The development of the documentary method is closely associated with the Division of Qualitative Research on Human Development. This methodology was first put forward in the 1920s by Karl Mannheim and then taken up again in the 1960s through ethnomethodology, especially by Harold Garfinkel. In its current form, the documentary method first became fruitful for empirical research in the social sciences in 1983, and then especially in 1989, through the work of Ralf Bohnsack at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, originally in connection with the group discussion process.
With this as the basis, the documentary method was then further developed, starting in 1991, at the Division of Qualitative Research on Human Development at Freie Universität Berlin, especially in the context of larger research projects on youth and deviance. This method now applies in a broad field throughout the social sciences and education, even extending as far as information technology and medicine. Its applications range from research into childhood, youth, and gender and adult education to medical sociology, research on policy and organizational cultures, and research on rituals and media use analysis.
The methodical or methodological spectrum covers discussion analysis and the group discussion process, analysis of interviews, participatory observation, and evaluation research, and even includes image and video analysis.
The documentary method forms the methodological foundation for the research conducted at the Center for Qualitative Evaluation and Social Research (CES).