Literature analysis as methodology

Ross Woods, 2024

Many fields of study use documents as sources of data, and do not collect data from respondents, for example, literature, history, philosophy, theology, and law. Purposes vary greatly according to the discipline, but can include:

  1. Identifying recurring themes (Leitmotif)
  2. Identifying sources or assumptions
  3. Establishing historical links
  4. Establishing authorship or the circumstances of writing
  5. Establishing linguistic features
  6. Comparing arguments to reach a conclusion.

The basic theory is the same as other methodologies:

Purpose of research, research problem and research question

Collect data




In a research report, the introduction is the same as for any other methodology because the research must have a purpose, a problem and a question. In the same way, the conclusion is the same as any other methodology because it must show that the research has achieved its purpose. However, the other parts of the research might go through topics theme by theme, rather than a strict outline of “Literature review, methodology, analysis results, discussion.”

Questions to ask about source documents?

  1. Does the document have dates? If so, what was the dating system? For example, a date that says “first year of the King Gogigo” in only helpful if you know when King Gogigo ascended the throne and whether or not the date includes the year of his ascension.
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it? Was it only one person or a group?
  4. What is the genre? Is it a personal letter, a published book, a financial document, a legal document, a poem, a novel, a legal brief?
  5. What particular characteristics of the genre affect how it will be interpreted?
  6. Does is have particular structure, vocabulary, or grammar?
  7. How was it written? For example, was it orally dictated to a scribe, written in one sitting, polished through several drafts, or submitted as a draft for approval by a third party?
  8. Has it been edited? Are you dealing with the original or with a later version or edition? Has it been collated with other documents?
  9. What is the provenance of the document you are using? (Could it be a forgery?)
  10. What writing system (orthography)? How conclusive is the deciphering?
  11. What condition is the manuscript (MS)? Does it have cracks with some sections missing or indecipherable? Are there torn or missing sections?
  12. What language? Will you be working with translators or linguists?

Example 1: Ancient history

To do original research in ancient history, you'll need to use the following kinds of sources:

  1. Original documents from the time, even though they will all be limited or biased in some way. For example, a writer might be trying to attack or defend a particular opinion, or might be speculating, or might have limited access to information.
  2. Examinations of original documents from the time. Sometimes you will have reliable records. But not always. If you are dealing with hand-written copies of copies, how accurate are the copies that still exist?
  3. Linguistic information, because none of that original information is in modern English.
  4. Archaeological reports. This includes physical objects, dating, and paleography. (Paleography is the method of dating documents by using writing styles, which change over time.)
  5. Geographical information. For example, if a source mentions the city of Xyz-ville, where was it? How big was it during period X? What relationships did it have with other places (trade, roads, rivers)?
  6. Then there is the recent academic literature, which often presents different interpretations of relevant facts, and contrasting interpretations of documents. Much of that information is available in journals, many of which are now online. But some other sources are more difficult to get and are more likely to be held in specialized libraries.

For example, some archaeologists have discovered a hitherto unknown city in the middle east. As an historian, you are very interested. Your preliminary topic is to identify the relationships between the newly-found city and other cities in the region.

At this stage, your primary information is all documentary. You have a series of archaeological reports of buildings, artifacts, and pottery fragments. You also have a series of linguist’s reports regarding the condition of clay-tablet documents and possible translations. The linguists have also deciphered the writing system and started to compare the language with those of other known cities.

By comparing these documents with parallel documents from other cities in the region, you might identify linguistic, trade, migration, or political relations, or similarities between them. You also consider that these are moving targets; the city probably experienced change over time as its political and economic fortunes waxed and waned. The topic is so large that you can only focus on one of these.

In doing so, you find that some answers are quite straightforward and some are tentative. To make it worse, that source data is quite limited. The documents found on site were mainly tax records and dedicatory inscriptions to local leaders. Some words in the documents are completely unknown. Consequently, you find space for more than one possible theory about what happened.

Example 2: Law

The legal researcher might compare the following kinds of documents:

  1. Legislation
  2. Regulations
  3. Case law: Decisions, precedents, deliberations
  4. Other analogous cases that are not binding but illuminative
  5. Codes of practice
  6. Federal and state constitutions
  7. Contracts
  8. Witness statements and court transcripts
  9. Court evidentiary documents