ARTICLE 32: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Literature Study

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


People who do not like reading will probably shy away from making use of literature study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

I can understand such an attitude, especially if you don’t have any specific questions that you need answers to.

Or an academic problem to solve.

For some, there are many more exciting things to do rather than to read a book.

I guess studying late at night, over weekends, public holidays and university holidays is not something to look forward to.

Perhaps it takes a special kind of person, or some alien external force to motivate “normal” people to spend what they regard as leisure time engrossed in books.

However, if you embark on Ph. D. or master’s degree studies you will need to sacrifice some of your social freedom.

That does not mean that you will need to live like a recluse.

It only means that you will need to read a lot.

The point is this – as an adult, you are the captain of your ship.

Only you can decide what you should do with your life.

You need to be absolutely motivated to study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

So, let’s discuss literature study.

Literature study

Literature study will form part of most research work, regardless of what main research methods are used.

With the expansion of online data sources, it is becoming progressively more possible to undertake research without leaving your study or office.

You can even do research while having something to eat and drink in a restaurant or a bar.

Texts and records can be researched in four distinct ways:

  1. The study of content.
  2. The social construction of documents and records.
  3. Documents ‘in the field’
  4. Documents in action and documents in networks.

However, doing all your research by studying documents is deskwork rather than fieldwork.

When documents are included in the dataset, they tend to serve as ‘background material’ for many research projects.

Literature is often used to crosscheck oral accounts.

The empirical opportunities to analyze documents are endless: newspaper articles, advertisements, policy documents, government reports, blogs and web sites, schedules, letters, posters, pamphlets, brochures, campaign material, etc.

Everyday life offers a range of situations that involve forms and documents.

Particularly regarding interpersonal encounters within various institutions.

Even so, researchers interested in identifying practical examples may find it hard to recognize relevant events in a pile of documents.

The majority view of documentary data in qualitative research is that documents are detached from social action.

In contrast to an interview, the document appears more stable and fixed, whereas the content of an interview seems more dynamic and alive.

Documents can be quite lively agents in their own right rather than merely containers of text.

They can tell people what to do.

They can stir up conflicts.

They can evoke emotions such as anger, relief, envy, pride and despair.

Additionally, people do things with documents.

They can use them for various purposes, both intended or unintended.

They exchange documents.

They hide documents.

They write books and make movies about documents.

To recognize the aspects of documentary data, fieldwork rather than deskwork is required.


All researchers must do some literature study, regardless of which research approach or method they mainly use.

Texts and records are studied for the content, social construction, corroboration of other research methods and to support action research.

Literature study mostly means reading and analyzing books and other documents.

It can also include doing research on the internet.

Documents often trigger chains of interaction far beyond the original piece of paper.

Literature is often used to confirm research through other research methods.

Some researchers would rather do without literature study.

They prefer practical fieldwork or research in a laboratory that is not contaminated by old data.

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