Examples of Content Analysis

Content analysis is a method of research that examines the contents of media to find trends and themes within the topic being studied.  Traditionally, a source may be focused around the research topic, such as a book or film, or be more general with a focused element, such as a news article. The ubiquity of the constant and neigh-instantaneous access of information the Internet provides has made content analysis easier and has also expanded the media that can be analyzed.  Online forums and social media have turned informal social interactions into analyzable records that previously would have required an ethnographer to spend months to years studying and interacting with a group of people.  The following two articles discussed are examples of what content analysis looks like in the digital age.

Internet forums are a predecessor to what we understand as social media today. Instead of a constant feed of post and information, forums are organized with varying levels of specificity that can provide a more in-depth and long term look at the community around a particular topic. In Keeping it In “The Family”, Dr. Gina Longo studied how people discussed and advised on transnational marriages on the Immigration Pathway’s regional forums.  She was seeking to understand how community members in these forums defined red flags in a transnational relationship to determine if it was genuine (romantic) or fraudulent (just so the immigrating partner could obtain a green card).  The focus was on two regional forums: the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) forum and the Belarus/Russia/Ukraine (BRU) forum since those two had the highest proportion of threads about red flags. Longo lurked on the forums for two years – or as she phrased it “ethnographic immersion… as a bystander” (2018:475) – analyzing member’s post to understand the “what, how, and why” of their stories. The key difference between the members of each forum was that MENA primarily had American women asking for advice on MENA men while BRU had American men asking for advice on BRU women. Dr. Longo found that the ideology and expectations of “the hegemonic family” in America were present in the gender and sexual double standards present in how members of the MENA and BRU forums judged marriages to be “genuine” for immigration purposes (2018:471).

“Women’s sexuality and gender differentially structure the process of negotiating red flags for men and women petitioners, and the right to confer citizenship. This provides sexual privileges to men citizens, allowing them to use their sexual pursuit of young, desirable, foreign women to prove their manhood to peers while bestowing their citizenship status more freely upon their chosen mates. However, women citizens with the same intentions are considered desperate fools, incapable of controlling their emotions or the border. Consequently, their relationships appear more suspect and in need of policing” (Longo 2018:487).

Behaviors that were red flags for women on the MENA forum were seen as normal or acceptable for men on the BRU forum.   Examples that Longo highlighted in her article are short courtships, fertility/virility, sending money, and sexual interest.  The only congruous point on these issues with fertility/virility as it is ok for men to be older in a relationship but not women in either forum.

The other article analyzes how digital feminists have used the Internet to “challenge the rape culture they experience in their everyday lives” (Keller, Mendes, and Ringrose 2018:22).  Rape culture consists of many elements that serve to objectify and subordinate female sexuality, ranging from policing of women’s bodies and clothing to street harassment to sexual assault. In Speaking “Unspeakable Things,” Drs. Keller, Mendes, and Ringrose used the anti-street harassment website, Hollaback!, and the social media platform Twitter for their analysis of how women and girls speak about their experiences with rape culture.  On Hollaback!, they read through stories of street harassment that entailed highly sexualized comments, the witnessing of obscene gestures, being followed/blocked/corners, or being leered at (Keller et al. 2018:26). On Twitter, they followed the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported and interviewed some of the teenage activists there.  They found that the use of social media platforms made the issue of rape culture more visible and outlines a new method of mediation and connection for the women and girls to communicate their experiences.

Both of these studies worked to capture the nature of the online communities analyzed and how they communicate about the respective research topics.  Keeping It In “The Family” shows how forum members discuss their ideologies on what transnational relationships should look like. Women on the MENA forum express protectionism and caution, warning newcomers about be wary of MENA men looking to take advantage of “desperate” women.  On the other hand, men on the BRU forum demonstrate ideas about masculine power and control over female bodies with one member stating that “looking for love” isn’t necessary when looking for “a wife, concubine or whatever” (Longo 2018:478).  Speaking “Unspeakable Things” provides multiple examples of how some women and girls found being able to discuss rape culture via Twitter had provided an important outlet. One interviewee credited the “solidarity and support [found on Twitter had given] her the strength and power to report her rape to her campus security” (Keller et al. 2018:29).  In collecting their data, Keller, Mendes, and Ringrose discovered another element within the content of Twitter as they found a high number of teenaged feminist activists on the social media platform.

