Like quantitative content analysis, qualitative content analysis is an empirical method of social sciences for analyzing live or recorded human communication such as newspaper articles, protocols of television news or programs, transcripts of interviews, or protocols from observations. This written or transcribed material is called text material in this context. From a general perspective, there are two main differences between quantitative and qualitative content analysis. First, quantitative content analysis works deductively and measures quantitatively. In this respect, quantitative content analysis decomposes the text material into different parts and assigns numeric codes to these elements or parts. Of course, such parts are not just words, but are rather issues, statements, arguments, or bundles of meaning. By contrast, however, qualitative content analysis works inductively by summarizing and classifying elements or parts of the text material and assigning labels or categories to them. In this respect, qualitative content analysis searches rather for “coherent” meaning structures in the text material.
Second, quantitative content analysis can deal with a large quantity of text material. Qualitative content analysis, on the other hand, is limited to a few pieces of text material – whether these are newspaper reports, interview transcripts, or observational protocols. In practical respects, one can say that quantitative content analysis applies category schemas for the purpose of measuring quantitatively, whereas qualitative content analysis develops categories in a qualitative, rather inductive, or hermeneutic, way. Further differences that are emphasized by advocates of qualitative methodology or the qualitative paradigm will be discussed later.
Different Views On Qualitative Content Analysis
In a wider sense, the term “qualitative content analysis” subsumes quite different and various methods and techniques of analyzing text material qualitatively or hermeneutically. Examples are grounded theory, discourse analysis, and the objektive Hermeneutik (“objective hermeneutics”) of Oevermann et al. (1979). In a more narrow sense, qualitative content analysis is a label for a specific type of qualitative text analysis that was developed by Mayring (2002). This type of qualitative content analysis tries to close the gap between the so-called quantitative paradigm and the qualitative paradigm. Following Mayring, all research comprises qualitative and quantitative steps, and the difference between the two paradigms lies only in the different weightings attached to them. From a more “orthodox” standpoint of qualitative research, Mayring’s version of qualitative content analysis is not open and flexible enough for social reality, however. There are rules and advice that seem to be too quantitative for strict qualitative research. From a more affirmative point of view, Mayring’s content analysis has the advantage of being a systematic and more transparent research method, when compared, for instance, to objective hermeneutics (Oevermann et al. 1979), but also compared to grounded theory.
Which argument one follows is a function of one’s standpoint in relation to qualitative or quantitative methodology. The following sections first discuss basic features of qualitative content analysis from a general qualitative perspective. Second, two prominent versions or techniques of qualitative content analysis are explained in further detail. The first version is the qualitative content analysis developed by Mayring (2002). The second is the research program and technique of Oevermann et al. (1979), called “objective hermeneutics.” As mentioned already, other qualitative techniques of text analysis can be subsumed under the label “qualitative content analysis” as well. The two selected versions probably represent the two poles of what can be called content analysis in qualitative research. Mayring stands for a vision of bringing qualitative content analysis nearer to the methodological standards of quantitative methodology. While his position is clearly based in the social sciences, Oevermann and his colleagues stand for a vision of qualitative content analysis being rather at home in the field of the humanities.
Basic Features Of Qualitative Content Analysis
Following Lamnek (1995), qualitative content analysis is not simply a “smoother” version of quantitative content analysis. Qualitative content analysis is in fact different in its core features and in its methodological background. As mentioned already, many advocates of the qualitative paradigm do not accept Mayring’s version of qualitative content analysis since it seems too “quantitative” for them. From their point of view, qualitative content analysis should rather rely on the crucial features of qualitative research in general, which are then applied to content analysis more specifically. Lamnek (1995), for instance, mentions four basic features.
The first is openness. In terms of qualitative content analysis, researchers should be open enough to social reality by avoiding theoretically deduced and completely standardized coding schemas. Thus, qualitative content analysis affords analyzing text material without pre-defined coding units, dimensions, or categories. This is similar to the coding procedures known from grounded theory, which can be seen as one technique of qualitative content analysis, as mentioned above. The main task in qualitative content analysis in terms of openness is to understand the meaning and concepts used and applied by the subjects under examination. For this purpose, qualitative researchers analyze text material “produced” by these subjects, for instance in a qualitative interview which has been transcribed. In sum, researchers do not apply their own categories but understand the meaning of subjects’ everyday categories.
