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DOCUMENTARY METHOD OF INTERPRETATION

The term 'documentary method of interpretation' was used by Karl Mannheim and Alfred Schutz, but its current meaning derives from Harold Garfinkel, the founder of ethnomethodology.

Harold Garfinkel asserts that the documentary method is a method which lay persons and sociologists alike use in commonsense reasoning about the world. Documentary method of interpretation consists of treating an actual appearance as the document of, or as pointing to, a presupposed underlying pattern.

The child's choice of toys (a boy choosing a truck or a girl choosing a doll) is seen as an indication of an underlying pattern of biological preferences (or for the sociologist, of gender socialization).

Further, there is a reciprocal relationship between the ‘document’ and the underlying pattern: the underlying pattern is now given some legitimacy because of the observation of the individual ‘document’ - the child's choice of toys.

People employ a ‘documentary method of interpretation’, by treating actual appearances ‘as “the document of,” as “pointing to,” as “standing on behalf of” a presupposed underlying pattern’ (Mannheim, quoted in Garfinkel 1967) and tap into this stream of agency through ‘experimental interactivity’ (Rammert 1999).

"Documentary method of interpretation. The Documentary Method is the method of understanding utilized by everyone engaged in trying to make sense of their social world - this includes the ethnomethodologist. ... Mannheim defined the term as a search for an identical homologous pattern of meaning underlying a variety of totally different realizations of that meaning. Garfinkel states that the documentary method of interpretation consists of treating an actual appearance as the "document of", "as pointing to", as "standing on behalf of", a presupposed underlying pattern (Garfinkel:1967:78). These "documents" serve to constitute the underlying pattern, but are themselves interpreted on the basis of what is already known about that underlying pattern. This seeming paradox is quite familiar to hermeneuticians who understand this phenomenon as a version of the hemeneutic circle (Okrent:1988:157-172). This phenomenon is also subject to analysis from the perspective of Gestalt theory [part/whole relationships], and the phenomenological theory of perception (see Gurwitsch:1964:202-227)."

The Interpretation of Pictures and the Documentary Method - Ralf Bohnsack
Abstract: The considerable progress in qualitative methods is directly connected with developments in the field of text-interpretation. On the basis of a thorough reconstruction of their formal structures texts are treated as autonomous domains of self-referential systems. Such a methodological status has been denied to pictures in empirical research in the field of social sciences up until now. The documentary method, based on Karl MANNHEIM's Sociology of Knowledge, opens up methodical access to pictures. Methodologies from art history (PANOFSKY, IMDAHL) can thus become relevant for empirical research in social sciences. Connections to semiotics (BARTHES, ECO) and philosophy (FOUCAULT) are worked out in their consequences for qualitative methods. Thus verbal contextual and pre-knowledge can be controlled methodically in the documentary interpretation of pictures. The reconstruction of formal structure of pictures becomes of central importance in analysis.

Ideology and Reality Work. On the Analysis of Power and Dominance on Ethnomethodological Grounds
Abstract: This text deals with what could be understood as a rather impossible enterprise, namely to combine two analytical perspectives which are not fully compatible: an ethnomethodologically inspired analytical approach, with a subject which has interested political scientists for a long time, namely "ideology". The general aim is to attempt to demonstrate how ethnomethodologically inspired analyses can be combined with more traditional analyses of "ideology", "traditional" in the sense of analyses which take the natural attitude (as understood within phenomenology) as unproblematically given.
Of central importance is the continuous reality work, interpreted as the methodical work by which members of society together achieve and maintain the belief in and sense of a common world of "facts". This work is carried out in normal, everyday situations with the natural attitude as unproblematically given and with the help of the "documentary method of interpretation". Of interest is thus the question of the ideological potential of the documentary method of interpretation when it is used with the natural attitude as unproblematically given.

Documentary Interpretation of Narrative Interviews - Arnd-Michael Nohl
The Narrative Interview (developed by Fritz Schuetze) and the Documentary Method of Interpretation (by Ralf Bohnsack) are two of the major methods of qualitative-empirical research on education. In this contribution I discuss why and how Narrative Interviews can be interpreted with the Documentary Method. While the Documentary Interpretation of Narrative Interviews draws back on elements of the Narration-Structure Analysis, it emphasizes comparative analysis and development of types.

Working with images in daily life and police practice: an assessment of the documentary tradition - Mike Ball, Staffordshire University, Qualitative Research, Vol. 5, No. 4, (2005)
There is a growing body of literature within the humanities and social sciences that is directly critical of the documentary tradition’s treatment and use of still and moving images as realistic data. The documentary tradition claims that it is possible to visually document social scenes with cameras. Postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory and related traditions argue that still and moving images amount to representations, their critique of realism. As instruments, cameras are open to a variety of uses ranging from the scientific to the artistic in orientation. Such uses of cameras comprise representational work. Following Garfinkel, this article suggests that the documentary method of sense making is employed in numerous practical situations.
This article commences with an overview of the documentary tradition and then offers a brief case study of certain of these principles in operation within the practical work of the police and road users on public highways. Public highways and traffic flows along them are visually available social arrangements. Within police work that involves the regulation and management of traffic flows, stored images of vehicles can serve as documentary evidence of traffic violations. In this particular context and more generally on the highways, road users treat objects such as road signs and related items of roadside furniture, including cameras and road markings, as documents of some, for all practical purposes, real states of affairs. Road users make sense of the stream of visual information encountered as an ongoing practical learning.