Content analysis: An introduction

By Gordon Rugg

I have very mixed feelings about content analysis. At its best, it gives you a new understanding of the world around you. At its worst, which I see all too often, it’s little more than an attempt to salvage mangled fragments of something useful from the wreckage of a questionnaire perpetrated by some sinner who deserves to be locked in a cell for a while with the assorted works of Barbara Cartland being read aloud over the intercom. Accompanied by accordion music.

So what is content analysis, and why do I have such strongly mixed feelings about it? In essence, it’s about analysing the content of texts. The texts may be questionnaire answers or interview answers, or magazine articles, or books, or online forum debates, or just about anything else that’s spoken or written.

Content analysis is usually something that you “grapple with” rather than “do” because it’s a messy, nasty problem. The core dilemna is that the further you get from the original words in the text, the more you risk distorting their meaning; however, the nearer you get to the original words, the less sense you can make of what those words are telling you.

There are various ways of tackling this problem, but none of them provide a perfect solution. The result is that there are numerous types of content analysis, which vary widely in their assumptions, methods, strengths and weaknesses. This article describes a “vanilla flavour” type of content analysis, which is enough for the needs of many students. I’ll look at other types in future articles.

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When small words mean a lot: Transcripts, black boxes and evaluation

By Gordon Rugg

You can get a fair amount of information out of what people tell you in interviews and questionnaires and focus groups. However, you can’t get at all the information in a person’s head using those methods. The result is that you often have to use different methods, and/or that you have to glean more information out of what you got with the interviews or questionnaires or focus groups.

One very rich source of information is small, apparently insignificant words that people use; words that often get left out of transcripts because they’re not “real words” or because they’re swearwords or whatever.

This article is about how you can use these words to get an extra dimension of information about real-world problems.

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