content analysis

Content analysis reduces freely occurring text to a much smaller summary or representation of its meaning. Bernard Berelson (Content Analysis in Communication Research, 1952) defines it as ‘a research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication’, though this is an overly narrow description. The technique was largely developed in the 1940s for propaganda and communication studies (‘Who says what to whom and with what effect?’, as puts it in his essay on ‘Describing the Contents of Communication’, in Lasswell et al. (eds.), Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion, 1946), and has increasingly made use of linguistics and information science.
In its simplest form, content analysis consists of word counts (for example to create a concordance, establish profiles of topics, or indicate authorship style), but grammatical and semantic improvements have increasingly been sought. These include attempts to ‘lemmatize’, or count variants and inflections under a root word (such that ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘is’, ‘will’, ‘was’, ‘were’, and ‘been’ are seen as variants of ‘be’), and to ‘disambiguate’, or distinguish between different meanings of a word spelt the same (such as ‘a bit of a hole’, ‘a 16-bit machine’, ‘he bit it off’). More ambitiously, content analysis seeks to identify general semantic concepts (such as ‘achievement’ or ‘religion’), stylistic characteristics (including understatement or overstatement), and themes (for example ‘religion as a conservative force’), and this normally requires complex interaction of human knowledge and fast, efficient computing power, typified by a system such as the Harvard General Inquirer. Content analysis has concerns and techniques in common with artificial intelligence although it has to be able to cope with more general and open-ended materials. See also coding.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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