Content Analysis

Issues of Reliability & Validity

The issues of reliability and validity are concurrent with those addressed in other research methods. The reliability of a content analysis study refers to its stability, or the tendency for coders to consistently re-code the same data in the same way over a period of time; reproducibility, or the tendency for a group of coders to classify categories membership in the same way; and accuracy, or the extent to which the classification of a text corresponds to a standard or norm statistically. Gottschalk (1995) points out that the issue of reliability may be further complicated by the inescapably human nature of researchers. For this reason, he suggests that coding errors can only be minimized, and not eliminated (he shoots for 80% as an acceptable margin for reliability).

On the other hand, the validity of a content analysis study refers to the correspondence of the categories to the conclusions, and the generalizability of results to a theory.

The validity of categories in implicit concept analysis, in particular, is achieved by utilizing multiple classifiers to arrive at an agreed upon definition of the category. For example, a content analysis study might measure the occurrence of the concept category "communist" in presidential inaugural speeches. Using multiple classifiers, the concept category can be broadened to include synonyms such as "red," "Soviet threat," "pinkos," "godless infidels" and "Marxist sympathizers." "Communist" is held to be the explicit variable, while "red," etc. are the implicit variables.

The overarching problem of concept analysis research is the challenge-able nature of conclusions reached by its inferential procedures. The question lies in what level of implication is allowable, i.e. do the conclusions follow from the data or are they explainable due to some other phenomenon? For occurrence-specific studies, for example, can the second occurrence of a word carry equal weight as the ninety-ninth? Reasonable conclusions can be drawn from substantive amounts of quantitative data, but the question of proof may still remain unanswered.

This problem is again best illustrated when one uses computer programs to conduct word counts. The problem of distinguishing between synonyms and homonyms can completely throw off one's results, invalidating any conclusions one infers from the results. The word "mine," for example, variously denotes a personal pronoun, an explosive device, and a deep hole in the ground from which ore is extracted. One may obtain an accurate count of that word's occurrence and frequency, but not have an accurate accounting of the meaning inherent in each particular usage. For example, one may find 50 occurrences of the word "mine." But, if one is only looking specifically for "mine" as an explosive device, and 17 of the occurrences are actually personal pronouns, the resulting 50 is an inaccurate result. Any conclusions drawn as a result of that number would render that conclusion invalid.

The generalizability of one's conclusions, then, is very dependent on how one determines concept categories, as well as on how reliable those categories are. It is imperative that one defines categories that accurately measure the idea and/or items one is seeking to measure. Akin to this is the construction of rules. Developing rules that allow one, and others, to categorize and code the same data in the same way over a period of time, referred to as stability, is essential to the success of a conceptual analysis. Reproducibility, not only of specific categories, but of general methods applied to establishing all sets of categories, makes a study, and its subsequent conclusions and results, more sound. A study which does this, i.e. in which the classification of a text corresponds to a standard or norm, is said to have accuracy.

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