogs, digital documents …

      3. Graphic documentation

      Graphic documentation is that which provides visual information, such as photographs, maps, diagrams, charts, infographics …

      4. Audiovisual documentation

      Audiovisual documentation is video and audio recordings, such as films, documentaries, recorded interviews …

      Structure of the literature search

      The structure of the work will depend mainly on the type of material consulted and the objective of the documentary research. however, the structure generally shares the following elements:

      • State of the art.
      • Approach to the problem to be solved.
      • General and specific objectives.
      • Theoretical and / or methodological framework.
      • Analysis of the problem.
      • Discussion and conclusions.
      • Limits.
      • Bibliography and appendices where applicable.

      How is this type of research conducted?

      Linked to the previous point, each documentary investigation involves a different way of proceeding, Depending on the subject to be treated and the access to available information. However, in most cases, we can find the following steps to take.

      First, the material is selected, that is, the documents that will be read to shape the research and the written work. It is important to make an extensive and exhaustive collection of all material deemed necessary, as it may be useful for the process of writing and bringing to life the subject of study.

      After obtaining all the material, a review of it should be done. Thus, researchers will rank the sources of information they have obtained, ranking them from the most relevant to the least relevant and prioritizing those that are most important to the subject. This is how you start by consulting the bibliography which offers us more information on the subject, avoiding wasting time.

      After reading the material, the same is selected and textual information is obtained to make quotes and references to support the theories and interpretations that will be exhibited in the work. Data analysis is performed, i.e. to analyze the information obtained, by drawing up the document in which the own opinion on the question addressed can be reflected or offer an interpretation of the phenomenon addressed.

      Finally, conclusions are drawn, in which the research group closes the topic, specifying the points that were found, the most relevant interpretations, how the question was approached and what was supposed to demonstrate and whether such an objective has been achieved.

      About selecting information sources

      Before the selection of the material must assess its value. Research experts suggest that the following four elements be used to assess and determine whether a source is acceptable or not:

      1. Authenticity

      Authenticity refers to the authorship of the text, Being the first step to take in any documentary research. When consulting a text, it is necessary to find out who its author is, whether he is an expert on the subject, whether he has made other studies related to the subject and whether it is true that the the source we are consulting is his. it is a secondary source.

      2. Credibility

      Credibility refers to whether the document is accurate and truthful. This can depend on several aspects, such as the author’s point of view, whether he has been impartial or whether he has consulted verifiable sources. While true documents are the ones that should form the basis of research, those that are not should not be excluded entirely, as they can be used to discuss the information contained therein.

      3. Representativeness

      Representativeness refers to whether a selected document is relevant to the objective of our study, And if it serves us to expand our knowledge on the subject studied.

      4. Meaning

      The meaning of information sources refers to the content of the documents consulted, in addition to their understanding and evaluation of the information presented. When determining the meaning of a source of information, it must be determined whether the content of the text is appropriate for the historical context in which it was written.

      Benefits of documentary research

      Documentary research saves resources, such as time and money, because, unlike quantitative research, little material is required. The information to look for is already written, you just need to look it up, read it, analyze it and structure the work in which your own interpretations and points of view will be shown.

      In experimental research, on the other hand, it is necessary to select the method of obtaining the data, carrying out experiments, activating the laboratory or designing a questionnaire, in addition to investing in obtaining materials.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Vargas, G. (1998). Some epistemological characteristics of documentary research. Ascolbi Magazine. 1 (3 and 4).
      • Garcia, E. et al. (1999). Qualitative research methodology. Malaga, Spain: Aljub.
      • Ahmed, J. (2010). Documentary research method: new dimensions. Indus Journal of Management and Social Sciences (IJMSS). 4. 1-14.

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