Content analysis

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In the social sciences and humanities, content analysis is the analysis of texts of various types including writing, images, recordings and cultural artifacts. Content analysis includes both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Content analysis is used for a variety of purposes including attribution of texts to authors, testing of hypotheses, theory building, and evaluation research.

In the social sciences, content analysis is a method for studying the content of written texts and artifacts.[1] Earl Babbie defines it as "the study of recorded human communications, such as books, websites, paintings and laws".[2]

Content analysis is a scholarly method in the humanities by which texts are studied as to authorship, authenticity, or meaning.[3] This latter subject includes philology, hermeneutics, and semiotics.

The political scientist Harold Lasswell formulated the core questions of content analysis: "Who says what, to whom, why, to what extent and with what effect?"[4] Ole Holsti offers a broad definition of content analysis as "any technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying specified characteristics of messages",[5] while communications scholar Kimberly Neuendorf provides a six-part definition:[6] "Content analysis is a summarising, quantitative analysis of messages that relies on the scientific method (including attention to objectivity, intersubjectivity, a priori design, reliability, validity, generalisability, replicability, and hypothesis testing) and is not limited as to the types of variables that may be measured or the context in which the messages are created or presented."

In sociology of mass media Tipaldo defines content analysis as "a wide and heterogeneous set of manual or computer-assisted techniques for contextualized interpretations of documents produced by communication processes strictiore sensu (any kind of text, written, iconic, multimedia, etc.) or signification processes (traces and artifacts), having as ultimate goal the production of valid and trustworthy inferences".[7]


The method of content analysis enables the researcher to include large amounts of textual information and systematically identify its properties, such as the frequencies of most used keywords by locating the more important structures of its communication content. Such amounts of textual information must be categorised to provide a meaningful reading of content under scrutiny. For example, David Robertson created a coding frame for a comparison of modes of party competition between British and American parties.[8] It was developed further in 1979 by the Manifesto Research Group aiming at a comparative content-analytic approach on the policy positions of political parties. This group created the Manifesto Project Database.

Since the 1980s, content analysis has become an increasingly important tool in the measurement of success in public relations (notably media relations) programs and the assessment of media profiles. In these circumstances, content analysis is an element of media evaluation or media analysis.[9] In analyses of this type, data from content analysis is usually combined with media data (circulation, readership, number of viewers and listeners, frequency of publication). It has also been used by futurists to identify trends. In 1982, John Naisbitt published his popular Megatrends, based on content analysis in the US media.

The creation of coding frames is intrinsically related to a creative approach to variables that exert an influence over textual content. In political analysis, these variables could be political scandals, the impact of public opinion polls, sudden events in external politics, inflation etc. Mimetic Convergence, created by Fátima Carvalho for the comparative analysis of electoral proclamations on free-to-air television, is an example of creative articulation of variables in content analysis.[10] The methodology describes the construction of party identities during long-term party competitions on TV, from a dynamic perspective, governed by the logic of the contingent. This method aims to capture the contingent logic observed in electoral campaigns by focusing on the repetition and innovation of themes sustained in party broadcasts. According to such post-structuralist perspective from which electoral competition is analysed, the party identities, 'the real' cannot speak without mediations because there is not a natural centre fixing the meaning of a party structure, it rather depends on ad-hoc articulations. There is no empirical reality outside articulations of meaning. Reality is an outcome of power struggles that unify ideas of social structure as a result of contingent interventions. In Brazil, these contingent interventions have proven to be mimetic and convergent rather than divergent and polarised, being integral to the repetition of dichotomised world-views.

Mimetic Convergence thus aims to show the process of fixation of meaning through discursive articulations that repeat, alter and subvert political issues that come into play. For this reason, parties are not taken as the pure expression of conflicts for the representation of interests (of different classes, religions, ethnic groups[11][12]) but attempts to recompose and re-articulate ideas of an absent totality around signifiers gaining positivity.

Every content analysis should depart from a hypothesis. The hypothesis of Mimetic Convergence supports the Downsian interpretation that in general, rational voters converge in the direction of uniform positions in most thematic dimensions. The hypothesis guiding the analysis of Mimetic Convergence between political parties' broadcasts is: 'public opinion polls on vote intention, published throughout campaigns on TV will contribute to successive revisions of candidates' discourses. Candidates re-orient their arguments and thematic selections in part by the signals sent by voters. One must also consider the interference of other kinds of input on electoral propaganda such as internal and external political crises and the arbitrary interference of private interests on the dispute. Moments of internal crisis in disputes between candidates might result from the exhaustion of a certain strategy. The moments of exhaustion might consequently precipitate an inversion in the thematic flux.