Each of these studies provides different looks into how to interpret and reason with the content being analyzed.  Longo uses an inductive method by experiencing the lingo or jargon used by the members of the forums and turning those phrases into quantifiables instances. What particular themes and the associate ideologies and behaviors would be expressed by the forum members is not something Dr. Longo would necessarily have know going into the study.  The method used by Keller, Mendes, and Ringrose appears to be deductive when analyzing Hollaback! at least since particular street harassment behaviors, such as obscene gestures or highly sexualized comments, are more likely to be known variables. They could have had an idea of how they were going to group and quantize the stories and other content they read.

As I am relatively new to content analysis, there is nothing I would do any different in these studies. As presented, each article appeared to have a solid grasp on the topics they presented.  There are potential areas where information could have either been added to these studies or form a basis for further study.  Longo’s study could be expanded to examine degrees or kinds of “other” that occurs in the forums in regards to the transnational partner in the relationships being discussed.  MENA men are treated as potential sexual or financial predators while BRU women are viewed as objectified bodies.  For Keller’s, Mendes’s, and Ringrose’s study there could be further exploration of what goes into women’s decisions to interact online/on social media and then deciding (or not) to take action offline as well.  Every research method has its benefits and drawbacks and each paper must present itself as succinctly as possible while remaining informative so it can be difficult to determine what additions would truly enrich these or any other studies once they are published.

Ethics & Digital Research:

One of the key criticisms of the social sciences by those in the physical sciences and by philosophers of sciences (see Karl Popper’s critiques of pseudosciences) is the lack of rigor in social science research.  This lack of rigor compared to the physical or “hard” sciences is not because of a lack of empirical evidence to be collected or falsifiable testing that can be done but is a natural consequence of the subject matter being examined, human behavior.  Social science research must be aware of the ethical implications has it attempts to understand the human mind, society, culture, events, etc.  A biologist studying an animal in its natural habitat can observe and take notes, take samples of the animal’s droppings or blood, and then leave with the animal barely wondering what had happened.  A human being would be greatly concerned by comparable occurrences.

As sapient beings, most people argue that humans have the right to not be monitored or have data collected on them without their consent.  This expectation of privacy and personal autonomy are ethical considerations for social science researchers. The mid-20th century saw the development of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to ensure that any human-subject research met ethical guidelines and principles such as those found in the Nurmerge Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and The Belmont Report (Rice 2008).  The Belmont Report produced four ethical research requirements that follow their fundamental principle of respect for persons:

  1. Participants must voluntarily consent to participate in research
  2. The consent must be informed consent
  3. Participants’ privacy and confidentiality must be protected.
  4. Participants have the right to withdraw from research participation without penalty or repercussions.

(Rice 2008:4)

These requirements remain excellent ethical guidelines for social science research but the newest domain of social research, the digital domain, has made it easy to violate the spirit of these guidelines. Calling into question if ethical digital research can be done. This isn’t just an issue of what data can be accessed online but the scale and speed at which it can be analyzed.  Our daily habits can be recorded and be made publicly available information by us or by the platforms we interact with. The use of social media can blur the first requirement above regarding voluntary consent.  People submit census data voluntarily and they interact with social media voluntarily, so why not use the data?  Aside from the issue of public vs private collection of data, there are possible conflicts with the ethical requirements above.  First, in the first rule what is consented to is “participation in the research.” This can be obfuscated with lengthy end-user and terms of service agreements, blurring the second requirement, so those collecting the data can make a case that users have given informed consent.

Second is the effort, or lack thereof, given to the third and fourth requirements.  What constitutes privacy protections is a litigious debate constantly ongoing that is entangled with issues of public safety and bureaucratic procedures. While a person does not have the ability to withdraw from research using publicly available census data, those datasets do not contain information that would violate their privacy or confidentiality.  Research using digitally collected information often has data on individuals and those individuals are typically unable to withdraw from that research.  Even if the data is anonymized, constant comparisons to other datasets may eventually reveal the identity of the individual represented in a particular case (Wallace 2014). Privacy can be violated immediately when data collection can be done by the software is used to quickly scan, comb, and select relevant data as set by the researcher that is then quickly analyzed by statistical programs.  Information someone thought was only accessible to a few people has become a data point in a database that they did not consent to be apart of.

