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The Challenge of Qualitative

Content Analysis
BY SIEGFRIED KRACAUER
Quantitative analysis has many limitations. Siegfried Kracauer, formerly a prominent
In this paper, Siegfried Kracauer proposes journal editor in Germany, has published
that qualitative analysis may be a more fruit- widely in the field of communications research,
ful procedure in some stages of international He is presently completing a book on the
communications research. aesthetics of the film.
J_ HIS paper submits three propositions regarding the significance of
qualitative exegesis for communications research:
1. One-sided reliance on quantitative content analysis may lead to
a neglect of qualitative explorations, thus reducing the accuracy of
analysis.
2. The assumptions underlying quantitative analysis tend to pre-
clude a judicious appraisal of the important role which qualitative
considerations may play in communications research. H ence the need
for theoretical reorientation.
3. The potentialities of communications research can be developed
only if, as the result of such a reorientation, the emphasis is shifted from
quantitative to qualitative procedures.
QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS MAY REDUCE ACCURACY
Overemphasis on quantification tends to lessen the accuracy of
analysis. Content analysis is frequently obliged to isolate and process
the more intricate characteristics of a sample; and whenever this hap-
pens it runs the risk of treating them inadequately. Quantitative analyses
for example, commonly attempt to determine the "direction" of a com-
munication, i.e., the extent to which it is "for," "against," or "neutral"
in regard to a given subject. In such instances coding is often per-
formed on the basis of a graded scale which defines a continuum rang-
ing from "very favorable" to "very unfavorable," from "very optimistic"
to "very pessimistic," or the like. Some quantitative analysts admit, how-
ever, that despite such scales, direction "is not always easily analyzed

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632 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
in an objective fashion."
1
The actual rating of a given unit of the com-
munication on one or another step of the continuum still involves
qualitative considerations which may bear on the whole of the com-
munication. Unless the communication is a peculiarly one-dimensional
affair, these assessments require a great deal of circumspection and
delicacy. In quest of reliability, the quantitative analyst mayand fre-
quently doestherefore introduce elaborate directives, to permit se-
lected coders to arrive at highly reliable decisions. Such a breakdown of
a complex direction continuum into relatively elementary scales in-
evitably invites simplifications apt to blur the picture. They render
arbitrary, for example, the real gap between "very favorable" and
"favorable"; and they place under one uniform cover (e.g. "favorable"),
a great variety of treatments whose differences are perhaps highly rele-
vant to the purposes of the analysis.
At this point the objection may be raised that it is possible to attain
any degree of precise distinction by introducing sufficiently subtle scales
in sufficient number. Coders might be trained, for example, to dis-
tinguish between matter-of-fact neutralism and well-balanced neutral-
ism. Yet even the most refined tools of measurement may not enable
the analyst to reconstruct the direction of the original communications.
H is rigidly atomistic data are likely to preclude inferences as to the
way in which the data are interrelated. Significantly, it is this very
interrelationship which often contributes largely, and sometimes defini-
tively, to determine the direction of the overall text. Gestalt psychologist
or not, any literary critic knows that, due to their organization, com-
munications often move in a "direction" at variance with what a com-
puting of the directions of their elements would yield. In such cases
precise quantification, used alone, will actually encourage inaccurate
analysis.
Of course, it is theoretically conceivable diat the content analyst
might succeed in quantifying the interrelationships between the "plus"
and "minus" units of the communication, and so be enabled to measure
direction correctly. But such a procedure would necessarily involve
categories in such number and of so refined a nature that the incidence
of their use would often be minute. Since, with the decrease of sizable
1
Berelson, Bernard, Content Analysis in Communications Research, Glencoe, III.: The Free
Press, 1952, p. 151.

