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Ethnographic Content Analysis

David L. Altheide

Arizona State University

             Ethnographic content analysis (ECA) refers to an integrated method, procedure, and technique for locating, identifying, retrieving, and analyzing documents for their relevance, significance, and meaning (Altheide 1987; Altheide 1996). The emphasis is on discovery and description, including search for contexts, underlying meanings, patterns, and processes, rather than mere quantity or numerical relationships between two or more variables (Altheide 1996). 

A document is defined as any symbolic representation and meaning that can be recorded and/or retrieved for analysis. Document analysis will expand as recording technologies improve and become more accessible, including print and electronic media, audio tapes, visuals (e.g., photos, home videos), clothing/fashion, internet materials, information bases (e.g., Lexis/Nexis), field notes, etc. 

          ECA or qualitative document analysis involves emergent and theoretical sampling (Glaser and Strauss 1967) of documents from information bases (including those developed by a researcher, e.g., field notes), development of a protocol for more systematic analysis, and then constant comparisons to clarify themes, frames, and discourse.  For example, if one is interested in studying “TV violence,” it is not an act of violence per se that is socially significant, but rather, how that act is linked to a course of action or a scenario as part of an entertainment emphasis, e.g., "bad guys get shot by good guys in order to achieve justice."  Or, that the use of violence is somehow linked to bravery, cunning, skill, and of course, sex.  The latter are themes or general messages that are reiterated in specific scenarios. The aim, then, is to query how behavior and events are placed in context, and what themes, frames, and discourse are being presented.  The basic steps include:

·        Pursue a specific problem to be investigated.

·        Become familiar with the process and context of the information source, e.g., ethnographic studies of newspapers, television stations, etc.  Explore possible sources (perhaps documents) of information.

·         Become familiar with several (6-10) examples of relevant documents, noting particularly the format. Select a unit of analysis, e.g., each article (this may change).

·         List several items or categories (variables) to guide data collection and draft a protocol (data collection sheet).

·        Test the protocol by collecting data from several documents.

·        Revise the protocol and select several additional cases to further refine the protocol.

A dynamic use of ECA is by "tracking discourse," or following certain issues, words, themes, and frames over a period of time, across differ­ent issues, and across different news media. Initial manifest coding incorporates emergent coding and theoretical sampling in order to monitor changes in coverage and emphasis over time and across topics.  For example, in a study of "fear" a protocol was constructed to obtain data about date, location, author, format, topic, sources, theme, emphasis, and grammatical use of fear (as noun, verb, adverb).  The contexts for using the word “fear” were clarified through theoretical sampling and constant comparison to delineate patterns and thematic emphases (Altheide 2002).  Materials were enumerated, charted, and analyzed qualitatively using a Word Processor and a qualitative data analysis program--NUD*IST-- as well as quantitatively.



Altheide, David L. 1987. "Ethnographic Content Analysis." Qualitative Sociology 10: 65-77.

—. 1996. Qualitative Media Analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

—. 2002. Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. Discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.