Qualitative Content Analysis: The Challenge of Inference

Back in April 2013, a post in RDR talked about the “daunting job of conducting a content analysis that reveals how people think [the “stream of consciousness”] while at the same time Criminal-Case-Crime-Scene-Living-Room-Case-5answers the research question and takes the sponsoring client to the next step.” The article outlines the basic steps in a content analysis, including the analysis and interpretation phases of the process. Making interpretations from a content analysis are tricky things, esp., when conducting a “primary content analysis” when the content being analyzed is derived from non-research-related, pre-existing sources such as newspapers, blog posts, Hollywood films, YouTube videos, television broadcasts, and the like. The issue here is the “trap” content analysts can fall into by (a) thinking there are causal relationships in the data when there are not, and/or (b) trying to build a story in the shape of their interpretations when the story (based on the data) has little merit. In this way, an overabundance of unsubstantiated subjectivity can creep into the qualitative content analysis method.

These traps, related to causality and storytelling, are fairly easy to fall into unless a systematic and conscientious approach is taken in the analysis and interpretation phases. In particular, there are three characteristics of textual and non-textual material used in primary qualitative content analysis that may stymie the analyst’s ability to draw far-reaching interpretations:

  1. The original act of constructing the content material (e.g., the document, video, or photograph) may have altered the meaning of the subject matter. For example, in a study examining a series of blog posts regarding Detroit’s inner-city crime, the researcher may be unable to discern the realities of crime in Detroit because, by the mere act of writing about it, the writer has (deliberately or not) reformulated its true nature and given the reader a biased account. Therefore, what the researcher may be studying in this example is the writer’s rendition of inner-city crime in Detroit, not the actual nature of the crime “scene” itself.
  1. The instability or unpredictability of the content. For example, politicians may routinely shift their communication “sound bites” depending on the audience, the speaking environment, or the “political mood” in the country at any one moment in time. In these cases of inconsistencies in the content, the content being analyzed may have little or nothing to do with the natural variation in the topics of interest but instead are due to the whims of the creator.
  1. The content is often a product of a group of people rather than one individual. An example of this has to do with the documents created within corporate or governmental organizations which do not reflect the thinking of any one person but rather are a product of a team or group of people. Examples can be found in a variety of source material, especially in video or films and broadcast media where multi-authored creations may obscure true intentions and thereby challenge the researcher’s ability to infer meaningful connections in the content. Fields (1988), for example, conducted a qualitative content analysis of television news, observing that the coverage of “right-wing Christian fundamentalists” usually showed reporters standing near churches, an American flag, or the White House, and came to this conclusion: “The juxtaposition of these symbols conveyed the message that fundamentalists were seeking political power” (p. 190). This interpretation might have been more credible if these newscasts were the creation of a single individual who made all the on-air decisions and whose position on the Christian fundamentalists was explicitly disclosed. But, as a product of many people in broadcast news with varying agendas, alternative rationales for the backdrop exist, e.g., churches might be considered an appropriate setting to report on a Christian group, or the American flag might be deemed a suitable prop given that Christian fundamentalists are an American phenomenon.

Fields, E. E. (1988). Qualitative content analysis of television news: Systematic techniques. Qualitative Sociology, 11(3), 183–193.

Image captured from http://quickgamer.net/games/criminal-case/cases/scenes-4-to-6/.

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