Seminar 9: Content and Discourse Analysis

Content and Discourse analysis methods are used throughout social science. They involve in depth engagement with content – words, images, film etc. or discourse – linguistic interactions that seek to establish and advance meaning. These approaches can be useful for both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and can be an appropriate methodological approach for a vast range of research questions. Guest seminar with Muireann O’Dwyer.

The Philosophy of Content and Discourse Analysis

Understanding the application of content and discourse analysis requires firstly an appreciation of the relationship of language to reality. Depending on your epistemological standpoint, the type of questions you can ask of content or discourse can vary. More positivist approaches can identify prominent, or absent, ideas from content analysis, and can explore the ways that norms are established and enforced through discourse. More constructivist approaches involve an appreciation of the role of content and discourse in shaping the very reality under examination. Further, for political scientists, it is crucial to appreciate the relationship between language (content and discourse) and power dynamics.

Meaning in content can be described as a manifest or latent. Manifest meaning is easily observed – and can be essentially “read” from the text. For example, salience of an issue can be examined by identifying the frequency of reference, the location of the references and the connection to other salient topics. Latent meaning can not be so easily “read” from the text. Latent meaning is the meaning that is embedded within the content or the discourse, the underlying normative assumptions, the establishment of categories or boundaries, and the implicit subjects and objects of the text (or other content).

Berg describes content analysis as “a passport to listening to the words of the text, and understanding better the perspectives of the producer of those words” (Berg 2001 : 242) This description captures the way in which we can use an analysis of content to understand our cases, or processes under study. Content analysis allows the research to systematically study the available date – it is this systematic nature of the analysis that allows for the testing of theoretically based hypotheses or claims, and also brings validity to the methodology.

Some Examples

Content and discourse analysis can be used in various areas of social and political science. It has been used to examine the way that gender equality is understood within the EU (Lombardo and Meier 2006), in studying political manifestos (Laver and Garry 2000) and in examining the role of the media in economic crises (Mercille 2014). Content and discourse analyses are therefore not limited by subject matter, but rather are chosen based on the research question, the research design and the data available.

The coding scheme used in content analysis will reflect your theoretical framework. It is from that framework that you will develop observable implications of the theory, which can then be tested against the content or discourse. For example, working within a Foucauldian framework would lead to asking how truth is constructed in a text, who or what is included or excluded, what identities are at play and what is being normalised or problematized.

An important aspect of choosing this methodology is data management. It is important to ensure you can access a sufficient and suitable data, and that you keep a clear and consistent record of your data, and of your analysis. Coding schemes, as well as the actual coded documents should be retained, and if possible published along with your research, either as an appendix or as an online addition. This enhances the validity of your research and demonstrates again the systematic nature of the approach.


Berg,   Bruce L. 2001. Ch 11 “Content Analysis” in Qualitative Research Methods, 4th ed. London: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, pg 238-268

Gee, J. P. (2014). Chs. 1 and 2 “Introduction” and “What Is Discourse Analysis” An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method, 4th Ed. Routledge, pp. 1-29.

Krippendorf, K. (1980). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications

Laver, M., & Garry, J. (2000). Estimating policy positions from political texts.American Journal of Political Science, 619-634.

Lombardo, E., & Meier, P. (2006). Gender Mainstreaming in the EU Incorporating a Feminist Reading?. European Journal of Women’s Studies,13(2), 151-166.

Mercille, J. (2014). The role of the media in sustaining Ireland’s housing bubble.New Political Economy19(2), 282-301.




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