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QUALITATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS 633
frequencies, qualitative appraisals play a larger role in interpretation
anyway, there is no reason why such cumbersome quantitative tech-
niques should be preferred to qualitative exegesis proper. At best
they would lead, in a very roundabout way, to what the latter could
disclose without unnecessary complications. Quantitative analysts in
fact recognize the danger of "over-fine" categorization, and continually
caution against it. And yet to avoid it is to run the risk of oversimplify-
ing the more intricate characteristics of many communications.
Direction is by no means the only contextual characteristic which
resists a breakdown into easily countable components or even the de-
velopment of "indicators" that permit the unambiguous, let alone ex-
haustive, identification of such components. Suggested procedures are
often inadequate. Berelson, for example, suggests that "sophistication"
can be quantitatively analyzed by "the indicator of the amount of
qualifications appearing in the content ('on the other hand,' 'however,'
'although')."
2
Even granted that the indicator "qualification" is an
adequate index of the particular form of sophistication in the given
text (and certainly this could not be true for all texts), the number of
qualifications still need not indicate the degree of sophistication, which
might rather depend, for example, on the intrinsic nature of the qualifi-
cations themselves. The analyst might, of course, break down their
"nature" itself into quantifiable elements, but such a procedure would
lead straight to the dangerous complications already discussed.
Since most communications include intricate characteristics, and
since many of the hypotheses which prompt analysis cannot help
drawing on them, it would appear that many quantitative investiga-
tions include frequency counts which rest on uncertain ground. Yet
once the figures are secured from the material, they are as a rule taken
for granted; in fact, the analysis often uses them as a base for statistical
elaborations. Probabilities are calculated; correlations are established
and interpreted. Since these operations evolve on a mathematical plane
that is, without further recourse to the content analyzedit is possible
that their results are more inaccurate and oblique and less truly repre-
sentative of the communication than are the doubtful counts from
which they take root.
2
Ibid., p. 163.

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634 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
THE ASSUMPTIONS OF QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS PRECLUDE
QUALITATIVE CONSIDERATIONS
Among the assumptions underlying quantitative analysis two are
of special interest in that they tend to preclude a judicious appraisal of
the role which qualitative consideration might play.
There is first the basic assumption that, due to its quantifications
and counts, quantitative analysis is the only possible objective systematic
and reliable analysis of content. Many researchers consider this as
axiomatic.
3
The second assumption which is relevant restricts the mean-
ingful application of quantitative techniques to communications whose
manifest content does not lend itself to being interpreted in different
ways. Berelson, for example, proposes:
"If one imagines a continuum along which various communications are
placed depending upon the degree to which different members of the in-
tended audience get the same understandings from them, one might place
a simple news story on a train wreck at one end (since it is likely diat
every reader will get the same meanings from the content) and an obscure
modern poem at the other (since it is likely that no two readers will get
identical meanings from the cont ent ) . . . . The analysis of manifest content
is applicable to materials at the end of the continuum where understanding
is simple and direct, and not at the other. Presumably, there is a point on
the continuum beyond which the 'latency' of the content (i.e., the diversity
of its understanding in the relevant audience) is too great for reliable
analysis."*
These assumptions put communications research, particularly ap-
plied communications research, in an awkward position. While it may
be able to avoid obscure poems, it is much concerned with texts in
which latent meanings not only pervade the manifest content, but also
are intricately related to the objectives for which the analysis is under-
taken. Such latent elements may strongly resist quantification, and
occasionally the quantification is actually foregone. For example, the
Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University bases its
recent studies of communications habits along the Soviet periphery
on interviews which involve the respondents' total life to such an extent
8
Berelson, ibid., p. 171, states: "By definition, content analysis must be objective."
*lbid., pp. 19-20.

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QUALITATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS 635
that practically no word in the interview record is free of multiple con-
notations. Accordingly, the studies do not confine themselves to quanti-
tative measurements but also analyze, in purely qualitative terms, the
intrinsic essence of certain interviews, the possible significance of devi-
ant attitudes, etc. That these qualitative explorations are often touched
off by statistical accounts should not blind one to the cases in which
they expose unique characteristics without regard for frequencies and
the like. All in all, the nonquantitative part of the studies enjoys rela-
tive independence, in keeping with the character of both the interviews
and the various hypotheses bearing on them. Analysts of international
communications have likewise often found themselves in need of
qualitative procedures. When an area specialist, for example, is asked
to estimate the presumable effectiveness of certain themes and of the
devices employed to get them across, he is forced to focus on charac-
teristics and interrelations which it would be meaningless to count
because of their highly individual nature.
It is inevitable that the champions of quantitative analysis should
regard such nonquantitative explorations as precarious adventures in
uncontrollable intuition rather than procedures of verifiable research.
The common objection to these procedures is that they are "impres-
sionistic," "unobjective," and lacking in "verifiable evidence." Such
criticism follows logically from the basic assumptions of quantitative
analysis. But what about the assumptions themselves ?
THE ASSUMPTIONS EXAMINED
There is little doubt that quantitative analysis is meaningful if it
keeps to communications at the extreme end of the continuum defined
by descriptions of train wrecks and similar events. There intricate
characteristics hardly enter the picture; should such a category as
"direction" be needed at all, it would have to cover only the most
elementary pros and cons. And there frequency counts are of major
importance. Within this border region quantitative analysis is indeed
the only objective, systematic, and reliable procedure of analysis. (It
is not, however, necessarily exhaustive. If, for example, the content
is set in historical perspective, its "latency" will immediately increase
so that quantitative procedures no longer suffice to describe it ade-
quately.)
Yet quantitative analysis does not confine itself to inquiring

