Traditionally, content analysis has most often been thought of in terms of conceptual analysis. In conceptual analysis, a concept is chosen for examination, and the analysis involves quantifying and tallying its presence. Also known as thematic analysis [although this term is somewhat problematic, given its varied definitions in current literature--see Palmquist, Carley, & Dale (1997) vis-a-vis Smith (1992)], the focus here is on looking at the occurrence of selected terms within a text or texts, although the terms may be implicit as well as explicit. While explicit terms obviously are easy to identify, coding for implicit terms and deciding their level of implication is complicated by the need to base judgments on a somewhat subjective system. To attempt to limit the subjectivity, then (as well as to limit problems of reliability and validity), coding such implicit terms usually involves the use of either a specialized dictionary or contextual translation rules. And sometimes, both tools are used--a trend reflected in recent versions of the Harvard and Lasswell dictionaries.
Methods of Conceptual Analysis
Conceptual analysis begins with identifying research questions and choosing a sample or samples. Once chosen, the text must be coded into manageable content categories. The process of coding is basically one of selective reduction. By reducing the text to categories consisting of a word, set of words or phrases, the researcher can focus on, and code for, specific words or patterns that are indicative of the research question.
An example of a conceptual analysis would be to examine several Clinton speeches on health care, made during the 1992 presidential campaign, and code them for the existence of certain words. In looking at these speeches, the research question might involve examining the number of positive words used to describe Clinton's proposed plan, and the number of negative words used to describe the current status of health care in America. The researcher would be interested only in quantifying these words, not in examining how they are related, which is a function of relational analysis. In conceptual analysis, the researcher simply wants to examine presence with respect to his/her research question, i.e. is there a stronger presence of positive or negative words used with respect to proposed or current health care plans, respectively.
Once the research question has been established, the researcher must make his/her coding choices with respect to the eight category coding steps indicated by Carley (1992).