As I begin the process of writing my Master’s dissertation, an activity I often refer to as thesis crack-down, I have become particularly interested in content analysis. Defined as “a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from texts (or other meaningful matter) to the contexts of their use”, (Krippendorff, 2013, pg. 24), content analysis seems particularly apt in an era of pervasive text-based social interaction. However, the word text in the context of content analysis is rather polysemic: it goes beyond the written symbol and does not privilege newspapers or novels over Facebook photos and YouTube videos. Text, in this sense, can be an image, a tweet, or a numerical expression and it is through the effective application of content analysis that we are able to systematically and critically read its meanings.
As a term, content analysis first appeared in the dictionary in 1961 (Krippendorff, 2013), but its practice can be traced back to at least the 17th century, when the European Church engaged in the methodic and moralized analysis of printed materials. Notably, my first colleagues to write dissertations using content analysis did so in the mid to late 1690s (ibid)! Aside from providing me with these intriguing insights, Klaus Krippendorff’s book, Content Analysis: An Introduction to its Methodology, has been particularly enlightening in my pursuit of content analysis clarification. According to Krippendorff, texts are the byproducts of ongoing conversations. I think of doing a content analysis as comparable to walking into a restaurant and sitting down at a table with people you don’t know – after their conversation has begun. It is then the job of a researcher to make sense of the ensuing ‘texts’ and to draw conclusions – based on the given context.
But there is more to it than that. Krippendorff contends that modern content analysis requires sensitivity to five specific points: Message, Channel, Communication, Systems and increasingly, Computation. Message refers to the idea of a container of meaning. A message, similar to a text, can be a shirt or a show, which carries some form of meaning. The Channel is important, too. For instance, the fact that the Pope is now using Twitter (yes, you can read his tweets here), provides as much meaning as the actual words he tweets. Moreover, the Channel takes on particular significance once we step outside of the narrow definition of text as confined to the pages of a book.
Communication and Systems are intertwined in that they highlight our evolving understanding of human interactions. Communication is a powerful tool, which has the power to constitute relations, however; it is a complex phenomenon, which occurs within intricate socio-technical Systems. For instance, what you display on a LinkedIn profile is constitutive of the professional ‘you’. Yet, your profile is also part of the larger socio-technical system called LinkedIn, and wouldn’t make much sense without it.
Finally, Computation refers to both the ever more digitized nature of our world and the new, powerful capacities of computers in research. While Krippendorff is cautious about presenting computational analyses as a panacea to modern day research, he does highlight their capacity for aiding unprecedented analyses.
We are always analyzing some form of content – we just rarely think about our actions in a very systematic way and, even more rarely write or talk about them. The practice of conscious content analysis for research purposes can be a fruitful exercise if not for the results themselves, then for the reflexive quality of thinking about your own thinking. Now analyze that.
Krippendorff, K. (2013). Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology (3rd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Image from film: ‘Analyze This’.