Content Analysis & Navigating the Stream of Consciousness

An article posted on Research Design Review back in 2010 discussed the work of William James and, specifically, his concept that consciousness “flows” like a river or stream.  The article goes on to say that James’ “stream of consciousness” is relevant to researcFlowing-streamhers of every stripe because we all share in the goal of designing research “to understand the subjective links within each individual.”  Yet these subjective links come at a price, not the least of which is the “messiness” of the analysis as we work towards identifying these links and finding meaning that addresses our objectives.

Whether it is the verbatim comments from survey respondents to open-end questions or the transcripts from focus group discussions or ethnographic interviews, the researcher is faced with the daunting job of conducting a content analysis that reveals how people think while at the same time answers the research question and takes the sponsoring client to the next step.  An analysis of our research content must, at the minimum, be based on the:

Development of codes grounded in the data

 from which

Categorical labels or themes are developed & contrasted/compared to categorical constructs

based on what we know related to the research question

 from which

 Agreed-upon codes & labels or themes & the criteria that define these

codes/labels are established

 from which

The entire dataset is coded and sorted by labels/themes

 from which

 Patterns (“linkages”) emerge (or don’t)

 from which

 An analysis of the patterns in conjunction with earlier known research can be conducted

 from which

 Final interpretations & possible generalizations from the data are derived

This simplified version of the process sounds, well, pretty simple, doesn’t it?  Until, however, you consider the decisions that need to be made along the way.  For instance,

  • What data sources will you use in the content analysis?  If qualitative, do you include just the text responses in the online group discussion or do you integrate the uploaded images and video into the analysis process?
  • What unit(s) within the data sources will you include in the analysis?
  • Should the coding (and, therefore, the analysis) focus on the manifest (i.e., the visible and obvious) or latent (i.e., the underlying meaning) aspects of the content?
  • What level of inference is permissible and how do you control for that?
  • Are the categorical labels mutually exclusive (as they should be) and, if not, where is the overlap and what adjustments need to be made to account for that?
  • How will patterns be identified and how will this procedure go beyond the fact of mere magnitude?
  • What role will earlier known research play in analyzing patterns and drawing conclusions?

Navigating the wide and divergent streams of our participants’ consciousness is a noble and necessary goal of all researchers.  And the downed trees, boulders, and debris that stand in our way are there to remind us of the difficult task before us.


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