While documents are pervasive in most areas of modern life their force is typically overlooked. Although we use them everyday, we may take them for granted, find them boring or in our way, and quite often we simply forget that they are there…always, everywhere.
Beware of underestimating the document! For documents are much more than a dusty paper shadow of real life. In fact, documents can take on a life of their own. Sociologists know this and study documents as vehicles of discourse reproduction. Whereas some have focused on the content/meaning of documents others have become interested in their socio-material properties as communication devices. In virtue of these properties, documents facilitate ways of communication across time and space and have thereby changed the scale and pace of human association. They have also made possible new ways of standardization and control from a distance.
Material utterances in ongoing documentary discourses, documents actualize and modify these discourses while positioning themselves in the context of previous (documentary) utterances. Through direct and indirect references, documents link up with each other and form networks. A document network is a dynamic structure in which the individual documents mutually constitute each other’s meaning by way of co-positioning. Document networks are also sticky: The documents that form a network are all there, in a library perhaps or online, their content can be retrieved on request. If you want to challenge the claims of any document you have to deal with all the other documents that relate to your target in support of these claims. In this way, document networks can generate a strong sense of authority for the discourse they reproduce. They constitute socio-technical infrastructures for the stabilization and reproduction of authoritative discourses.
To study document networks we need to zoom in and out of them to simultaneously analyze the contents of individual documents and the relations they have to other documents in the network. Such an approach might be called ‘relational discourse analysis’ and should involve a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. I show one way of doing this in my dissertation as well as in this book chapter, both analyzing the discursive construction of emissions trading in the expert literature.