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636 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
into these extreme cases. It is often applied to content somewhere along
the continuum, content which, though not as obscure as the modern
poem, is nevertheless more involved and allusive than the reports at
the opposite pole. In addition, such investigations may seek to trace
attitudes and interests of population groups, to determine the psycho-
logical states of persons and groups, to discover stylistic featurespur-
poses which force the investigator to examine characteristics rarely
found in the train-wreck region.
But if quantitative analysis expands beyond the confines set up by
one of its underlying assumptionsthus running all the risks discussed
in the first section of this articlethen the other basic assumption that
it is the only objective and reliable analysis of content cannot be upheld
either. As currently practiced, quantitative analysis is more "impres-
sionistic" than its champions are inclined to admit. All of them, inci-
dentally, readily grant the need for qualitative reasoning in the initial
stages of category formation." They more rarely admit, however, that
the quantification processes themselves often require much conjecturing
which is not in actuality tied to objective, impersonal definitions.
A recent "quantitative" analysis of Voice of America and BBC
broadcasts classifies the "style" of contextual units as "matter-of-fact,"
"mildly emotional," and "highly emotional." Granted that this par-
ticular classification was labelled as experimental and the data as
merely suggestive, it is nevertheless significant that the quantitative
analysts made the classification "mainly with reference to value-laden
terms,"
6
the emotional intensity of which they attempted to assess. Cer-
tainly no procedure could be more impressionistic. In addition, quantifi-
cation by this particular indicator promotes a peculiarly fragmentary
view of style. For certainly the very absence of value-laden terms in,
for example, a sober announcement of the fall of a city, an army, or
an individual may constitute a "matter-of-factness" which is in effect
highly emotional.
The example is not unique. Numerous quantitative analyses are
8
Thus Berelson and Lazarsfeld suggest that the analyst try to formalize into categories his
"general subjective impressions" of the content, and that he then put the formulations aside
and later come back to them afresh (Bernard Berelson, and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, The Analysis
of Communication Content, New York: Bureau of Applied Social Research, 1948. Mimeo-
graphed, pp. 115-117).
6
Jahoda, Marie, and Joseph T. Klapper, "From Social Bookkeeping to Social Research," in
this issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, p. 623-630.

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QUALITATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS 637
similarly threaded with impressionistic judgments. And these judg-
ments may in fact be more unaccountable than those found in com-
munications studies of a predominantly qualitative nature. For within
the framework of quantitative analysis, qualitative exegesis is con-
demned to playing a black sheep role. Recognized mainly as a means
to arrive at suitable quantifications, its use in analysis proper is regarded
as shameful, and may in fact be pursued with guilty haste and lack of
discipline. This explains why the qualitative considerations on which
most content analysis studies must draw for classification so often fail
to penetrate the given text. Being no end in themselves, they threaten
to turn into opinion-laden short cuts. The reproach of impressionism
which determined quantitative analysts direct against nonquantitative
insight thus tends to boomerang. Quantitative analysis is in effect not
as objective and reliable as they believe it to be.
POTENTIALITIES OF THE QUALITATIVE APPROACH
Since quantitative analysis proves to be inadequate to describe
more involved communications, it would seem advisable to inquire
into the prospects of an analytical approach which emphasizes quali-
tative rather than quantitative procedures. Can we assume that such an
approach is more adequately descriptive ? And, if so, what of its scientific
relevance ? Will its "impressionism," its "inevitable lack of objectivity,"
nullify the advantages it may otherwise offer?
Before considering these questions it should be emphasized that
the terms "qualitative analysis" and "quantitative analysis" do not refer
to radically different approaches. Quantitative analysis includes quali-
tative aspects, for it both originates and culminates in qualitative con-
siderations. On the other hand, qualitative analysis proper often requires
quantification in the interest of exhaustive treatment. Far from being
strict alternatives the two approaches actually overlap, and have in
fact complemented and interpenetrated each other in several investi-
gations.
7
Qualitative analysis by definition differs from quantitative analysis
in that it achieves its breakdowns without special regard for frequencies.
What counts alone in qualitative analysisif the verb is permissible
7
E.g. the previously cited studies o communications behavior along the Soviet periphery;
also Lowenthal's study, "Biographies in Popular Magazines" and Arnheim's "World of the
Daytime Serial," Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Frank N. Stanton (editors), Radio Research 1942-^43,
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1944.

