Qualitative Content Analysis

Qualitative Content Analysis: Defined

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 Qualitative content analysis: Definedcentury 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:

  1. Encompasses all relevant qualitative data sources, including text, images, video, audio, graphics, and symbols.
  2. Is systematic, process-driven method.
  3. Draws meaningful interpretations or inferences from the data based on both manifest and latent content.
  4. Is contextual, that is, relies on the context within which the information is extracted to give meaning to the data.
  5. Reduces a unit of qualitative data to a manageable level while maintaining the critical content.
  6. 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.

Qualitative Analysis: A Reflexive Exercise for Category Development

The second component of the Total Quality Framework (TQF) is Analyzability. This component provides researchers with critical thinking considerations relevant to the completeness and accuracy of their analyses and interpretations of the data. Analyzability consists of two fundamental elements — processing and verification — the first of which involves coding followed by deriving categories and themes from the data.

From a TQF perspective, a useful exercise for category development — particularly when the study entails multiple researchers and a large amount of data — is by way of the reflexive template. Although similar in spirit to the writing function in computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software programs, the primary purpose of this reflexive template is to encourage researchers to actively reflect as they go about developing categories or buckets from the underlying constructs gained from the data. By way of the template, the analyst can document the relationship they perceive between the category and the construct as well as provide an example or further input to support their thinking.

For instance, a researcher conducting a qualitative content analysis study of diaries written by women confined to prison concerning their activities and experiences during confinement, may have derived the category “educational opportunity” (EDUOPPTY) from the coded data defined in part (i.e., along with other relevant constructs) by the underlying construct “well-being.” Within the well-being construct, the researcher also identified three key subconstructs — physical well-being, mental well-being, and financial well-being — that play a central role in understanding the meaning of the well-being construct as well as deepening the definition of the EDUOPPTY category. In this example, the reflexive exercise (by way of the template, see below) has facilitated the researcher’s ability to record the connections between the category and key constructs — highlighting instances of the relationship between EDUOPPTY (e.g., how to use the exercise equipment and art classes) and physical well-being, mental well-being, as well as financial well-being — while aiding collaboration with the research team and adding transparency to the analysis process.

Reflexive template for category development

Analyzability & a Qualitative Content Analysis Case Study

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 284-285).

Kuperberg and Stone (2008) present a case study where content analysis was used as the primary research method. Gender & SocietyIt is an example of how many of the Total Quality Framework (TQF) concepts can be applied — not only to the in-depth interview, focus group, observation, and case centered methods, discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review, but — to qualitative content analysis. The discussion below spotlights aspects of this study relevant to one of the four TQF components, Analyzability.

Purpose & Scope
The primary purpose of this content analysis study was to extend the existing literature on the portrayal of women’s roles in print media by examining the imagery and themes depicted of heterosexual college-educated women who leave the workforce to devote themselves to being stay-at-home mothers (a phenomenon referred to as “opting out”) across a wide, diverse range of print publications. More specifically, this research set out to investigate two areas of media coverage: the content (e.g., the women who are portrayed in the media and how they are described) and the context (e.g., the types of media and articles).

This study examined a 16-year period from 1988 to 2003. This 16-year period was chosen because 1988 was the earliest date on which the researchers had access to a searchable database for sampling, and 2003 was the year that the term “opting out” (referring to women leaving the workforce to become full-time mothers) became popular. The researchers identified 51 articles from 30 publications that represented a wide diversity of large-circulation print media. The researchers acknowledged that the sample “underrepresents articles appearing in small-town outlets” (p. 502).

Analyzability
There are two aspects of the TQF Analyzability component — processing and verification. In terms of processing, the content data obtained by Kuperberg and Stone from coding revealed three primary patterns or themes in the depiction of women who opt out: “family first, child-centric”; “the mommy elite”; and “making choices.” The researchers discuss these themes at some length and support their findings by way of research literature and other references. In some instances, they report that their findings were in contrast to the literature (which presented an opportunity for future research in this area). Their final interpretation of the data includes their overall assertion that print media depict “traditional images of heterosexual women” (p. 510).

Important to the integrity of the analysis process, the researchers absorbed themselves in the sampled articles and, in doing so, identified inconsistencies in the research outcomes. For example, a careful reading of the articles revealed that many of the women depicted as stay-at-home mothers were actually employed in some form of paid work from home. The researchers also enriched the discussion of their findings by giving the reader some context relevant to the publications and articles. For example, they revealed that 45 of the 51 articles were from general interest newspapers or magazines, a fact that supports their research objective of analyzing print media that reach large, diverse audiences.

In terms of verification, the researchers performed a version of deviant case analysis in which they investigated contrary evidence to the assertion made by many articles that there is a growing trend in the proportion of women opting out. Citing research studies from the literature as well as actual trend data, the researchers stated that the articles’ claim that women were increasingly opting out had weak support.

Kuperberg, A., & Stone, P. (2008). The media depiction of women who opt out. Gender & Society, 22(4), 497–517.