The term content analysis broadly describes a wide-ranging and diverse domain of techniques designed to describe and explicate a communication or series of communications in a systematic, objective, and quantitative manner. In many ways, the data of most common types of content analyses resemble those obtained in open-ended, exploratory interviews. The exploratory interview imposes no restraints on the questions of the interviewer or the allowable responses of the participant. The researcher has little or no control over the stimuli giving rise to the specific response or the particular form in which the response is framed. Similarly, in most content analyses, the investigator is concerned with a communication that (a) was not elicited by some systematic set of questions chosen by the analyst, (b) probably does not contain all the information he or she would like it to contain, and (c) is almost invariably stated in a manner not easily codified and analyzed. In both research contexts, the interview or content analysis, the investigator must transform these qualitative unstructured messages into useful data for scientific, quantitative analysis.
The research challenge posed by such data is daunting. The dependence of social scientists on the outcome of the communication process as the basic data component of their discipline is readily apparent. Almost every social investigation involves the study of some form of communication. Contrast this with the typical datum of the chemist, physicist, or even physiological psychologist, and the unique dependence of the social scientist on communication and the communication process becomes apparent. Given the role of communication as a major component of social research, it should not prove surprising that many social scientists should specialize in research focused on the communication process per se. Of course, investigation of the total process of communication is quite complicated, calling for, as one classic formula has stated, consideration of “who says what, to whom, how, and with what effect” (Lasswell, Lerner, & Pool, 1952, p. 12). Usually the social researcher focuses on only one or two of the components of this question. The content analyst, although concerned with all of these variables, is particularly interested in the what and the how of the process, that is, with the particular content of a message and the particular manner in which this content is delivered or expressed.