This section pulled entirely from W.M.K. Trochim’s Unobtrusive Measures: Content Analysis.

Content analysis is the analysis of text documents. The analysis can be quantitative, qualitative or both. Typically, the major purpose of content analysis is to identify patterns in text. Content analysis is an extremely broad area of research. It includes:

A. Thematic analysis of text

The identification of themes or major ideas in a document or set of documents. The documents can be any kind of text including field notes, newspaper articles, technical papers or organizational memos.

B. Indexing

There are a wide variety of automated methods for rapidly indexing text documents. For instance, Key Words in Context (KWIC) analysis is a computer analysis of text data. A computer program scans the text and indexes all key words. A key word is any term in the text that is not included in an exception dictionary. Typically you would set up an exception dictionary that includes all non-essential words like “is”, “and”, and “of”. All key words are alphabetized and are listed with the text that precedes and follows it so the researcher can see the word in the context in which it occurred in the text. In an analysis of interview text, for instance, one could easily identify all uses of the term “abuse” and the context in which they were used.

C. Quantitative descriptive analysis

Here the purpose is to describe features of the text quantitatively. For instance, you might want to find out which words or phrases were used most frequently in the text. Again, this type of analysis is most often done directly with computer programs.

Content analysis has several problems you should keep in mind. First, you are limited to the types of information available in text form. If you are studying the way a news story is being handled by the news media, you probably would have a ready population of news stories from which you could sample. However, if you are interested in studying people’s views on capital punishment, you are less likely to find an archive of text documents that would be appropriate. Second, you have to be especially careful with sampling in order to avoid bias. For instance, a study of current research on methods of treatment for cancer might use the published literature as the population. This would leave out both the writing on cancer that did not get published for one reason or another as well as the most recent work that has not yet been published. Finally, you have to be careful about interpreting results of automated content analyses. A computer program cannot determine what someone meant by a term or phrase. It is relatively easy in a large analysis to misinterpret a result because you did not take into account the subtleties of meaning.

However, content analysis has the advantage of being unobtrusive and, depending on whether automated methods exist, can be a relatively rapid method for analyzing large amounts of text.


Part 1: Documents Describing the Method

IFRC. Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment Toolbox. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. October 1996. Accessible here.

IFRC. How to conduct a food security assessment: A step-by-step guide for National Societies in Africa. 2nd Edition. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. 2006. Accessible here.

UNHCR. A Community-based approach in UNHCR operations, First Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. January 2008.Accessible here.

Part 2: Documents Utilizing the Method

CRSProject LISTEN Evaluation Report/Case Study. Catholic Relief Services Malawi and USAID. May 2007. Accessible here.

IFRC. Alexander, Jessica. Emergency Shelter Cluster Review: Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. April 2009. Accessible here.

UNHCR. Shelter from the storm: A real-time evaluation of UNHCR’s response to the emergency in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Policy Development and Evaluation Service (UNCHR PDES). Geneva, Switzerland. June 2011. Accessible here.


Spiers, J.A. “Tech Tips: Using Video Management/Analysis Technology in Qualitative Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2004. Accessible here.