“Content analysis is a research method for the objective, systematic and quantitative description for the content of the communication.”
– Bernard Berelson
If you ask me, content analysis refers to a popular technique used by many researchers to investigate the content of documents, media and other such material, where the sorting out and recording process is done systematically.
For many years now, content analysis has been used in several areas of research and today, we shall explore its strengths and limitations as a research method.
Advantages of Content Analysis
Quantifies Impressions and Observations
Content analysis provides empirical evidence to support and confirm impressions and observations. Numerical data and percentages are more specific and objective than mere impressions and observations. This is an important feature of any quantitative research.
Unlike interviews and surveys, content analysis does not require the researcher(s) to ask questions to participants. Instead, the content analyst initiates the research from the communication content that has already been produced and is available to them. As content analysis does not require participants to respond to questions, it is considered a non-reactive method. It is unobtrusive and is extremely well suited to the study of sensitive topics about which participants might be reluctant to talk.
Handles Large Volumes of Data
Content analysis is a great research method to handle large volumes of data. As a result of the coding and analysis, the findings enable the researcher to gain an insight into the patterns appearing within the data which would be hard to identify with another research method
Deals Directly with Communication
Many communication theories, such as the mathematical theory of communication, do not deal with nor consider the content of the message being communicated. These theories focus on the structure and/or stages of the communication act or process. Content analysis differs from these other communication theories. The content analyst works directly with the artifact of human communication, from books to websites or even paintings. Indeed, the content of the message plays a crucial part as that from which inferences and conclusions about the communication are made. By dealing directly with the recorded communication, content analysis assigns an importance, rarely seen in other communication theories, to the message of the communication.
Limitations of content analysis
In spite of its strengths, content analysis as a research method also has several limitations. They do not mean that content analysis is not useful in the right context. Instead, they enable a researcher to identify when content analysis might not be the best-suited research method to undertake a study.
Limited by Availability of Material
Content analysis is limited by the communication content which already exists and is available to researchers. As a result of not asking questions from participants, content analysts cannot obtain material not contained within existing messages. Consequently, inferences are only based on the content of the text being analyzed.
The data and results of content analysis have certain limitations. A content analyst can only count the frequency or size/time of the unit of analysis. In other words, a content analyst can easily specify how many times a certain word or phrase is utilized. However, the content analysis is unable to provide an insight into the meaning or significance of the unit of analysis each time it is utilized. For example, a content analysis can state how many times the word politics is mentioned in television news stories. However, it is unable to indicate if it is framed in positive or negative terms.
Content analysis can potentially be a time-consuming process. As you have discovered, there are several complex steps when undertaking content analysis. This process can become fairly lengthy, especially when the researcher or research team is dealing with large volumes of data. If the findings are not needed immediately, this limitation is not an issue. However, if the study should produce results within a tight deadline, the researcher must carefully consider the appropriateness of content analysis.
Numerical data and statistics are very effective at describing specific phenomena. However, they are not the best tools to reveal causal relationships among several elements, especially when these relationships are fairly complex. As content analysis deals with numerical data and statistics, it faces this same limitation. In the proposed study, the statistics can clearly reveal if women are portrayed in a negative manner or not in Mauritian radio advertisements. However, they are unable to reveal the relationships between the portrayal of women and the gender of the producers, for example.
Do you think content analysis is a reliable research method?