How to analyse a document in detail

How to analyse a document in detail

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to analyse a document in detail’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Reading analytically

1.1   In carrying out archival research, it is important to be able to produce a general picture, an overview, of a collection or other body of archived materials. But it is also important to have a repertoire of tools that support focusing on and analysing particular individual documents. Other ‘how to’ discussions have explored mapping archive collections and also recording archival documents at volume. Here the focus is on analysing a single document in close detail. The approach taken has been influenced by the work of Dorothy Smith on ‘texts in action’ and further information about this can be accessed by going to ‘Traces: texts in action’  (

1.2   Letters and most of the other materials in archive collections are ‘documents of life’ – they are not researcher-generated but came into existence as a part of ordinary social life and are the remaining traces of particular parts of this. However, they do not ‘speak for themselves’. They were produced in artful ways, in putting across a particular message in a particular ‘voice’, in representing a particular point of view, and in intending (although not necessarily producing) a particular desired effect on their reader/s. Consequently they need to be treated in an inquiring and analytical way, by exploring in detail how they have been organised and produce particular kinds of effects, intended and otherwise, for readers.

1.3   There are different approaches to documentary analysis, with the approach adopted here involving two kinds of activity. One is ‘surface reading’, which analyses the structure and content of a document by playing close attention to how it is written, the character of its ideas and arguments, its stated purpose, and how it situates the writer and also its intended reader/s. This reads and analyses a document along the grain and examines how it is organised and its intended effects. The other is ‘re-reading’, which involves reading so as to analyse a document against the grain of how its writer has structured and intends it to be read and interpreted.

1.4  Certainly letters and other texts can be read simply as inert documents, concentrating on their ‘words on the page’ aspect. However, most texts produced for reasons and intend action of some kind or degree. This is the idea of text in action, and it directs research attention to the contexts of that production, distribution and effects, as well as to specific content.

1.5   Using these ideas in the analytical approach outlined here involves focusing the attention of a detailed reading on:

  • context
  • pre-text
  • the text and its meta-data, content & structure, and also its intertexts
  • post-text
  • the new context that arises subsequently

2. The document

2.1   This ‘how to’ of reading discusses a detailed analytical way of reading both along and against the grain and this is explained by analysing the text of a particular document – whether it should it be viewed as a letter or another form of writing is a bit of a puzzle – which was written on 8 February 1893. A verbatim transcription of this is as follows:

2.2 The verbatim transcript is:

Offices of the Swazie Nation

Swazieland Feby 8th 1893

This is to certify that David Forbes Esq of Athole New Scotland is the registered holder of an undivided 3 / 8 (three-eight) interest in and to a certain grant for [unreadable] ^grazing^ farming, timber and other rights on certain portion of Swaziland known as the Mananga Grant and the title thereto is ?clear and unencumbered in the Registry Books of the Swazi Nation

Wm Penfold

for Theo: Shepstone

Res Adviser & Agent

Swazie Nation

[William Penfold for Theophilus Shepstone jnr, 8 February 1893; Forbes Collection, NAD Pretoria.]

3. Analysing along and against the grain


3.1   The broad context of the document is that of the ‘scramble for Africa’, European colonisation, the discovery of diamonds and gold and other minerals in South Africa and the creation and exploitation of black labour there, with significant literatures on these matters. The specific context is the period from 1886 to the later 1890s, when there was a ‘concessions rush’ in Swaziland (and in other areas too), with white prospectors and miners jockeying to gain access to land believed rich in minerals, including tin and coal as well as gold.

3.2   The Swazi king, Mbandzeni, was overwhelmed by the inrush and made land grants pell-mell. After he died in 1889, his mother the Queen-Regent, Tibati Nkambule, and the Swazi Council of indunas employed Theophilus (known as Oppie) Shepstone jnr as a Resident Agent, with part of Shepstone’s role being to ensure that land concessions were systematically authorised and managed. William Penfold was Shepstone’s deputy and secretary. On one level just the agents of the Swazi rulers, in practice both men pursued economic self-interest and were disliked by (some) other whites for their veniality and incompetence and because farmers among them saw their stock-grazing concessions being usurped by minerals claims.


