The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 231-232).
The qualitative approach to content analysis traces its roots to the mid-20th century when qualitative researchers began to modify the approaches that had been used by quantitative content analysis researchers. The purpose was to enrich what qualitative researchers believed was an overly sterile approach that focused preponderantly on manifest (surface) content and largely missed the richer latent content, consequently missing much of the meaning underlying the text or other form of content being studied. The “content” in qualitative content analysis often originates from other qualitative methods (e.g., transcripts from in-depth interviews, group discussions, and ethnographic field notes). With this point in mind, qualitative content analysis researchers devised and advocated for a methodical process similar to quantitative content analysis but with a greater emphasis on subjective interpretations of the meaning in qualitative content so as to identify relevant themes and patterns (Zhang & Wildemuth, 2009; Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).
There is no shortage of definitions associated with the content analysis method. In fact, there appear to be no two definitions that are identical. Two researchers, Berg and Lune (2017), draw on several sources to define content analysis as “a careful, detailed, systematic examination and interpretation of a particular body of material in an effort to identify patterns, themes, biases, and meanings” (p. 182). Similarly, Krippendorff (2019) states that “content analysis is a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from text (or other meaningful matter) to the contexts of their use” (p. 24). Information researchers Zhang and Wildemuth (2009) take the latent aspect one step further in their discussion of qualitative content analysis with the assertion that the aim is “to understand social reality in a subjective but scientific manner” (p. 308).
Regardless of the definition, there are six essential components to the content analysis method in qualitative research. Qualitative content analysis:
- Encompasses all relevant qualitative data sources, including text, images, video, audio, graphics, and symbols.
- Is systematic, process-driven method.
- Draws meaningful interpretations or inferences from the data based on both manifest and latent content.
- Is contextual, that is, relies on the context within which the information is extracted to give meaning to the data.
- Reduces a unit of qualitative data to a manageable level while maintaining the critical content.
- Identifies patterns and themes in the data that support or refute existing hypotheses or reveal new hypotheses.
Looking at these elements of the content analysis method, Roller and Lavrakas (2015) derive the definition of qualitative content analysis as, the systematic reduction or “condensation” (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004) of content, analyzed with special attention to the context in which it was created, to identify themes and extract meaningful interpretations of the data. Qualitative content analysis can be used as a secondary or primary method.
Graneheim, U. H., & Lundman, B. (2004). Qualitative Content Analysis in Nursing Research: Concepts, Procedures and Measures to Achieve Trustworthiness. Nurse Education Today, 24(2), 105–112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2003.10.001
Hsieh, H.-F., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis. Qualitative Health Research, 15(9), 1277–1288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732305276687
Krippendorff, K. (2019). Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Lune, H., & Berg, B. L. (2017). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Pearson.
Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach. New York: Guilford Press.
Zhang, Y., & Wildemuth, B. M. (2009). Qualitative Analysis of Content. In B. M. Wildemuth (Ed.), Applications of Social Research Methods to Questions in Information and Library Science (pp. 308-319). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.