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638 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
in a context which defies countingis the selection and rational or-
ganization of such categories as condense the substantive meanings of
the given text, with a view to testing pertinent assumptions and hy-
potheses. These categories may or may not invite frequency counts.
In order to demonstrate the greater adequacy of qualitative analysis to
communications which exceed straight reporting, these two possibilities
will be dealt with separately.
QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS AND FREQUENCY COUNTS
In the case of categories which do invite frequency counts, there is
no real difference between the qualitative and quantitative approaches.
In theory, both might produce identical classifications. And yet the
odds are that the qualitative analyst will be the less inhibited of the
two in discovering countable characteristics. As Berelson points out,
qualitative studies usually focus not so much on the content of a com-
munication as rather on its underlying intentions or its presumable
effects on the audience; "quantitative analysis" on the other hand, "is
more likely to focus first upon the straight description of the content
itself, if for no other reason because of the amount of energy devoted
to the counting procedure."
8
The more involved communications, how-
ever, reverberate with so many latent meanings that to isolate their
manifest content and describe it in a "straight" manner is not only
almost impossible, but can hardly be expected to yield significant re-
sults. Such a focus on manifest content everywhere implies a naive
extension of the limits implicit in the assumption, per se legitimate, mat
quantitative techniques are meaningful at the train-wreck end of the
continuum. This explains why the qualitative analyst is in a better
position than the quantifier to trace relevant characteristics which admit
of frequency counts. Free of any biasing prepossession with manifest
content, the qualitative analyst explores the whole of the content in
quest of important categories. And since he devotes all his energies to
this quest, he stands a good chance of coming inadvertently across
frequency categories which might have eluded his grasp had he been
preoccupied with quantifications at the outset. People often find in
passing the very things they have sought in vain.
Examples bearing out these observations are extremely rare be-
8
Berelson, opxit,, p. 122.

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QUALITATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS 639
cause practically no texts have been subjected to independent analyses
of both the quantitative and qualitative type. It is perhaps relevant,
however, to note that although quantitative analyses have occasionally
attempted to employ categories dealing, at least experimentally, with
presumed effects, such categories have dealt almost exclusively with
manifest aspects of atomistic units of the texts. The previously cited
category of "style" in international communications is a case in point.
Qualitative analyses of similar material have also framed quantifiable
categories dealing with the "structure" of the text as a whole, i.e., the
linkage, manifest or latent, which makes the atomistic units a Gestalt.
Such freedom to seek and use quantifiable categories of latent content
has, at least to date, been almost exclusively characteristic of qualitative
exegesis.
Thus qualitative analysis steals a march over quantitative analysis
in fields common to bothi.e., in regard to categories which do invite
frequency counts. But by virtue of its ability to use non-quantifiable
frequencies, qualitative exegesis also penetrates textual dimensions
which are completely inaccessible to quantitative techniques. An ex-
ample of the limitations placed on quantitative analysis may be found
in Berelson's statement that "Whenever one word or one phrase is as
'important' as the rest of the content taken together, quantitative analy-
sis would not apply."
9
Qualitative exegesis would; and it would make
its breakdowns hinge on this one word or one phrase. As a case in
point, let us suppose that an international communicator wished to
ascertain whether his texts evidenced respect for the audience. A good
indicator of this characteristic, though certainly not the only one, is the
way in which the communicator refers to his listeners. It is immediately
evident, however, that neither the relative number of laudatory and
critical references, nor distinctions between "moderate" and "excessive"
praise or blame will give any valid picture of the degree of esteem in
which the audience is actually held. Frequency counts will reveal the
amount of different modes of praise or blame, but since any mode may
spring from various psychological sources, the counts are unlikely to
yield information about the characteristic "respect" itself. The absence
or presence of respect could obviously be better inferred from the
manner in which the positive and/or negative references to the audi-
Ibid., p. 30.

