Sunday 8 December 2013

Textual Analysis

Textual analysis is an approach to research where qualitative judgments about cultural goods, phenomena, and sense-making practices are translated into quantitative statements. Often this is used to better understand how different cultures make sense of the world around them.

But how do we actually do textual analysis? Textual analysis deals with texts. A text is anything that carries meaning – it could be a book, a movie, a voicemail, a piece of clothing, or a photograph, for example. We are surrounded by texts all the time and we’re constantly deconstructing them for their meanings. This is exactly what textual analysts do: they deconstruct texts and try to figure out what they reveal about their makers and consumers.

Imagine that you want to examine coverage of the US military’s movements in Iraq. You could watch text-producers like CNN and Fox News and then give the overall impression you got of how each channel described the US’s actions. Or you could count how many times each station used specific pro-US and anti-US words or how many times each station mentions civilians killed as collateral damage. This second approach would be closer to textual analysis as it moves from making vague qualitative judgments to more specific quantitative judgments. It is easy to see why propaganda and advertisements are such popular subjects of textual analysis. Texts like movies, songs, and books are also commonly deconstructed via textual analysis so as to reveal how a specific culture holds specific ideas (e.g. about gender roles).

Textual analysis is broad and versatile in that it can be applied to just about any act of communication. But it usually ought to be combined with other methodologies for full effect. It works as a good compliment to more strictly quantitative research methodologies but it often costs too much time and money to do thoroughly. Just imagine flipping through all those old journals one by one! This is changing in the Internet age as information becomes increasingly accessible.

The dominant paradigm used to do textual analysis is called post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is the position that all inferences of meaning are culturally constructed, and therefore equally valid. This differs from, for example, a realist perspective which holds that one culture’s sense-making practices are superior to the sense-making practices of other cultures. So according to a realist, there are right and wrong ways of interpreting things and that it is impossible for different cultures to have different interpretations and yet all be right. Post-structuralism rejects this. Alternatively, one could take a structuralist view and posit universal fundamental structures that exist beneath more culturally idiosyncratic surface interpretations.

In Textual Analysis: A Beginner's Guide, Alan McKee argues for a post-structuralist perspective. He explains that there is no single interpretation or perception of the world that is universal across all cultures. For example, pain is usually bad, but some people in some (perhaps sexual) situations enjoy it. The goodness or badness or correctness or falseness of a proposition is dependent on an individual's cultural setting. It's only with reference to this setting that one can understand anything about the world.

I think McKee is guilty of falling for the epistemological red herring that is culture. Post-structuralism is likely a good rule-of-thumb for when one is dealing with members of other cultures or deconstructing the meaning of a text, but its epistemological limitations should not be taken literally, and they are resolved, as usual, by substituting binary thinking for probabilities.

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