MA Political Science - European Politics & Policy Pathway (Research Route)

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Using Documents in Social Research

Unit code POLI60252
Credit rating 5
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Politics
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This module introduces practical and methodological issues for researchers using all types of archival sources including public records; institutional archives; diaries and personal papers; oral archives; printed documentation and newspapers. Special attention is paid to electronic archives, which some researchers have identified with a paradigm shift in the character of archival research, and to the implications of digitisation of traditional sources. Issues considered include access and location of archives; legal and ethical issues including confidentiality and freedom of information; the construction of archives as ‘primary’ sources; interpretation, including reading against the grain; archives as a representation of relations of power and identity; and the role of archives in formulating research proposals.



For the coursework assignment you are asked to produce a 1500 word commentary on a particular archival source or type of source, indicating its strengths and limitations as a form of evidence. This may be evidence in the sense of a providing a record; but it may also be that the construction and making accessible of the archive itself offers insight into the power relations or institutional structures through which different voices are represented and into issues of identity, political culture and collective memory. There are very few restrictions regarding the topics you may choose and you are encouraged to choose one that ties in with your own developing research plans for your dissertation or beyond.


The source does not itself have to be an original archival source as traditionally defined –which in itself, as we shall see, is a matter of some contention. Thus, for example, you may use physical archives, on-line archives, published editions of original source materials or contemporary printed sources. Some possibilities are indicated on the Blackboard site and you can either take up one of these or use them as an indication of the range of possible topics that you are free to choose from. In most cases the sources will be text-based, though it is also possible to consider visual or sound archives. In all cases, you will need to say something about the issues raised in the production of the material you are using, for example issues of preservation, selection, access, editorial judgement or interpretation. No text (or image) has ever dropped from the sky, and historicising its construction is the key to the most effective critical use that can be made of it.


Whatever the material discussed, each essay should include a discussion of how the source or type of source was originally produced and preserved and the methodological issues that this raises. Do not provide a summary of the information contained in the document(s) except inasmuch as this is necessary for this discussion. Texts and sources also have a history in terms of their reception and how (and by whom) they are read. This may be important in understanding the rationale of a particular archive. However, issues of reception cannot usually be discussed without consulting a range of other sources, which won’t normally be possible unless you have had some other occasion to do this. This will therefore not normally be a central focus of your assignment.

Teaching and learning methods

Through an interactive lecture and group work the session will introduce various practical and methodological issues involved in the use of archival research. The use of specific examples will allow a first discussion of issues to be addressed in the coursework assignment. The second session provides the opportunity to discuss preliminary reflections and difficulties arising from the individual assignment and to explore the connections and possible tensions between different forms of archival research. For this session each student will be asked to make an informal non-assessed presentation introducing the topic of their assignment and any practical, interpretative or methodological challenges they have encountered. Between the two sessions, one-to-one appointment slots will be available for individual consultation regarding the assignment topic.

Deadline for submission of assignment: - Thursday 15th April 2021

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Recommended reading

  • Carolyn Steedman, ‘The space of memory: In an archive’, History of Human Sciences, 11, 4 (1998), 65-84
  •  Terry Cook, ‘Archival science and postmodernism: new formulations for old concepts’, Archival Science, 1 (2001), 3-24
  • John Scott, A matter of record: documentary sources in social research, 1990


A wide range of alternative readings will also be included in the course materials to give a sense of the breadth of different perspectives on archival research. Course materials will include suggestions of on-line archives and physical archives in Manchester that may be used the course assignment.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 6
Independent study hours
Independent study 44

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
David Tobin Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Friday 26 February


Friday 19 March








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