3.3   The immediate circumstance producing the Shepstone document was the anticipation of a new rich mineral discovery, and the role in this of various members of the Forbes family, including David Forbes snr, his brother James Forbes snr and David’s sons Dave jnr and Jim jnr. David snr was primarily a commercial farmer in south-eastern Transvaal, close to Swaziland, and James senior a prospector involved with others who either shared or were in competition for the concessionary interests being advanced for Swazi recognition. As well as the Swazi ruling elite, the Resident Agent had to deal with a (white) Legislative Council of mainly prospectors and miners, as well as many concessionaires including farmers with competing interests, with this document one of many examples in which Shepstone constructed the semblance of legalistic order in a situation where his motives and practices were (rightly) suspected on all sides.

Text and intertexts

3.4  Meta-data: Detailed information as to ‘who, when, where from, archive location’, where relevant ‘to whom, where to’, and also a unique reference number, forms the ‘meta-data’ of archival research documents and is crucial for finding particular items so that, for example, any specific document can be easily retrieved from many thousands by searching on names and dates.

3.5   The Shepstone document begs questions about its meta-data. Firstly, which David Forbes, father or son, is being invoked? The presence of ‘Esq’ and absence of ‘Jnr’ suggests the father; the absence of mining and the presence of grazing and timber suggests the son. Secondly, while on the surface an official certification with a seal, the document also has apparent ‘letterness’ features: it has an address it is written from, a date it was written on, signatories, and also ‘address’ in the sense of being directed to a (unspecified) person or persons about the matters it certifies. Meta-data for search purposes needs to be accurate and certain; but in practice puzzles like these frequently remain.

3.6   Content: WWW’s research records the main points in the narrative content of a 1 in 5 random sample of all letters and other documents read, plus others of interest. A more detailed consideration is reserved for documents seen as particularly interesting, of which the Shepstone example is one. It has some strong official overtones, with a printed heading and concluding with an official sign-off and seal. Also it is presented as in itself a certification of, if not ownership, then the ‘holding’ of land in a ‘certain area’ for specified purposes. These involve activities on the land’s surface, although the vague ‘other rights’ raises additional possibilities. At the same time, using context and pre-text matters to read against the grain, for anyone ‘in the know’, as David Forbes (both father and son) and other interested parties certainly were, the complex and increasingly fraught character of relationships between the Agent and the ‘Swazi nation’, the Agent and the different groups of concessionaries, the concessionaries and the Swazi ruling elite, would have been apparent, as would the fact that officialdom was far more uncertain than this paper proclaims. Also its authority is mitigated by reference to the Registry Books, indicating that its certification actually depends on what these contain, while other slantwise aspects that re-reading brings to attention can be seen regarding the more structural features of the document.

3.7   Structure: The ‘voice’ in which the document is written is an authoritative one; it certifies and it does so presumptively on behalf of ‘the Nation’. Authorial location is removed (‘it is certified’, no one does this). However, it ends with signatures that are not of ‘the Nation’, but Penfold (who is he? this is not stated, indicating an in-group intended readership who would already know this) signing on behalf of Resident Agent Shepstone. Reader positionality here is one of reception and non-response, but there are also signs, like not stating Penfold’s position, that notions of readership and address have actually been a factor in the organisation and tone of the document. Other aspects of this come to attention, for close scrutiny shows that the claims to certificatory authority rest on two externalities: the implied synonymity between the Swazi Nation and the Resident Agent, and there is an accompanying references to the Mananga Grant and to the Registry Books.

3.8   Intertextualities: As these comments indicate, there are some strong intertextual references in the document. And in particular there is reference to a ‘boss text’, the Registry Books, that has an implied superordinate status over other sources of authority that are named in it.


3.9   It is only rarely that the direct effects of historical (and indeed contemporary) documents can be gauged, for information enabling this is usually no longer available. However, many archive collection contents are organised in temporal order, and anyway a database or Virtual Research Environment (a VRE is a bespoke online platform for data-management and aiding analysis) can easily sort research records in this way, so ‘what came next’ can often traced even if the direct impact, if any, of a document cannot be known.

3.10   Regarding the Shepstone document, other letters in the Forbes collection provide quite detailed information about the course of events. The dissatisfactions of the Swazi ruling elite with the Shepstone Residency increased, because of its double-dealing and corruption. The ‘young Queen’, Labotsibeni, the mother of Bhunu, king-to-be but in 1893 still a minor, gained political control. Shepstone was removed from office, with a tussle over ‘the Books’ resulting in these being audited by the book-keeper of a firm employed by the Swazis. Also, with the support of Dave Forbes jnr, the Swazi rulers sent a delegation to Britain requesting assistance in resisting attempts by the South African Republic or Transvaal to take over Swaziland. Other Forbes letters relate to these matters and show the ‘one thing in the midst of another’ character of unfolding events.

