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Content analysis is a set of methods for systematically coding and analyzing qualitative data. These methods are used across the social sciences and the humanities to explore explicit and covert meanings in text—also called manifest and latent content—and for testing hypotheses about texts. Whether the research task is exploratory or confirmatory, content analysis is usually quantitative analysis (box 19.3).

BOX 19.3


When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, the U.S. Government Communications Commission began monitoring short-wave radio broadcasts from Germany. Analysts established 14 major propaganda themes in the Nazi media. In 1942, the U.S. Department of Justice accused William Dudley Pelley of sedition, claiming that Pelley was publishing pro-Nazi propaganda while the United States was at war with Germany.

The government asked independent coders to classify 1,240 items in Pelley's publications as belonging or not belonging to one of those 14 Nazi propaganda themes. Harold Lasswell, a political scientist and expert in propaganda analysis, testified that 1,195 of the items (96.4%) ''were consistent with and suggested copying from the German propaganda themes'' (United States v. Pelley 1942). Pelley was convicted. The conviction was upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the admissibility in court of evidence based on this simple method of content analysis was established (Goldsen 1947).

Content analysis doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Maxine Margolis (1984) did ethnohistorical research on the changing images of women in the United States. She used the Ladies Home Journal, from 1889 to 1980, as an archival database, and asked a simple question: Do ads in the Ladies’ Home Journal for household products show homemakers or servants using those products?

From historical data, Margolis knew that the large pool of cheap servant labor in U.S. cities—labor that had been driven there by the Industrial Revolution—was in decline by about 1900. The readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal in those days were middle-class women who were accustomed to employing household servants. Margolis’s counts showed clearly the transformation of the middle-class homemaker from an employer of servants to a direct user of household products.

Margolis took a random sample of her database (2 years per decade of the magazine, and 2 months per year, for a total of 36 magazines), but she did not have to devise a complex tagging scheme. She simply looked for the presence or absence of a single, major message. It is very unlikely that Margolis could have made a mistake in coding the ads she examined. Servants are either portrayed in the ad, or they aren’t. So, by defining a nominal variable, and one that is easily recognized, Margolis was able to do a content analysis that added an interesting dimension to her historical ethnographic work on changing images of middle-class urban women.

‘‘Texts’’ don’t have to be made of words for content analysis. The Codex Borgia is one of just a few surviving books from ancient Mesoamerica. Written in pictographs, it documents, in beautiful, gory detail, the ceremonies and gods associated with each day of the 260 days in the ancient Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There were three great civilizations in ancient Mexico: one centered in Teotihuacan, in the central valley,one in Oaxaca, centered in Monte Alban, and the Mayan civilization, which occupied a huge area from southern Mexico to Honduras. The Codex Borgia was painted in Mixtec style—that is, the style from Oaxaca—but the iconography of the Borgia is widely regarded as Nahua— that is, from the central valley. Which raises the question: Who painted the Borgia? It couldn’t have been a Maya, but was it a Nahua or a Mixtec?

John Paddock (1985) noticed that while the focus of the Codex Borgia is on the gods and their associated ceremonies, that of another Mixtec document, the Codex Nuttall, is on events associated with noble families. But both codices have something in common: really gory depictions of human sacrifice—the kind that involved bending the victim over a large, round rock, so that his feet and head were lower than his chest, and then extracting his heart with a flint blade (Paddock 1985:362).

Paddock coded and counted. There are 126 scenes of sacrifice per 100 pages in the Borgia versus 19 per 100 in the Nuttall. In fact, says Paddock, ‘‘Borgia drags in blood where it is only remotely appropriate” (Paddock 1985:66) and appears to celebrate human sacrifice, whereas the other Mixtec codices seem to deplore it. What’s going on?

The Nahua-speaking peoples (the last of whom were the Aztecs) probably came to the Valley of Mexico around 600 a.d., toward the end of the Teotihuacan civilization. Comparing the art of Teotihuancan and that of the Mayans, Paddock notes the absence in Teotihuacan period art, anywhere in Mexico, of violent military scenes. The spread of the Teotihuacan civilization appears to have been the result more of trade than of conquest.

Tezcatlipoca is a fearsome, bloodthirsty god, and a central deity in Borgia, but he doesn’t appear in Oaxaca until after the Aztec invasion in the mid-15th century c.E. Paddock argues that the patron of the Codex Borgia was a Nahua high priest at a large, wealthy center who had a Mixtec painter in his employ and who told the Mixtec painter what to put into the codex. ‘‘If the painter was too dainty with the blood,’’ says Paddock, he would be corrected. If he showed it too prominently for the patron’s taste, he would hear about that’’ (Paddock 1985:378). And if he knew what was good for him—if he wanted to stay alive—he did exactly what his patron asked of him.

Content analysis is easily applied to film, Cowan and O’Brien (1990) wanted to know, for example, whether men or women in slasher films were more likely to be survivors, and what other personal characteristics accounted for those who got axed and those who lived. The corpus of text in this case was 56 slasher movies.

These movies contained a total of 474 victims, who were coded for gender and survival. Conventional wisdom about slasher films holds that victims are mostly women and slashers are mostly men. Although slashers in these films were, in fact, mostly men, it turned out that victims were equally likely to be women or men. Surviving as a female slasher victim, however, was strongly associated with the absence of sexual behavior and with being less physically attractive than nonsurviving women. The male nonsurvivors were cynical, egotistical, and dictatorial. Cowan and O’Brien conclude that, in slasher films, sexually pure women survive and that “unmitigated masculinity’’ ends in death (1990:195).

The methodological issues associated with content analysis are all evident here. Does the sample of 56 films used by Cowan and O’Brien justify generalizing to slasher films in general? Did the coders who worked on the project make correct judgments in deciding things like the physical attractiveness of female victims or the personality and behavioral characteristics of the male victims? These two issues in particular, sampling and coding, are at the heart of content analysis. (For content analysis of young adults’ reactions to slasher films, see Nolan and Ryan 2000.)

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