What is the Overlap Between the Two Forms of Documentary Scholarship; Historical and Analytical?

Dainéal MacLean
3 min readNov 15, 2021

When comparing the two forms of documentary scholarship, being historical and analytical, I see plenty of overlap between the two in terms of what they contribute to our understanding of documentaries and our social world. Historical scholarship, to me, appears as though it is the understanding of the historical context of documentary films and how the world in this time and setting in history was for the people that lived in it. To understand any historical documentary, it takes some understanding of the context surrounding it, although it isn’t to say that one cannot learn this historical context through watching the documentary itself, without much external research needed beforehand. Historical documentary scholarship, however, looks deeply into causes and effects, internal and external factors and much more that surrounds the events of the documentary, by educating readers and students on the complexities the filmmakers and subjects in the film themselves experienced during this time and place they existed in.

By simultaneously learning about the documentary and social world it came from, these understandings compliment each other in tandem, and help readers, viewers and pupils of film and media scholars draw parallels and connections between other documentaries that come from other historical periods and a variety of places of origin around the world. Analytical documentary scholarship contributes to our understanding of the medium itself and the world we live in, or once lived in, by educating the public on the art of the documentary, and to enlighten those seeking knowledge to now see these types of films as a manipulated and subjective expression of reality. Scholars who research in the analytical sphere of documentary filmmaking understand and want others to understand how documentarians operate and to what extent these “reflections of real life” actually reflect reality in essential truthfulness. The main aim for these scholars is to try to provide insight into the world of documentary filmmaking and make us reconsider how we interpret these films today and in an historical context.

The scholarly benefits of both historical and analytical documentary scholarship is huge, and the two forms of scholarship really need each other to thrive and to flourish in terms of findings, research and the dissemination of this information. It would be important for historical and analytical documentary scholars to work collaboratively and share information between one another in order to accurately conduct their research, since historical documentary scholars specialize in historical context, while analytical scholars are specialized in investigating the process of the production itself. One form of scholarship would be hindered without the other supplementing the academic world of documentary and cinema studies as a whole. What we are able to learn about documentaries and their place in society from these academic traditions includes everything from the use of propaganda, censorship and its effects on filmmaking, as well as the economic and corporate influence in the medium of film and documentary and how documentaries impact, convince, and persuade viewers and society at large. These academic traditions also explain how the documentaries weave their way into the cultural consciousness of society and why that is.