Content Analysis: Method to Analyze Social Life Through Words, Images

By examining word use in context, researchers can draw broader conclusions

Three men watching woman walk past
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Content analysis is a research method used by sociologists to analyze social life by interpreting words and images from documents, film, art, music, and other cultural products and media. The researchers look at how the words and images are used, and the context in which they are used—particularly their relationship to one another—to draw inferences about the underlying culture.

Content analysis can help researchers study fields of sociology that are otherwise difficult to analyze, such as gender issues, business strategy and policy, human resources, and organizational theory.

It has been used extensively to examine the place of women in society. In advertising, for example, women tend to be portrayed as subordinate, often through their lower physical positioning in relation to the males or the unassertive nature of their poses or gestures.

History of Content Analysis

Prior to the advent of computers, content analysis was a slow, painstaking process, and was impractical for large texts or bodies of data. At first, researchers mainly performed word counts in texts of particular words.

However, that changed once mainframe computers were developed, providing researchers with the ability to crunch larger amounts of data automatically. This allowed them to expand their work beyond individual words to include concepts and semantic relationships.

Today, content analysis is used in a huge number of fields, including marketing, political science, psychology, and sociology, in addition to gender issues within society.

Types of Content Analysis

Researchers now recognize several different types of content analysis, each of which embraces a slightly different approach. According to a report in the medical journal Qualitative Health Research, there are three different types: conventional, directed, and summative.

"In conventional content analysis, coding categories are derived directly from the text data. With a directed approach, analysis starts with a theory or relevant research findings as guidance for initial codes. A summative content analysis involves counting and comparisons, usually of keywords or content, followed by the interpretation of the underlying context," the authors wrote.

Other experts write about the difference between conceptual analysis and relational analysis. Conceptual analysis determines how often a text uses certain words or phrases, while relational analysis determines how those words and phrases relate to certain broader concepts. Conceptual analysis is the more traditionally used form of content analysis.

How Researchers Perform Content Analysis

Typically, researchers start by identifying questions they would like to answer through content analysis. For example, they might want to consider how women are portrayed in advertising. If so, the researchers would choose a data set of advertising—perhaps the scripts for a series of television commercials—to analyze.

They then would look at the use of certain words and images. To continue the example, the researchers might study the television ads for stereotypical gender roles, for language implying that women in the commercials were less knowledgeable than the men, and for sexual objectification of either gender.

Content analysis can be used to provide insights into particularly complex subjects like gender relations. It does, however, have some disadvantages: it's labor-intensive and time-consuming, and researchers can bring inherent bias into the equation when formulating a research project.