As an evaluation approach, content analysis is considered by some to be quasi-evaluation because content analysis judgements need not be based on value statements if the research objective is aimed at presenting subjective experiences. Thus, they can be based on knowledge of everyday lived experiences. Such content analyses are not evaluations. On the other hand, when content analysis judgements are based on values, such studies are evaluations.[13]

Qualitative content analysis is “a systematic, replicable technique for compressing many words of text into fewer content categories based on explicit rules of coding”.[14] It often involves building and applying a “concept dictionary” or fixed vocabulary of terms on the basis of which words are extracted from the textual data for concording or statistical computation.

Uses of content analysis[edit]

Holsti groups fifteen uses of content analysis into three basic categories:[5]

  • make inferences about the antecedents of a communication
  • describe and make inferences about characteristics of a communication
  • make inferences about the effects of a communication.

He also places these uses into the context of the basic communication paradigm.

The following table shows fifteen uses of content analysis in terms of their general purpose, element of the communication paradigm to which they apply, and the general question they are intended to answer.

Uses of Content Analysis by Purpose, Communication Element, and Question
Purpose Element Question Use
Make inferences about the antecedents of communications Source Who?
Encoding process Why?
  • Secure political & military intelligence
  • Analyse traits of individuals
  • Infer cultural aspects & change
  • Provide legal & evaluative evidence
Describe & make inferences about the characteristics of communications Channel How?
  • Analyse techniques of persuasion
  • Analyse style
Message What?
  • Describe trends in communication content
  • Relate known characteristics of sources to messages they produce
  • Compare communication content to standards
Recipient To whom?
  • Relate known characteristics of audiences to messages produced for them
  • Describe patterns of communication
Make inferences about the consequences of communications Decoding process With what effect?
  • Measure readability
  • Analyse the flow of information
  • Assess responses to communications
Note. Purpose, communication element, & question from Holsti.[5] Uses primarily from Berelson[15] as adapted by Holsti.[5]

The process of a content analysis[edit]

According to Dr. Klaus Krippendorff, six questions must be addressed in every content analysis:[16]

  1. Which data are analysed?
  2. How are they defined?
  3. What is the population from which they are drawn?
  4. What is the context relative to which the data are analysed?
  5. What are the boundaries of the analysis?
  6. What is the target of the inferences?

The assumption is that words and phrases mentioned most often are those reflecting important concerns in every communication. Therefore, quantitative content analysis starts with word frequencies, space measurements (column centimeters/inches in the case of newspapers), time counts (for radio and television time) and keyword frequencies. However, content analysis extends far beyond plain word counts, e.g. with Keyword In Context routines words can be analysed in their specific context to be disambiguated. Synonyms and homonyms can be isolated in accordance to linguistic properties of a language.

Qualitatively, content analysis can involve any kind of analysis where communication content (speech, written text, interviews, images ...) is categorised and classified. In its beginnings, using the first newspapers at the end of 19th century, analysis was done manually by measuring the number of lines and amount of space given a subject. With the rise of common computing facilities like PCs, computer-based methods of analysis are growing in popularity. Answers to open ended questions, newspaper articles, political party manifestoes, medical records or systematic observations in experiments can all be subject to systematic analysis of textual data. By having contents of communication available in form of machine readable texts, the input is analysed for frequencies and coded into categories for building up inferences. Robert Weber notes: "To make valid inferences from the text, it is important that the classification procedure be reliable in the sense of being consistent: Different people should code the same text in the same way".[17] The validity, inter-coder reliability and intra-coder reliability are subject to intense methodological research efforts over long years.[16]

One more distinction is between the manifest contents (of communication) and its latent meaning. "Manifest" describes what (an author or speaker) definitely has written, while latent meaning describes what an author intended to say/write. Normally, content analysis can only be applied on manifest content; that is, the words, sentences, or texts themselves, rather than their meanings.

Dermot McKeone highlighted the difference between prescriptive analysis and open analysis.[18] In prescriptive analysis, the context is a closely defined set of communication parameters (e.g. specific messages, subject matter); open analysis identifies the dominant messages and subject matter within the text.

A further step in analysis is the distinction between dictionary-based (quantitative) approaches and qualitative approaches. Dictionary-based approaches set up a list of categories derived from the frequency list of words and control the distribution of words and their respective categories over the texts. While methods in quantitative content analysis in this way transform observations of found categories into quantitative statistical data, the qualitative content analysis focuses more on the intentionality and its implications.

