Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Content analysis

core definition

Content analysis is a research technique for the objective systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication.

explanatory context

Content analysis was developed in the 1940s in the United States and popularised in the 1950s and 1960s.


According to its proponents, content analysis answers questions as diverse as: the dominant images in an writer's output; how an author's personality is reflected in the text; how nationalistic values are reflected in written texts, both fiction and non-fiction; how the content of propaganda slogans change; how minority groups are treated in popular literature; how suspected subversive literature can be tested for its propaganda content; what popular imagery is reflected in cinema; and what intelligence data can be secured from an analysis of enemy propaganda.


In general content analysis is a term reserved for social scientific generalisations and is primarily concerned with the effects of communications.


Content analysis is concerned with the syntactic and semantic dimensions of language. It is concerned with manifest content rather than latent intentions as the latter cannot be measured objectively or systematically. In the main content analysis has been concerned with news and popular media. Content analysis thus primarily directs attention to the text of a newspaper, words in a radio broadcast, movie film images, television programme dialogue, and treats these as objective self-explanatory facts.


Content analysis, at least in its initial form, is grounded in American behaviourism and adopts a 'stimulus-response' approach. Content analysis, which also includes audience surveys to measure the effect of media messages, attempts to trace the relationship between mass communication and mass society.


Content analysis is used in the study of the communication process in order to reveal cultural patterns, predict events, identify the communicator's intentions, apply communication standards and describe the response to communication.


While qualitative approaches to content analysis are possible, the general view is that these are unsystematic and too heavily reliant upon credibility of the researcher in having (a) produced a 'fair' and unprejudicial assessment, and (b) scrutinised an adequate cross-section of the media. The 'universal' preference is for quantitative approaches that look objectively at a representative sample.


An example of quantitative content analysis is the analysis of the crisis that lead to the United States entering the First World War. The frequency with which news and editorial comment referred to the War, and America's relation to it, was tabulated and the fluctuations graphed, thus showing how the build up of the crisis was reflected in the media.


Content analysts do not imagine that the media has an independent effect on behaviour. The media is usually seen as part of a complex environment that affects people's responses and attitudes. This environment consists of an attention frame (which is that part of the environment that is the focus of attention of the group—this consists of a media and a non-media component) and surroundings (which do not reach the focus of attention).


A recurring preoccupation of content analysis has been the concern with how mass media has debased cultural standards through trivialisation. This is pinpointed in the issue of the media and violence.


Content analysis, unlike semiological approaches, is unconcerned with the ideological content of the media. Although aware of the ideological element of media messages, content analysts regard this as latent intention and have consistently argued that objectives measures of the ideological content cannot be found.


analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) provides a useful guide to content analysis. The introduction and comment on types of content analysis is presented below but there is much more:

Content analysis is a research tool used to determine the presence of certain words or concepts within texts or sets of texts. Researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings and relationships of such words and concepts, then make inferences about the messages within the texts, the writer(s), the audience, and even the culture and time of which these are a part. Texts can be defined broadly as books, book chapters, essays, interviews, discussions, newspaper headlines and articles, historical documents, speeches, conversations, advertising, theater, informal conversation, or really any occurrence of communicative language. Texts in a single study may also represent a variety of different types of occurrences, such as Palmquist's 1990 study of two composition classes, in which he analyzed student and teacher interviews, writing journals, classroom discussions and lectures, and out-of-class interaction sheets. 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 sense, phrase, sentence, or theme--and then examined using one of content analysis' basic methods: conceptual analysis or relational analysis....

In this guide, we discuss two general categories of content analysis: conceptual analysis and relational analysis. Conceptual analysis can be thought of as establishing the existence and frequency of concepts most often represented by words of phrases in a text. For instance, say you have a hunch that your favorite poet often writes about hunger. With conceptual analysis you can determine how many times words such as hunger, hungry, famished, or starving appear in a volume of poems. In contrast, relational analysis goes one step further by examining the relationships among concepts in a text. Returning to the hunger example, with relational analysis, you could identify what other words or phrases hunger or famished appear next to and then determine what different meanings emerge as a result of these groupings. ....

Heffernan (undated) described content analysis as follows:

Content analysis is like a social survey but uses a sample of images rather than people.
1. Choose a question which can be measured with variables and use a coding scheme to capture them.
2. Make a sampling frame, choosing the cases to analyse that are representative and unbiased. To get a sampling frame, search for relevant cases in contemporary or historical archives. The sample has to be representative, yet small enough for analyzing in depth. Very often you are counting words - e.g. how many times does the word 'hooligan' appear in articles sensationalising the reporting of disturbances at football matches?
3. Code all the cases and analyze the resulting data.
4. Produce semi-quantitative results using cross-tabulations, charts or graphs and where there are few cases, use tables.
5. Report in a standard 'scientific' format.
Content analysis is formal and systematic. It lends structure to your research. Variables are categorised in a precise manner so you can count them. However, content analysis ignores context and multiple meanings.


Berelson (1952) stated that content analysis is a research technique for the objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication.


For Stone et al.(1966), content analysis refers to any procedure for assessing the relative extent to which specified references, attitudes, or themes permeate a given message or document.

Holsti (1968) said that content analysis is any technique for making inferences by systematically and objectively identifying specified characteristics of messages.

Kerlinger (1986) defined content analysis as a method of studying and analysing communication in a systematic, objective, and quantitative manner for the purpose of measuring variables.

Krippendorff (1980) defined content analysis as a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from data to their context.

For Weber (1985) content analysis is a research methodology that utilises a set of procedures to make valid inferences from text. These inferences are about sender(s) of message, the message itself, or the audience of message.

Nachmias and Nachmias (1976) stated that content analysis may be seen as a method where the content of the message forms the basis for drawing inferences and conclusions about the content.

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

An empirical examination of the frequency of a particular social characteristic or feature of a society. This can also be done on books, magazines, journal articles, newspapers, etc.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Content analysis: The systematic coding and objective recording of data, guided by some rationale.

associated issues

Critical content analysis

Critical content analysis differs from conventional, quantitative, content analysis: first, critical content analysis makes no attempt to quantify content; second, it links the content to the production and marketing of the programmes and to ideology. Unlike traditional content analysis, which deals with surface appearances, the critical approach attempts to show what underlies the apparent content.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 5.6


Berelson, B., 1952, Content Analysis in Communication Research. New York, The Free Press.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Content Analysis available at, accessed 3 February 2013, (page dated 2003–2016 when checked on 17 December 2016).Still available 1 June 2019. Listed under 'Qualitative Research Methods'

Heffernan, C. , undated, 'Document analysis', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, still available 17 December 2016. Page not found 1 June 2019.
Holsti, O.R., 1968, 'Content analysis', in Lindzey, G. and Aronson, E., (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology Volume II (second edition), pp. 596–692. New Delhi, Amerind Publishing.
Kerlinger, F.N., 1986, Foundations of Behavioural Research (third edition). New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Krippendorff, K., 1980, Content Analysis: An introduction to its methodology. London, Sage.

Nachmias, D. and Nachmias, C., 1976, 'Content analysis', in Research Methods in the Social Sciences, pp.132–39, UK, Edward Arnold.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, page 'not found' 1 June 2019.
Stone, P.J., Dunphy, D.C., Smith, M.S. and Ogilvie, D.M., 1966, The General Inquirer: A computer approach to content analysis. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Weber. R.P., 1985, Basic Content Analysis. New Delhi, Sage.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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