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640 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
ence are interwoven; recognizable patterns of reference would no
doubt appear in the communication. Qualitative exegesis would attempt
to bare these patterns and assess their presumable significance for the
characteristic under consideration. This particular task would be facili-
tated by the common awareness that certain familiar patterns of inter-
woven praise and/or censure"ideal types" in Max Weber's senseare
symptomatic of respectful or disrespectful conduct. For instance, a
balanced mixture of friendly approval and frank censure, both being
voiced on fitting occasions, would clearly indicate that the communi-
cator is treating his audience as he would a friend or peer; conversely,
a pattern of abrupt alternation between extreme praise and harsh criti-
cisms or threats would indicate that the communicator was bluntly
trying to manipulate the minds of his audience, which in turn would
indicate his low opinion of their independence and dignity. It is par-
ticularly to be noted that one single instance of such a configuration of
statements would suffice to color the entire communication. In reference
to such characteristics, frequency counts are of little relevance. What is
relevant are the patterns, the wholes, which can be made manifest by
qualitative exegesis and which can throw light upon a textual charac-
teristic which is allergic to quantitative breakdowns.
Unlike quantitative techniques, which draw guiltily upon hasty
and incomplete impressionistic judgments, qualitative analysis is frankly
and resolutely impressionistic. And it is precisely because of its resolute
impressionism, that qualitative analysis may attain to an accuracy which
quantitative techniques, with their undercurrent of impressionistic
short cuts, cannot hope to achieve. Carrying its explorations beyond the
point at which many content analysis investigations prematurely stop, as
if fearful of drifting too far from the secure haven of statistics, qualita-
tive exegesis is indeed capable of classifications and descriptions which
conform far more closely to the texts than those commonly produced
by quantitative analysis.
The relative capabilities and limits of these two approaches are
nowhere better manifested than in the frequent failure of full-blown
quantitative studies to achieve the brilliant promise of their pilot or
exploratory stages. The pioneering steps, performed on a small sample,
invite attention to unique traits which are perhaps manifest in only
one single configuration of statements. The insight into wholes which
these unique patterns provide gives rise to observations and hypotheses

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QUALITATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS 641
of unusually rich relevance. The pilot study is, in fact, a model of
qualitative exactitude and circumspection. But in the fuller study which
follows, the development and testing of these rich hypotheses is en-
trusted to systematic quantification, in which both infrequencies are
deemphasized, and the original overtly impressionistic and accurate
insights are not developed for lack of the very spirit in which they
were conceived.
DISCIPLINED SUBJECTIVITY
One might ask, of course, whether the superior precision attained
by qualitative procedures is not bought at too high a price. For it is true
that qualitative analysis, being inevitably subjective, cannot ascertain
the accuracy and validity of its findings in the manner of an exact
science. One and the same topic may invite different qualitative ap-
praisals of almost equal plausibility; and no accumulation of evidence
will determine, in an objective way, which is closer to truth. But
though there is no objective truth in this field, the lack of it does not
entail lawlessness; qualitative analysis is not a discipline that admits
arbitrary speculations. The believers in exact science among the social
scientists are inclined to exaggerate, along with the objectivity of quan-
titative analysis, the dangers which qualitative techniques incur because
of their subjectivity. Any historical period produces only a limited
number of major philosophical doctrines, moral trends and aesthetic
preferences, and if qualitative analysis operates, as it should, below the
level of sheer opinion, these influences can be discerned and controlled.
Moreover, communications which are sufficiently outspoken to canalize
the imagination usually prove a powerful factor in bringing about a
convergence of viewpoints and approaches. It is therefore a reasonable
guess that different analysts will arrive at similar conclusions with
regard to many texts. An experiment to test the guess is now being
designed.
Finally, one may legitimately ask whether communications re-
search, as such, should really try to match exact science. Documents
which are not simply agglomerations of facts participate in the process
of living, and every word in them vibrates with die intentions in which
they originate and simultaneously foreshadows the indefinite effects
they may produce. Their content is no longer their content if it is
detached from the texture of intimations and implications to which it

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642 PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1952-53
belongs and taken literally; it exists only with and within this texture
a still fragmentary manifestation of life, which depends upon response
to evolve its properties. Most communications are not so much fixed
entities as ambivalent challenges. They challenge the reader or the
analyst to absorb them and react to them. Only in approaching these
wholes with his own whole being will the analyst be able both to dis-
cover and determine their meaningor one of their meaningsand
thus help them to fulfill themselves. Far from being an obstacle, sub-
jectivity is in effect indispensable for the analysis of materials which
vanish before our eyes when subjected to a treatment confounding
them with dead matter. Quantitative analysis is not free of such nihilistic
influence. Many quantitative investigations in effect mark the spot
where a misplaced desire for objectivity has failed to reveal the inner
dynamics of an atomized content.
One final suggestion: a codification of the main techniques used
in qualitative analysis would be desirable.

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