3.11   Regarding the direct concern of the document, the part-concession for some rights (but not others) within the Mananga Grant, behind this lay Mbandeni’s concessions of land many times over to different people for the same or contradictory purposes. Being close to the Swazi rulers and advising against this policy, the Forbes then gave way and gained a number of concessions themselves. Later, many such ‘interests’ were contested by contending interests and were not legally sustainable. In the case of a concession to Dave jnr for grazing and timber in the area of Forbes Reef (which might be that specified in the document), the coal mine’s later owners established that these surface rights were null and void.


3.12   Social life is always in media res, always in process, and the flow of wider events affecting Swaziland continued, as well as the small part of them alluded to under the ‘Post-text’ heading above. A London Convention of 1894 gave way to Transvaal designs on Swaziland as a source of cheap labour by assigning it a protectorate role. However, in 1910 and against the demands of the incoming Union of South Africa Government formed that year, the Protectorates of Basutoland [Lesotho], Bechuanaland [Botswana] and Swaziland retained their independence. The Forbes’ Transvaal farming and Swazi mining and other interests became more diversified, especially after the death of James Forbes snr in 1896.

4. Some issues

4.1   There are some important interpretational matters underpinning this discussion which are worth noting. While taking a particular shape in the context of WWW research, these also have general aspects.

‘The thing itself’ and referentiality matters

4.2   Almost all the data that social researchers work with are not ‘the thing itself’, the actual events that happened in the past, but instead representations of this that are partial, fragmentary and emanate from particular viewpoints. What this raises is the need to avoid the referential fallacy of straightforwardly concluding ‘it was so’ from any document, while also still recognising that there was a past in which real things happened and the remaining traces reference this, albeit in complex ways which need to be considered against as well as along the grain.

Identifying the topic

4.4   Social life rarely comes in discreet chunks labelled ‘gender’, ‘class’, ‘the Schleswig-Holstein question’, ‘whiteness’ or ‘the scramble for Africa’; and as shown, the latter was greatly complicated by the particularities of times, places, events, persons and interests. The word ‘whiteness’ does not appear in the Shepstone document or associated letters and has be interpreted by reference to the activities being orchestrated or described or commented on (Context 1 and Pre-text), the ways the various documents represent these matters (Text/intertexts and Post-text), and the specific and broad outcomes (Post-text and Context2) that have been traced out. Succinctly, while an analysis of the specifics of the document goes quite a long way, such analysis is a support to interpretation and not the totality of what is involved.

What it means

4.5   The point of research, the reason it is carried out, is interpretation, which in turn supports an assessment of, overall, how things add up and so contributes to the creation of new understanding. At the same time, interpretation in the sense of drawing conclusions should not be done prematurely. Also interpretation is typically an iterative and incremental procedure, of going back and forth between conceptual, methodological, analytical and interpretational matters and working the links and connections across the relevant data until something making sense of all these eventuates. To a large extent this requires having a feel or a ‘nose’ for scenting what is interpretationally interesting. However, this is not magic, but results from close familiarity with the data and so is a matter of attentive practice.

5. Why and how briefly summarised

5.1  Why: Some documents are particularly important for an account being compiled or an argument being constructed. It is important, therefore, that the founding pieces of evidence for such an account or argument are represented accurately. Analysing them in close specific detail supports this.

5.2   How: There are different ways to carry out documentary analysis. The approach proposed here is a combination of ‘surface reading’ and ‘re-reading’, which can also be characterised as ‘reading along the grain’ and ‘reading against the grain’.

5.3   How to: How to operationalise this approach in practice can be decided as part of research strategy, for it can be done in different ways. The strategy which has been proposed here is a simple one, of focusing a detailed reading on context1, pre-text, text and intertexts, post-text and context2. This also has the benefit of following the temporal aspect of how documents come into existence, the ways they achieve their impacts, and also their ramifications in terms of possible and actual influences on the ‘post-text’ course of action of the people involved.

5.5   A final comment: Keep it simple! Analysing documents in detail is a complicated matter, while the temporaral organisation and clarity of focus of the methodological strategy for doing so proposed here means that it can be put into operational practice easily and in a way that ensures comprabability in the analysis of a number of documents. As a consequence, it also enables good comparison, where this is an appropriate thing to do.

Last updated: 27 May 2021