Content Analysis: The Study of Cultural Artifacts

Understanding Society Through Cultural Artifacts

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Researchers can learn a great deal about a society by analyzing cultural artifacts such as newspapers, magazines, television programs, or music. These cultural artifacts, which can also be considered aspects of material culture, can reveal a great deal about the society that produced them. Sociologists call the study of these cultural artifacts content analysis. Researchers who use content analysis are not studying the people, but rather are studying the communications the people produce as a way of creating a picture of their society.

Key Takeaways: Cultural Artifacts

  • Cultural artifacts are aspects of material culture, such as the books, magazines, televisions shows, and movies produced by a society.
  • In content analysis, researchers examine large numbers of cultural artifacts in order to look at certain themes or concepts. Content analysis can show how members of different groups are viewed in society.
  • One advantage of content analysis is that it is relatively easy for researchers to obtain the material necessary in order to conduct a content analysis.
  • One disadvantage of content analysis is that it can only tell us what content a culture has produced, and not how different members of that culture really feel about a particular cultural artifact.

Content analysis is frequently used to measure cultural change and to study different aspects of culture. Sociologists also use it as an indirect way to determine how social groups are perceived. For example, they might examine how African Americans are depicted in television shows or how women are depicted in advertisements.

Content analysis can uncover evidence of racism and sexism in society. For example, in one study, researchers looked at the representation of female characters in 700 different films. They found that only about 30% of characters with a speaking role were female, which demonstrates a lack of representation of female characters. The study also found that people of color and LGBT individuals were underrepresented in film. In other words, by collecting data from cultural artifacts, researchers were able to determine the extent of the diversity problem in Hollywood.

In conducting a content analysis, researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings, and relationships of words and concepts within the cultural artifacts they are studying. They then make inferences about the messages within the artifacts and about the culture they are studying. At its most basic, content analysis is a statistical exercise that involves categorizing some aspect of behavior and counting the number of times such behavior occurs. For example, a researcher might count the number of minutes that men and women appear on screen in a television show and make comparisons. This allows us to paint a picture of the patterns of behavior that underlie social interactions portrayed in the media.

Strengths of Using Content Analysis

Content analysis has several strengths as a research method. First, it is a great method because it is unobtrusive. That is, it has no effect on the person being studied since the cultural artifact has already been produced. Second, it is relatively easy to gain access to the media source or publication the researcher wishes to study. Rather than trying to recruit research participants to fill out questionnaires, the researcher can use cultural artifacts that have already been created.

Finally, content analysis can present an objective account of events, themes, and issues that might not be immediately apparent to a reader, viewer, or general consumer. By conducting a quantitative analysis of a large number of cultural artifacts, researchers can uncover patterns that might not be noticeable from looking at only one or two examples of cultural artifacts.

Weaknesses of Using Content Analysis

Content analysis also has several weaknesses as a research method. First, it is limited in what it can study. Since it is based only on mass communication – either visual, oral, or written – it cannot tell us what people really think about these images or whether they affect people’s behavior.

Second, content analysis may not be as objective as it claims since the researcher must select and record data accurately. In some cases, the researcher must make choices about how to interpret or categorize particular forms of behavior and other researchers may interpret it differently. A final weakness of content analysis is that it can be time consuming, as researchers need to sort through large numbers of cultural artifacts in order to draw conclusions.

References

Andersen, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.