Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Archive research

core definition

Archive research refers to the process of analysing material in an archive in order, usually, to develop an historical thesis.

explanatory context

Archives are usually in the form of written or printed documents but may also be picture, photograph or film archives.


Research using archive material involves five broad stages.


First, an examination of, and development of familiarity with, the archive. This involves accessing the archive in some way, getting to know the range and kind of material that is available, and accessing or even creating some kind of index or contents list.


Second, it is necessary to select material to analyse in detail. It is usually impractical to peruse the entire contents of an archive let alone examine it in detail, unless the archive is very small. The process of selection could be some kind of random sampling, or pseudo-random sampling, but this would probably require a more detailed sampling frame than is probably available. More to the point, random sampling would inhibit the possibility of following up leads. Much more suitable is a selection of likely areas of interest, based on the contents research, augmented by following up likely leads. At this stage the researcher is beginning to get a feel for the archive and the events, institutions, people, historical era, that it relates to.


The third stage is similar to ethnographic research. The researcher gets immersed in the material and starts to formulate models of the social interactions, social structures, under study. These models are critically examined, through projecting alternative explanatory schemes. Lateral thinking may suggest alternative conceptual frameworks and alternative ways of coming to understand the historical setting.


The fourth stage, which takes place in parallel with the third, is the wider contextualisation of the focus of the archive. If the archive is, for example, the collected paper of a group of academics such as the University of Chicago archive, then the material needs to be considered in the light of the wider social, intellectual, academic and social scientific milieus.


The fifth stage is a reflection on and development of the material once the archive has been sufficiently examined. This is often the longest stage. As research does not tend to be linear this stage may well involve a return to stages two, three and four.

analytical review

Corti (2004) wrote:

For the social scientist, archival research can be defined as the locating, evaluating, and systematic interpretation and analysis of sources found in archives. Original source materials may be consulted and analyzed for purposes other than those for which they were originally collected—to ask new questions of old data, provide a comparison over time or between geographic areas, verify or challenge existing findings, or draw together evidence from disparate sources to provide a bigger picture.

associated issues


related areas

See also

library research


Corti, L., 2004, 'Archival research', in Lewis-Beck, M.S., Bryman, A. and Liao, T.F. (Eds.) The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods, available at:, accessed 30 January 2016. Access restricted 12 December 2016 and still restricted 21 November 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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