Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 June, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis

5.6.1 What is content analysis?
5.6.2 What is content analysis used for?
5.6.3 How to do content analysis The research topic Selecting content for analysis Developing content categories Coding the data in the document Inter-rater reliability Analysis of content Strengths and limitations of content analysis

5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research
5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology

5.11 Critical media analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.6 Content analysis

5.6.2 What is content analysis used for?
Gloria Feliciano (1967, p. 16) specified four uses for content analysis:

1. to determine characteristics of content;
2. to develop insight into the source or producers of content;
3. to develop insight into the audiences or consumers of content;
4. to determine the effects of content upon the audience.

Content analysis has been used widely to examine propaganda and mass media content and impact; especially news reporting, in particular coverage of elections, crime, immorality and ethnic minorities. Content analysis has explored questions such as, how do print media on the one hand and radio and television on the other handle social evils such criminality? How do the values of characters in radio drama compare to those on television? How are sex crimes portrayed in newspapers.

Bernard Berelson and Patricia Salter (1946) analysed the treatment given to various ethnic groups in widely read magazine fiction (in an era prior to widespread television ownership or the invention of the Internet!). They analysed 198 short stories published in eight of the popular magazines during the period 1937–1943 and showed that the claim of the editors and publishers that their magazines aimed at promoting ethnic equality in the United States was not being fulfilled.

A very early study using magazine content was undertaken by Howell Hart (1933) who identified changing social attitudes and interests in the United States from 1900 to 1930. His analysis of popular magazines indicated the general decline in the status of religion during this period as documented not only by the amount of attention given to the topic but also by the decline of favourable references to organised religion, which was interpreted to reflect the general weakening in a position of religion among the population. In like manner, the increase in popular toleration of sexual freedom is represented by the increase percentage of 'approving attitude indicators' in mass circulation magazines; for instance, in 1900 only 1% of the indicators were approving as compared with 26% in 1920 and 40% in 1928.

Similarly, Leo Lowenthal (1944), in his article 'Biographies in popular magazines'. examined the changing definitions of heroes in popular magazines in the United States, noting a drift away from working professionals and businessmen to entertainers.

Irene Taviss (1969) analysed the content of popular fiction in the 1900s and the 1950s to test the hypothesis that social alienation had been decreasing in middle-class American society, while self-alienation had been increasing. The results indicated an overall rise in the appearance of alienation themes, a slight decrease in social alienation and a large increase in self-alienation.

In the two decades around the turn of the millennium, interest in content analysis seems to have grown in India, while being rather less used in the United States. Devi Prasad and Sampath Kumar (1991), analysed the editorials and letters to the editor published in four dailies in India before the 1991 elections to identify the key themes that occurred in the election news and how they were covered by the different newspapers. In similar vein, D.V.R. Murthy (2001) analysed the news items, letters to the editor, and editorials of four selected dailies in India published during the calendar year of 1995, to make a comparative study of the coverage of development news.

Content analysis was also used by Vijayalakshmi et al. (1996) in their analysis of how the Indian Journal of Social Work had changed over two decades from 1971. A stratified random sample of 194 published research articles was used to document the trends in empirical content, subject areas, and methodological characteristics such as source of data, research design, sampling, and statistical techniques used in the articles. A similar study was undertaken by Jamie Marshall et al. (2011) to explore how the social work profession viewed prevention (rather than crisis services). To assess to what extent prevention is a concern and appears in social work publications a content analysis of nine peer-reviewed journals was undertaken analyzing 1,951 articles published between 2000 and 2005. Only 5.6% of articles met the specified criteria for being a prevention article, suggesting that prevention was a minority interest area within social work.


Next 5.6.3 How to do content analysis