Content Analysis: Using Critical Realism to Extend Its Utility

  • Doris Y. LeungEmail author
  • Betty P. M. Chung
Reference work entry


Content analysis (CA) has become one of the most common forms of data analysis, but it is often criticized for a lack of rigor and limited utility of its findings. We define CA and describe its general procedures and the three most frequently used forms of CA. Next, we review the history of CA leading up to its current popularity within diverse disciplines, including social science and healthcare disciplines. Its origins highlight concerns about researchers’ motivations underlying their interpretations of communications. In response, improved transparency and the application of CA in understanding underlying connotation in communications have furthered its evolution. CA can now be located on a continuum representing depth of interpretation, from surface description of phenomena to the uncovering of deeper meanings. We explore how CA may be used to uncover deeper underlying meanings and answer questions concerning how social relations, in connection with their context, affect outcomes such as individual behavior. By investigating deeper meanings, researchers can explore the core of the phenomenon and posit explanations of why the phenomenon is as it is. Finally, we argue that adopting an explicit philosophical orientation for inquiry will improve rigor and enhance practical utility of findings. We examine the philosophical and theoretical position of critical realism with CA. We then provide an example to illustrate the use of critical realism and outline the position’s key aspects to consider in future directions of CA.


Content analysis History Qualitative description Critical realism Rigor Qualitative research utility 



Editorial services of Research Maven Consulting Services ( were enlisted to support substantive and copyediting of the manuscript.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of NursingThe Hong Kong Polytechnic UniversityHong KongChina
  2. 2.The Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of NursingUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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