The second feature is communicativity: social reality is established by and in interaction or communication. Thus, we can assume that all subjects interacting or communicating have a common meaning ground. This means that subjects share some knowledge about the motives and structures of interaction and communication, i.e., about how and why people act and communicate this and not that way, what they mean by certain concepts, and so on. Text material – for instance, the protocols of observing interactions or the transcripts of interviews – should therefore not be decomposed into different separate dimensions or categories as in quantitative content analysis. To meet the aspect of communicativity, text material should rather be interpreted “coherently.” This was emphasized by Kracauer (1952), who criticized quantitative content analysis for focusing merely on the manifest structures of communication and thereby neglecting the latent meaning or latent text structures, e.g., ironic aspects of communication. Furthermore, qualitative content analysis does not aim at possible effects of the text material, but aims at decoding the subjects’ meaning, which is represented in the text material. Oevermann’s objective hermeneutics, for instance, tries to extract the “objective latent meaning structures” from the text material. Finally, the feature of communicativity also affords that researchers themselves should come into contact with the subjects they examine – for instance, in qualitative interviews.
The third feature is naturalistics. This standard is especially important for collecting or generating text material. If researchers interview a subject or a group of persons, they should keep the situation in which they collect information about subjects’ interaction or communication, as natural as possible. The subjects being interviewed should feel as though they are in a natural environment. Furthermore, this criterion affords that the interview transcripts or observational protocols, for instance, should use the language of the “common man.”
Finally, the fourth feature is interpretativity. It comprises two aspects: (1) qualitative content analysis aims at understanding everyday interpretations and attributions of meaning, and (2) it aims at typifying, i.e., at constructing patterns of meaning by analyzing the text material, and does not aim at representative statements about communication or interaction in the sense of a qualitative methodology.
Mayring’s Version Of Qualitative Content Analysis
The version developed by Mayring (2002) does not provide a prefabricated instrument for qualitative content analysis appropriate for each study. It is rather a bundle of techniques, which have to be specified and adapted to the specific research questions of one’s own study. Different techniques can also be mixed or merged. In most of his publications, Mayring distinguishes three techniques of qualitative content analysis: summarizing transcribed or written material, structuring this material, and exploring its context. By applying these techniques, the original material is condensed into a category schema. While quantitative content analysis looks at text material more closely and open-mindedly only at the time when categories are being developed or in the pre-test, qualitative content analysis does so continuously for the purpose of improving the process of “condensation” step by step. This adjustment to the original text material is done sequentially and not permanently as in grounded theory.
Exploration means analyzing the context of the text material. This can be the author’s biographical context, his or her emotional state when being interviewed, as well as the social or cultural context in which a newspaper report was written. More popular are the techniques of summarizing and structuring. The aim and result of summarizing is a condensed or shortened version of the original text material – like a summary of a story. The process of summarizing can be visualized by an isosceles triangle standing on its tip. Mayring provides several rules and advice for reducing text material, for deleting paraphrases identical in meaning, and for generalizing paraphrases and integrating them on a pre-defined level of abstraction. These sub-techniques resemble the macro operations known from cognitive psychology and linguistics. The final system of general phrases or sentences, i.e., the “condensed version” of the original text material, is then applied to the material again for “verification.”
The aim and result of the third technique of structuring is a structured cross-section of the original text material. The technique can be broken down into different subtypes. Mayring distinguishes between formal structuring, content structuring, scale structuring, and typification. Formal structuring means analyzing the text material, e.g., with syntactical or semantic criteria in mind, or identifying thematically related paragraphs and summarizing them. Content-bound structuring means filtering certain issues and aspects from the material and generalizing them – usually by starting with roughly defined categories or dimensions. This technique is quite similar to the empirical way of generating categories know from quantitative content analysis. Scale structuring means estimating the text material, e.g., on an ordinal scale that resembles the valence or intensity type of quantitative content analysis. Typification is a form of structuring that aims at prototypes or ideal types in the sense of Max Weber. Here, one focuses, e.g., on extreme aspects in the text material. By combining different dimensions or aspects, one obtains ideal types.
All four forms of structuring follow the same logic. First, one theoretically defines the criteria or dimensions of structuring. Then one defines the values of these dimensions, searches for examples in the text material, and formulates coding rules for categories. With this “raw” coding guide, one analyzes the text material and modifies the categories and values, examples, and coding rules. This procedure can be repeated several times until one obtains the final category system. There are some computer programs that have been specially developed for qualitative content analysis, which help to structure the text material and even allow for additional cluster analyses based on qualitative material.
