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Content Analysis as a Research Tool

content analysis, data, study, research tool, text books


The nature of educational phenomena is different from the nature of physical phenomena. Physical phenomena are numerical and quantitative. On the other hand social phenomena are abstract or qualitative.

Qualitative phenomena, in their turn, are ambiguous and complex. It is due to this fat that clear result are not easily available in social research. Most of the information in the behavioural science including social psychology and education is in the form of verbal and other symbolic behaviour. The verbal data gathered through questionnaire, observation or interview are mostly qualitative in nature.

Some other times we want to use the various sources of data: records, reports, periodicals, letters , autobiographies, books. When using these documentary sources one must bear in mind that data appearing in print are not necessarily trustworthy. In order to achieve results from facts gathered through survey, documents and other methods several techniques are utilized. Discourse analysis, content analysis, conversational analysis, critical theory, protocol analysis are some among them.

In order to arrive at results from the collected data it is necessary to classify it. Content analysis is the reduction of data in to categories.

It is a research tool used to determine the presence of certain words or concepts within the texts or set of texts. Researches quantified analyse the presence, meaning and relationship of such words and concepts and then make inference about the message within the text, writers the audience and even the culture and time of which these are a part.

Here text means books, book chapters, essays, interviews, discussions, newspaper headlines etc.
Articles: Historical documents, speeches, conversation, advertising, theatre, informal conversation or real occurrence of communicative language.

To conduct a content analysis on any such text, the text is coded or broken down into manageable categories on a variety of levels : word, word sentence, phrase, theme and then examined using one of content analysis basic method, conceptual analysis or relational analysis. This will help us to reduce the data into manageable categories on information. This will amiable to further statistical process.

Berelson (1952) : “Content analysis is a research technique for the objective systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of the communication”
We saw that there are two types of content analysis.

Conceptual Analysis
In conceptual analysis, a concept is chosen for examination and the analysis involves quantifying and tallying its presence. It is also known as thematic analysis. The focus here is on looking at the occurrence of selected items within a text or texts although the terms may be implicit as well as explicit. While explicit terms obviously are easy to identify, coding of implicit terms and deciding their level of implication is complicated by need of base judgment on somewhat subjective system. Coding implicit terms usually involves the use of either a specialized dictionary or contextual translation rule. Sometimes both tools are used

Relational Analysis
Relational analysis begins with the act of identifying concepts present in a given text or set of texts. However relational analysis seeks to go beyond presence by exploring the relationship between the concepts identified. It also termed as Semantic Analysis. The focus of relational analysis is to look for semantic or meaningful relationship. Individual concepts in and of themselves are viewed as having no inherent meaning. Rather meaning is a product of relationship among concepts in a text.

Utility of content analysis
There are so many uses for content analysis in various fields. Here we consider the educational purposes and historical research purposes.

a. Making qualitative studies objective
Social phenomena are qualitative in nature. Analysis helps in making qualitative studies objective and scientific. In content analysis qualitative facts are classified, codified and made worthy of tabulation. Tables, graphs and chats help in making qualitative phenomena qualitative and numerical.

b. To discover the level of difficulty of presentation in text book or in other publication
This is often used in text book analysis. We are analyzing the data for discovering the difficulty level of data presentation. This may lead to text book revision. Here we are critically analyzing the content of the text book.
The analysis can be divided into two parts:
External appearance
Internal Aspects
In external appearance the size of the book, layout, printing techniques used etc. are analyzed.
Internal aspect is the most important one. We are dividing the book into various chapters and we are analyzing chapter by chapter. How it is arranged? Then we divide the content of the book or chapters into categories. In case of an English book, it contains poem, prose, autobiographies, stories etc. When transacting a lesson we use this to teach grammar, vocabulary, type of sentence etc. By content analysis we can check it. We are analyzing if there is any chance to remember the words already learned in the previous class. Here we take each chapter of the text book and analyze if it is interesting. We also analyze the type of lessons arranged, number of pages, chapters, how hidden curriculum transacts.

c. In Curriculum
Content analysis can be used to develop and modify school curriculum at various levels. Teachers too often experience that the school curriculum is not specifically defined and it does not satisfy the set of goals or objectives. Curriculum research can be conducted through content analysis of text book, reference books and other written material. Here for curriculum revision we are analyzing the contents of
• the text book
• handbooks provided to teachers
• supplementary reading
• methods of teaching
• integration of subjects
• co-curricular activities
• utility of the curriculum
• comprehensiveness of the curriculum

d. Evaluation
Another important use of content analysis is in the field of evaluation. It helps the teacher to know whether the objectives have been met by the curriculum. For this he has to develop tests or make use of the readymade standardized tests. These tests are made up of critically analyzing the content area that is taught. If the teacher has to develop his own test, he has to spend lot of money and effort. So he can make use of standardized tests. To determine the extent to which a particular readymade standardized test is appropriate it is essential that the test must be content analysed by some means. The text item can be compared to the objectives and desired outcomes of the curriculum and the magnitude of the agreement can be established.

e. Comprehension level of the students
It is essential for a teacher to ascertain that material used in the textbooks are within the comprehension levels of the students. When implementing a new text book, we analyze if the material and lessons of the text book are appropriate to the comprehension level of the students. Teacher will have an awareness about the comprehension level of the students which he gained through informal content analysis.

f. To evaluate bias, prejudice or propaganda in text book presentation
Text books may contain bias and particularly in the case of humanity subjects. Fr history there may be different visions of different historians. So check the bias by content analysis. E.g.1857 revolt presented in the high school history books.
Some content may be forced into the text book as part of propaganda. Content analysis compares different means of propaganda and finds out their relative influence.

