It’s easy to get seduced by the excitement of primary data collection, and plan your qualitative research around methods that give you rich data from face-to-face contact with participants. But some research questions may be better illustrated or even mostly answered by analysis of existing documents.
This ‘desk-based’ research often doesn’t seem as fun, but can provide a very important wider context that you can’t capture even with direct contact with many relevant participants. But policy analysis is an often overlooked source of important contextual data, especially for social science and societal issues. Now, this may sound boring – who wants to wade through a whole lot of dry government or institutional policy? But not only is there usually a long historical archive of this data available, it can be invaluable for grounding the experiences of respondents in wider context.
Usually, interesting social research questions are (or should be) concerns that are addressed (perhaps inadequately) in existing policy and debate. Since social research tends to focus on problems in society, or with the behaviour or life experiences of groups or individuals, participants in qualitative research will often feel their issues should be addressed by the policy of local or national government, or a relevant institution. Remember that large companies and agencies may have their own internal policy that can be relevant, if you can get access to it.
Policy discussed at local, state or national level is probably easy to get access to in public record. But it may also be interesting to look at the debate when policy was discussed, to see what issues where controversial and how they were addressed. These should also be available from national archives such as Hansard (in the UK) or the House of the Clark in the USA. You can also do comparisons of policy across countries to get an international perspective, or try to explain differences of policy in certain cultures.
Try to also consider not just officially adopted policy, but proposed policy and reports or proposals from lobbying or special interest groups. It’s often a good way to get valuable data and quotes from different forces acting to change policy in your topic area.
But there is also a lot of power in integrating your policy and document analysis with original research. You can cross reference topics coming out of participant interviews, and see if they are reflected in policy document. Discourse analysis, and using keyword searches to look for common terms across all your sources can be revealing.
Looking at how the media represents these issues and the debates over policy can also be interesting. Make sure that you record which outlet an article comes from, as this can be a useful way to compare different representations of events from media groups with their own particular bias or interpretation.
There are of course many different to policy analysis that you can take, including quantitative and mixed-method epidemiologies. While general interpretive qualitative analysis can be revealing, consider also also discourse and meta-systhesis. There’s a short overview video to policy document analysis the from the Manchester Methods Institute here. The following chapter by Ritchie and Spencer is also a good introduction, and for a full textbook try Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice by Emery Roe (thanks to Dr Chenail for the suggestion!).
Qualitative software like Quirkos can help bring all this data from different sources into one project, allowing you to create a common (or separate) coding framework for your analysis. In Quirkos you can use the source properties to define where a piece of data comes from, and then run queries across all types of source, or just a particular type. While any CAQDAS or QDA software will help you manage document analysis, Quirkos is quick to learn and so lets you focus on your data. You can download a free trial here, and student licences are just US$65.