Compared to other methods of qualitative text analysis, the Mayring version has three advantages. First, all techniques can be combined and modified for the purpose of the specific study. For instance, in a specific study one can summarize and generalize text material as a first step, and identify ideal types or prototypes based on this generalized material as a second step. Second, Mayring provides detailed rules, which help to keep research intersubjectively transparent as well as systematic, but still open and flexible enough in a truly qualitative sense. So, in contrast to, e.g., hermeneutics, the Mayring version of qualitative content analysis can be checked intersubjectively. Finally, the elements of other types of qualitative text analysis – such as categories from discourse analysis – can easily be integrated into Mayring’s structuring techniques. For instance, one can ask for anti-Semitic stereotypes when structuring transcripts, e.g., from parliamentary debates or when analyzing right-wing propaganda. But one can also use the results of summarizing or structuring techniques as a category system in a conventional code-book and apply them to a larger amount of material (e.g., many newspaper reports) in a quantitative content analysis.
Oevermann’s Version Of Qualitative Content Analysis
Mayring’s version of qualitative content analysis is at home in the social sciences. Oevermann and his colleagues developed objective hermeneutics as a version of qualitative content analysis from the perspective of the humanities or Geisteswissenschaften. Several concepts and terms are easier to understand if one keeps the origin of objective hermeneutics in mind – which is family therapy. In a narrow sense, Oevermann et al. (1979, 181–182) understand objective hermeneutics as a technique of interpreting transcripts of interaction, especially family talk. In a wider sense, objective hermeneutics is a technique for analyzing any kind of text or transcribed (communication) material.
The second part of the label “objective hermeneutics” reflects that this type of qualitative content analysis works hermeneutically. The first part of the label refers to the fact that each text represents a reality with an objective meaning structure. This objective meaning is detached from the speaker’s intentions (e.g., the intention of a mother in family interaction) as well as from the listener’s perception. Only in an ideal communication setting would all three fit perfectly. The difference between an objective meaning, on the one hand, and the intention of a subject speaking or the perception of a subject listening, on the other, is important. In this respect, objective hermeneutics follows Max Weber’s concept of ideal types. In his methodological study, however, Mathes (1988) emphasizes that intentions are often more important than any kind of objective meaning in communication research. Nevertheless, framing patterns in public discourse can be considered as some type of an “objective,” i.e., socially shared or common meaning. Thus, objective hermeneutics is not as far away from other methods of text analysis as it may seem at first sight.
Furthermore, objective hermeneutics calls for rules and standards as well, and claims to be a formalized, scientific technique of interpreting text material. Yet, these standards or rules are based on a different concept of “objectivity” than in social sciences and in quantitative methodology. All steps of interpretation in objective hermeneutics are undertaken by a team of three to seven researchers. Such teamwork aims at a discursive or consensual concept of “objectivity”: all researchers try to find the objective meaning by discussing all possible meanings. By contrast, quantitative content analysis calls for intersubjectivity, i.e., for documenting and explaining all steps (sampling, units, dimensions, categories, etc.) in order to allow replications by other researchers.
There are three main principles in objective hermeneutics. The first principle, extensive interpretation, affords collecting all possible interpretations of a text – even the unlikely ones. The second principle, complete interpretation, calls for considering even the smallest units of meaning. The third principle, sequential interpretation, calls for a process of eliminating alternative meanings by starting from one part of the interview transcript, observational protocol, etc., then moving to the next part of it, and so on. By this process, the structure of the transcribed communication emerges step-by-step. Different strategies serve to meet these principles. In the structural analysis, for instance, all available “objective” material, e.g., about the biographies of the interacting or communicating subjects, is collected. This is comparable to the exploration technique in Mayring’s version of qualitative content analysis, in some respects.
The core strategy of objective hermeneutics, however, is the “detail analysis,” which comprises two parts. The first part is reconstructing the communication figure as mentioned in the text and identifying the most likely objective meaning. The second part is making statements about structures, types, or pattern – for instance, about general social pattern in families. This is somewhat comparable to the structuring technique in Mayring’s version of qualitative content analysis. Both parts of the detail analysis decompose into different steps. Three of them are mentioned in the seminal publication by Oevermann et al. (1979). The first step is paraphrasing the meaning from the perspective of an ordinary reader. The second step is explicating the subjects’ possible intentions. The third step is explicating the objective structure, i.e., the motives and consequences of interaction or communication, which are represented in the text.
From an overall perspective, objective hermeneutics is certainly the more timeconsuming version of qualitative content analysis, and the one where teamwork does not meet the standard of intersubjectivity from the strict standpoint of social sciences. By contrast, Mayring’s version is closer to the general procedures of the social sciences and therefore is criticized by the proponents of qualitative methodology for being too close to quantitative methodology.
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