Textual Research Methods*

Create more agency in your life. Sharpen your critical reading and thinking competencies by engaging in critical analysis of texts. Understand disparities in textual interpretations. Learn different ways to interpret texts.

Textual Research Methods are

Textual research skills are crucial to success in school and workplace settings. People who use textual methods may be called students, knowledge workers, scholars, critics, symbol analysts; researchers. writers, lawyers. As a group, people who use textual methods to vet and develop knowledge may be thought of as a methodological community. Broadly speaking, that community is called the scholars. Communities tend to coalesce around texts and scholarly conversations about texts. For example, theologians and members of religious communities have been discussing the Holy Bible, the Koran, and other religions’ holy texts for centuries.

Textual Research Methods are informed by other competencies, especially

Key Terms: Critical Thinking; Critical Analysis; Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality

[*Alternative Article Title: Textual Analysis; Scholarship; Scholarly Research; Academic Research; Library Research; Desk Research; Secondary Research ]

Clarification: Primary Texts vs. Secondary Texts
Some researchers, particularly archivists, make a distinction between primary and secondary texts: (1) A primary text is an original text by an author, such as a memoir, autobiography, or journal. (2) A secondary text is a text that summarizes, paraphrases and cites other texts. Examples of secondary texts are journal articles, reports, or proposals.

Your ability to flourish in life in school and work settings is largely determined by your competences as a textual researcher. For students and knowledge workers, competency with textual research is the coin of the realm. Mastery of textual research is a life skill.

As humans, we embody our thoughts, our knowledge and knowledge claims, in texts (see Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified). When we have a research question about something, our first move may to be engage in information literacy practices to ascertain what others have said about the topic.

Any time you are interpreting, learning from, describing, and discussing texts, you are engaging in textual research.

Texts are so ubiquitous in our modern lives that we often engage in textual research informally without thinking consciously about our actions as a form of textual research. For instance, we may

  • use a GPS system to navigate a trip
  • search the web for pricing and reviews
  • read nonverbal language and back channel discourse.

Even simple literacy tasks like looking up how to pay a parking ticket or investigate travel options requires some mastery of textual methods.

There are many different ways to conduct textual research. Academic disciplines and professions have unique approaches to engaging in textual research. For instance, lawyers may engage in textual research by surveying applicable laws, policies, and precedents. In contrast, a clinical psychologist might read peer-reviewed research on personality constructs. Thus, it’s helpful to think of textual research is really a suite of practices, a range of options, that are deployed based on the rhetorical situation.

Formal textual research methods are taught in high school, college, and professional workplace settings. At a minimum, teachers in school settings—from middle schools, high schools, and colleges—train students to write with sources (e.g., how to summarize, paraphrases, and quote texts. Masters and doctoral programs provide discipline-specific training in research methods. As an example, consider legal training in the U.S.: following undergraduate studies, law students enroll in three additional years of training that focuses on how to interpret texts, discern what the text is saying, and engage in legal reasoning.

To help develop our competencies as textual researchers, teachers in school settings ask students to

  • read/analyze a text to learn and think about existing knowledge, knowledge claims, research questions, hypotheses, theses, information
  • speculate and engage in reasoned debate with others about texts and textual interpretations
  • share our subjective readings of others’ texts (reader response)
  • explore how interpretations of texts are historically and culturally situated and how those interpretations change over time, place, and cultures
  • engage in intertextual analysis—e.g., analyze how thinking about a particular topic and knowledge claim evolves over time
  • use theory (e.g., marxism, gender studies, critical race theory)
    • to inform an interpretation of a text
    • to understand what a text and past interpretations of a text say about humanity and culture
  • develop knowledge and knowledge claims by composing in response to other texts.


Textual Research Methods are informed by hermeneutics, a philosophy of interpretation and understanding, and the concept of a hermeneutic circle—i.e., the idea that interpretation is an integrative, reiterative process informed by

  • multiple readings/interpretations
    • readings change over time in response to the idiosyncrasies of readers, changes in culture and media
  • the historical context of the document
  • the author’s and reader’s relationship to the historical context.
See the source image

Source: Design Process Structural Model

Textual Research Methods & Empirical Research Methods

Textual Research Methods may play a major or minor role in how a text is developed:

  1. an author may use solely textual methods to develop a text. For example, the author may review peer-reviewed publications and compose an annotated bibliography or review of literature
  2. an author may rely primarily on empirical methods (e.g., qualitative and quantitative research) and only conduct textual research during the early stages of research, when trying to define and contextualize the research question, hypothesis, and methods.

Textual Research Methods & Information Literacy

Textual Research Methods are informed by information literacy practices. People can make informed interpretations when they have access to information and can assess the accuracy, authority, currency, purpose, and relevance of a text.

Information LiteracyYour perspective, your ability to interpret texts, is shaped by your ability to locate, read, and assess texts.

Textual Research Methods & Mindset

Textual Research Methods are also informed by the writer’s mindset: being curious and open to information, especially when it threatens your deeply held values and beliefs, requires intellectual openness, self-regulation, professionalism, and persistence.

Growth MindsetAre you a curious or close-minded person? Can you listen to and seriously analyze opposing points of view?
Intellectual OpennessAre you open to information?
Metacognition & Self-RegulationHow’s your self talk? Do you coach yourself to be curious?
Professionalism & Work EthicDo you have the grit necessary to do the work?
ResilienceWhen you discover the information you had was wrong, what do you do? Are you able to work your ideas through the necessary processes (see Composition)

Textual Research Methods & Writing with Sources

Textual Research requires some mastery of conventions governing Writing with Sources, particularly the practices surrounding attribution: summarizing, paraphrasing, and citing secondary sources.

Writing with SourcesTo understand any given text, you need to understand conventions for Integrate Textual Evidence (Quotes, Paraphrases, Summaries)