Following latest developments within the critique of content analysis epistemology and methodology, evidence set under scrutiny by content analysis may come from processes of communication strictiore sensu (i.e. active role of a sender, code in common between sender and receiver) or processes of what in semiotics is commonly known as signification or communication processes latiore sensu (absence of sender and code, semiosis developed by abduction).[19][20]

As the uncritical use of text is today widely recognized as naive in the Social Sciences domain, we can move from the original classification by Krippendorff [16]

Reliability in content analysis[edit]

Neuendorf suggests that when human coders are used in content analysis two coders should be used. Reliability of human coding is often measured using a statistical measure of intercoder reliability or "the amount of agreement or correspondence among two or more coders".[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hodder, I. (1994). The interpretation of documents and material culture. Thousand Oaks etc.: Sage. p. 155. ISBN 0761926879. 
  2. ^ Babbie, Earl R. (2010). The Practice of Social Research (12th ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning. p. 530. ISBN 9780495598411. 
  3. ^ Joubish, Muhammad Farooq; Muhammad Ashraf Khurram (2011). "Outlook on Some Concepts in the Curriculum of Social Studies". World Applied Sciences Journal 12 (9): 1374–1377. ISSN 1818-4952. 
  4. ^ Lasswell, Harold Dwight (1948). Power and Personality. New York, NY. 
  5. ^ a b c d Holsti, Ole R. (1969). Content Analysis for the Social Sciences and Humanities. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 
  6. ^ a b Neuendorf, Kimberly A. (2002). The Content Analysis Guidebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. p. 10. 
  7. ^ Tipaldo, G. (2014). L'analisi del contenuto e i mass media. Bologna, IT: Il Mulino. p. 42. ISBN 978-88-15-24832-9. 
  8. ^ Robertson, David Bruce (1976). A theory of party competition. London and New York: J. Wiley. ISBN 0471727377. 
  9. ^ "Methods for Media Analysis". ReStore. Economic and Social Research Council. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Carvalho, Fátima Lampreia (2000). "Continuidade e Inovação: conservadorismo e política da comunicação no Brasil" [Continuity and Innovation: Conservatism and Politics of Communication in Brazil]. Journal Revista Brasileira de Ciencias Sociais (São Paulo) 15 (43): 147–162. doi:10.1590/S0102-69092000000200008. Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  11. ^ Lipset, Seymour M.; Stein Rokkan (1967). Cleavage structures, party systems, and voter alignments: an introduction. Free Press. pp. 1–64. 
  12. ^ Lijphart, Arend (1984). Democracies: Patterns of majoritarian and consensus government in twenty-one countries. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 229. ISBN 0300031157. 
  13. ^ Frisbie, Richard (7–11 April 1986). "The use of microcomputer programs to improve the reliability and validity of content analysis in evaluation". Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Francisco, CA. 
  14. ^ Stemler, Steve (2001). "An Overview of Content Analysis". Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation 7 (17). Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  15. ^ Berelson, Bernard (1952). Content Analysis in Communication Research. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press. 
  16. ^ a b c Krippendorff, Klaus (2004). Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. p. 413. ISBN 9780761915454. 
  17. ^ Weber, Robert Philip (1990). Basic Content Analysis (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. p. 12. ISBN 9780803938632. 
  18. ^ McKeone, Dermot H. (1995). Measuring Your Media Profile: A general introduction to media analysis and PR evaluation for the communications industry. Hampshire, England: Gower Press Ltd. ISBN 9780566075780. 
  19. ^ Tipaldo, G.; Santangelo A. (2013). Handbook of TV quality assessment. Preston, UK: UCLan Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-9926349-1-9. 
  20. ^ Tipaldo, G. (2014). L'analisi del contenuto e i mass media. Bologna, IT: Il Mulino. pp. 29–30. ISBN 978-88-15-24832-9. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Graneheim, Ulla Hällgren, and Lundman, Berit (2004). Qualitative content analysis in nursing research: concepts, procedures and measures to achieve trustworthiness. Nurse Education Today, 24(2), 105-112.
  • Budge, Ian (ed.) (2001). Mapping Policy Preferences. Estimates for Parties, Electors and Governments 1945-1998. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199244003.
  • Krippendorff, Klaus, and Bock, Mary Angela (eds) (2008). The Content Analysis Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. ISBN 978-1412949668.
  • Roberts, Carl W. (ed.) (1997). Text Analysis for the Social Sciences: Methods for Drawing Inferences from Texts and Transcripts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 978-0805817348.
  • Wimmer, Roger D. and Dominick, Joseph R. (2005). Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. ISBN 978-0534647186.

External links[edit]