g. To analyze type of errors in students’ work
We can notice that there are some common errors usually committed by the students. It may be because of the conceptual mistakes or misunderstanding from the text books, from the instructional strategies used by the teacher. Whatever may be the cause, we have to root it out. To detect such errors we can use content analysis. Here we are analyzing the notebook of students or answer sheets of examinations. Then remedial measures are given.

h. To describe prevailing practice or conditions
We can show using content analysis the present status of a particular event. This showing will be systematic and scientific. E.g. criteria for primary school people evaluation by content analysis

i. To discover the relative importance of or interest in certain topic or problems
Content analysis can be used to show the relative importance of a problem or to show the interest in certain topic e.g. the issue of self-financing colleges in Kerala as measured by the newspaper coverage in three leading daily newspapers during the month of July 2006.
The coming purposes of content analysis is related to the historical research.

j. To analyze the use of symbols representing persons, political practices or institutions, countries or point of view. E.g. EMS as the symbol as represented by newspapers cartoons in the decade 1980-90.

k. To identify the literary style, concepts or beliefs of a writer
E.g. Shakespeare’s use of metaphors, Women in the stories of Kamala Surayya, John Dewey’s interpretation of education as growth

l. The effect of mass media in the aggressive nature of children. Everyday students are exposed to news and visuals regarding many murders, rapes etc in the television. We can content analyse it and can show how it will affect the children.

1. Defining the unit of analysis
The unit (material) may be confined to single words, to phrases to complex sentences. Only those facts should be mentioned which are useful in solving the problem. The units can be considered as the entity whose specified characteristics can be determined and analyzed.
2. Specifying variables and categories
Once the unit is defined, the researcher conducts its analysis so as to create reproducible or objective data for scientific treatment and generalization beyond the specific set of symbolic material analyzed. For converting symbolic material into objective data it is necessary to specify the variables explicitly.
There is a need for framing explicit rules specifying what features of the content are to be taken as indication that it fall in once category rather than the other.
3. Frequency, direction and intensity
Once the unit is defined and the variables along with their categories to be employed specified, the analysis will classify units in the material to be analyzed according to frequency, direction and intensity.
For frequency analysis merely counts the number of units which fall into each categories E.g. In the analysis of a public speech by an economist, the number of times ‘privatisation of higher education’ may be employed as an argument for a certain policy of govt. in this case ‘argument’ is taken as recording unit or enumeration unit.
Direction refers to whether the reference was favourable, unfavourable, or neutral. It might be pleasant, unpleasant, interesting, uninteresting.
E.g. an analyst analyse an editorial on privatisation of higher education he counts the number of column inches of the whole editorial. Intensity indicates the emotional impact of the unit analysed. Is it greater or smaller in what direction.

The contingency analysis aim at considering the content within which the unit is found. A researcher should consider the favourableness or unfavourableness of a single unit in the light of the remainder of the communication so that its real meaning might not be lost.

One of the major practical problem in content analysis is sampling. The unit which the researcher analyse should be representative of the total material. It will depend on the purpose of the investigation. For example the objective is to compare the editorial content of “The Times of India” against some established standard norms the universe under consideration should be all editorial content appearing in all issues of “The Times of India” over a certain period of time. After specialization of the universe proper procedures for drawing a representative sample of that universe must be employed.

A form is usually used in content analysis for classifying and recording the unit. The recorder should use the form carefully in order to get reliable and valid data. He should clearly indicate the categories and make provision for making the category into which each unit falls and their rating scales.

The reliability of a content analysis study refers to its stability or the tendency or coders to consistently recode the same data in the same way over a period of time, reproducibility or the tendency for a group of coders to classify category membership in the same way.
Each survey gathers data to a limited extent and general conclusion are drawn on its basis. Then the problem arises whether the conclusions deduced from the collected data are acceptable as general conclusion.

Content analysis has its own strengths and weaknesses. So, we should be careful in using research technique.

• looks directly at communication via texts or transcripts and hence gets at the centre aspect of social interaction
• Can allow for both quantitative and qualitative operations
• Can provide valuable historical / cultural insight over time through analysis of text
• Can be used to interpret texts for purpose such as the development of expert systems
• Provides insight into complex models of human thought and language use
• When done well it is considered as a reality ‘exact’ research method

• Can be extremely time consuming
• Is subjected to increase error, particularly when relational analysis is used to attain a higher level of interpretation
• Tends too often to simply consist of word counts
• Can be difficult to automate or computerized

When used properly, content analysis is a powerful data reduction technique. Its major benefits comes from the fact that it is systematic replicable technique for compressing many words of the text into fewer content categories based on explicit rules of coding. It has the attractive features of being useful in dealing with large volume of data. The technique of content analysis extend fare beyond simple word frequency counts. Two fatal flaws that destroy the utility of a content analysis are faulty definitions for categories and non mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories.
Published: 2006-09-12
Author: Benoy Jacob

About the author or the publisher
Senior Copy Editor,
 Selecting and editing stories for “MSN India” (
 Reviewing content for Windows XP - Malayalam Language Interface Pack, its tutorials and newsletters

Sub-Editor, Malayala Manorama with the additional responsibility of ISO certifications coordinator at Manorama for seven years.

Published translations
Short Stories Of Anton Chekhov
Our Father - spiritual contemplations of Cardinal Simonis, Netherlands

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