Three Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis

Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis


Content analysis is a widely used qualitative research technique. Rather than being a single method, current applications of content analysis show three distinct approaches: conventional, directed, or summative. All three approaches are used to interpret meaning from the content of text data and, hence, adhere to the naturalistic paradigm. 

The major differences among the approaches are coding schemes, origins of codes, and threats to trustworthiness. In conventional content analysis, coding categories are derived directly from the text data. With a directed approach, the analysis starts with a theory or relevant research findings as guidance for initial codes. 

Summative content analysis involves counting and comparisons, usually of keywords or content, followed by the interpretation of the underlying context. The authors delineate analytic procedures specific to each approach and techniques addressing trustworthiness with hypothetical examples drawn from the area of end-of-life care.

Content analysis is a research method that has come into wide use in health studies in recent years. A search of content analysis as a subject heading term in the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature produced more than 4,000 articles published between 1991 and 2002. The number of studies reporting the use of content analysis grew from only 97 in 1991 to 332 in 1997 and 601 in 2002. Researchers regard content analysis as a flexible method for analyzing text data (Cavanagh, 1997). 

The content analysis describes a family of analytic approaches ranging from impressionistic, intuitive, interpretive analyses to systematic, strict textual analyses (Rosengren, 1981). The specific type of content analysis approach chosen by a researcher varies with the theoretical and substantive interests of the researcher and the problem being studied (Weber, 1990). 

Although this flexibility has made content analysis useful for a variety of researchers, the lack of a firm definition and procedures has potentially limited the application of content analysis (Tesch, 1990). The differentiation of content analysis is usually limited to classifying it as primarily a qualitative versus quantitative research method. Amore's thorough analysis of the ways in which qualitative content analysis can be used would potentially illuminate key issues for researchers to consider in the design of studies purporting to use content analysis and the analytic procedures employed in such studies, thus avoiding a muddling of methods (Morse, 1991).

Background On The Development Of Content Analysis 

Content analysis has a long history in research, dating back to the 18th century in Scandinavia (Rosengren, 1981). In the United States, content analysis was first used as an analytic technique at the beginning of the 20th century (Barcus, 1959). Initially, researchers used content analysis as either a qualitative or quantitative method in their studies (Berelson, 1952). 

Later, content analysis was used primarily as a quantitative research method, with text data coded into explicit categories and then described using statistics. This approach is sometimes referred to as quantitative analysis of qualitative data (Morgan, 1993) and is not our primary focus in this article. More recently, the potential of content analysis as a method of qualitative analysis for health researchers has been recognized, leading to its increased application and popularity (Nandy & Sarvela, 1997).

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