Digital research can be ethically done but the requirements of ethical research as outlined by the Belmont Report need to be treated as a continuous whole and not a step-by-step procedure.  If a person’s digitally generated data is being used in any research, then each step of that research needs to meet the spirit of these requirements. Since digital research effectively involves everyone in the world now, these guidelines set-up to complement and contrast scientific rigor must now be considered more general regulation on how data analysis is performed.  The digital domain has opened access to the individual at a scale that areas of social research have not had before.  Marketing, propaganda, and news can now be targeted towards individuals almost instantaneously.   Ethics in digital research is more than just a question of how social science research is performed but the importance placed upon personal privacy by society and those in power.

IRBs are insufficient to ensure the protection of people in human-subject digital research. Primarily because not everyone partaking in human-subject digital research are required to use IRBs.  This is complicated by research done for marketing purposes since the goal of the research is profit and not knowledge.  Additionally, private think tanks do not necessarily need to use IRBs if they do their own data collection.  Within academic and governmental research, IRB members and researchers may not have a full and proper understanding of the differences in how digital data collection can have different implications compared to physical observations. If ethical protections IRBs are supposed to provide are not instituted as industry regulation for private organizations engaging in human-subject digital research then IRBs exist has a half-measure in protecting participants in any social science research as all data is digitized. These considerations should be part of data production as it is generated on the digital platforms we use and not just as a review of proposed data collection.

It is possible to protect human subjects in digital research but it would require broader government regulation than there is a current political will to enact. Long and obtuse terms of service agreements would have to be made more accessible.  Privacy protections would have to be guaranteed as a matter of everyday living while being constantly surveilled by our digital devices.  The questions become “what kind of privacy protection?” or “at what point is digital data sufficiently anonymized?”  Like most matters of scale there is a gray area and no clear threshold at which data has been transformed into something that individual people can’t be identified.  A single dataset may be sufficiently anonymous within itself but when compared to other datasets that overlap, then privacy could be violated.

For individual researchers, they can take their own precautions after having cleared their IRBs to constantly re-check that their procedure and methods provide the protection of people’s identities and well-being that that is required by ethical guidelines like the ones presented above. If we are using data scrubbers, we need to make sure the dataset we put together has had all unessential, cross-referenceable data removed from it.  That can be anything from travel data to irrelevant (to the research) habits.  If a demographic marker is not a variable in our tests, remove it.   If we are collecting data ourselves or intend on quoting someone in publishable work, contact the individuals.  Even if you intended to anonymize it as “20-year-old on Twitter” that quote can be searched for. If your research topic is a sensitive one then critics and detractors of the person you are quoting may be able to find them.

The social sciences lack the supposed firmness of the physical sciences (which are pretty firm) and are derided as “soft.”  However, this “softness” is important because the subjects of the social sciences are our fellow human beings.  We must have a “soft touch” when it comes to the invasive and intimate procedures that are a part of social science research.  We can inject ourselves into other’s lives and ask them to pretend we aren’t there or hid among the crowds to silently observe and record.  The golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you, is the ethic of reciprocity and sits above all other ethics. If we wish to be respected and have privacy we must treat others with respect and give them the privacy each individual deserves.

Sean Mahoney – ASSIGNMENT ONE: Getting to Know You

  1. Your name and where you are from
    • Sean Mahoney, Virginia (Now: Richmond, Originally: Northern)
  2. Your major
    • Sociology Master’s candidate
  3. Your research interests
    • Sociology of Education – Classroom and school social dynamics
    • Social & Political Philosophy – Power, Authority, Agency, and Individual vs Community
  4. Your programming experience, if any
    • HTML, back in 2002 (High School class)
  5. What you would like to get out of this course
    • Learning how to fine-tune my test and have better control of data analysis
  6. One interesting, unique or cool fact about yourself.
    • I shouldn’t be able to walk, probably.  My ACLs are basically non-function or non-existent.
    • Less depressing – I’m a Game Master, but haven’t done any since being in grad school.