Using a Computer to Code in Content Analysis

This section assumes that the documents to be coded are available in a word processing format such as WordPerfect and that coding proceeds with the computer program called Textbase Alpha. Textbase Alpha was designed for the analysis of qualitative data, but it was not specifically oriented toward traditional content analysis. However, it is simple to use, and it performs the basic content analysis tasks. (The distinction between qualitative analysis programs and content analysis programs is described in appendix I.) There are seven steps to coding such documents.

  1. Edit the documents with the word processor. While content analysis programs ordinarily have a text editor function, these are usually primitive; some analysis programs require that margins have particular settings and other special formats. With Textbase Alpha, a feature called “prestructured coding” can be used to some advantage. Suppose a document contains a series of paragraphs, each a response to an opemended question on a mail-out interview. Pressing a Textbase Alpha function key automatically codes the paragraphs with appropriate labels such as Question 1, Question 2, and so on, so that they can be retrieved or counted by their labels. For prestructured coding to work, the first word of each paragraph must be the label and the paragraph must have a hanging indent.
  2. Create an ASCII file with the word processor. It is usually necessary to strip away the word processor’s formatting codes by saving the file as an ASCII file. Content analysis programs can import ASCII files. In the Textbase Alpha example, WordPerfect must be used to create the ASCII file.
  3. Start the content analysis program and import the ASCII data files. Content analysis programs follow more-or-less standard procedures for starting and importing files. Some programs require that text lines be numbered; some do this automatically and other require a separate step. In the Textbase Alpha program, the coder imports the ASCII files. Lines are numbered by clicking on a Textbase Alpha menu choice.
  1. Attach codes to text segments. This involves marking the boundaries of each segment and inserting a code. With most programs, a segment starts at the beginning of a line and ends at the fine’s end. If a sentence starts or ends in the middle of a fine, the whole line is marked. With some programs, codes are first inserted manually and then keyed into the computer. With all programs, this two-stage process is an option. Textbase Alpha is unusual in that a segment can begin or end in the middle of a fine. Boundaries are marked according to cursor position, and codes are entered in a data entry box at the bottom of the screen. The coder simply moves the cursor through the text, stopping where necessary to attach codes to segments.
  2. Analyze the data. Coding in effect creates a database of categorical variables. All content analysis programs have some ability to manipulate and display them. Usually the database can also be exported for further analysis with a statistical program. Textbase Alpha can calculate code frequencies for all documents or for selected documents. Individual documents can be labeled with up to 15 variables like socioeconomic factors, coder name, date, and so on.

It can also count words without coding them. (We discuss data analysis at some length in chapter 5.)

  1. Print the results. The printouts for most programs have limited flexibility. However, the results can usually be exported to a word processor for editing. In our Textbase Alpha example, the results of analysis can be either printed or written to a WordPerfect file that can be opened later.
  2. Export the results. Most content analysis programs can create ASCII files so that the results can be exported either to a word processing program for editing and subsequent incorporation into a report or to a statistical program for further analysis. Some programs can export files specifically for standard statistical packages such as SPSS. Textbase Alpha can construct files for display and for statistical analysis in programs such as SPSS.

Source: GAO (2013), Content Analysis: A Methodology for Structuring and Analyzing Written Material: PEMD-10.3.1, BiblioGov.

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