Researchers can learn a great deal about a society by analyzing cultural artifacts such as newspapers, magazines, television programs, or music. This is called content analysis. Researchers who use content analysis are not studying the people, but are studying the communications the people produce as a way of creating a picture of their society.
Content analysis is frequently used to measure cultural change and to study different aspects of culture. Sociologists also use it as an indirect way to determine how social groups are perceived. For example, they might examine how African Americans are depicted in television shows or how women are depicted in advertisements.
In conducting a content analysis, researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings, and relationships of words and concepts within the cultural artifacts they are studying. They then make inferences about the messages within the artifacts and about the culture they are studying. At its most basic, content analysis is a statistical exercise that involves categorizing some aspect of behavior and counting the number of times such behavior occurs. For example, a researcher might count the number of minutes that men and women appear on screen in a television show and make comparisons. This allows us to paint a picture of the patterns of behavior that underlie social interactions portrayed in the media.
Strengths And Weaknesses
Content analysis has several strengths as a research method. First, it is a great method because it is unobtrusive. That is, it has no effect on the person being studied since the cultural artifact has already been produced. Second, it is relatively easy to gain access to the media source or publication the researcher wishes to study. Finally, it can present an objective account of events, themes, and issues that might not be immediately apparent to a reader, viewer, or general consumer.
Content analysis also has several weaknesses as a research method. First, it is limited in what it can study. Since it is based only on mass communication – either visual, oral, or written – it cannot tell us what people really think about these images or whether they affect people’s behavior. Second, it may not be as objective as it claims since the researcher must select and record data accurately. In some cases, the researcher must make choices about how to interpret or categorize particular forms of behavior and other researchers may interpret it differently. A final weakness of content analysis is that it can be time consuming.
Andersen, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.