In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Textual Analysis and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Background
  • General Introductions
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Analytical Strategies
  • Methodological Antecedents
  • Methodological Debate
  • Types of Textual Analysis
  • Qualitative Research in Media and Communication Studies

Communication Textual Analysis and Communication
Elfriede Fürsich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0216


Textual analysis is a qualitative method used to examine content in media and popular culture, such as newspaper articles, television shows, websites, games, videos, and advertising. The method is linked closely to cultural studies. Based on semiotic and interpretive approaches, textual analysis is a type of qualitative analysis that focuses on the underlying ideological and cultural assumptions of a text. In contrast to systematic quantitative content analysis, textual analysis reaches beyond manifest content to understand the prevailing ideologies of a particular historical and cultural moment that make a specific coverage possible. Critical-cultural scholars understand media content and other cultural artifacts as indicators of how realities are constructed and which ideas are accepted as normal. Following the French cultural philosopher Roland Barthes, content is understood as “text,” i.e., not as a fixed entity but as a complex set of discursive strategies that is generated in a special social, political, historic, and cultural context (Barthes 2013, cited under Theoretical Background). Any text can be interpreted in multiple ways; the possibility of multiple meanings within a text is called “polysemy.” The goal of textual analysis is not to find one “true” interpretation—in contrast to traditional hermeneutic approaches to text exegesis—but to explain the variety of possible meanings inscribed in the text. Researchers who use textual analysis do not follow a single established approach but employ a variety of analysis types, such as ideological, genre, narrative, rhetorical, gender, or discourse analysis. Therefore, the term “textual analysis” could also be understood as a collective term for a variety of qualitative, interpretive, and critical content analysis techniques of popular culture artifacts. This method, just as cultural studies itself, draws on an eclectic mix of disciplines, such as anthropology, literary studies, rhetorical criticism, and cultural sociology, along with intellectual traditions, such as semiotics, (post)structuralism, and deconstruction. What distinguishes textual analysis from other forms of qualitative content analysis in the sociological tradition is its critical-cultural focus on power and ideology. Moreover, textual analysts normally do not use linguistic aspects as central evidence (such as in critical discourse analysis), nor do they use a pre-established code book, such as some traditional qualitative content methods. Textual analysis follows an inductive, interpretive approach by finding patterns in the material that lead to “readings” grounded in the back and forth between observation and contextual analysis. Of central interest is the deconstruction of representations (especially but not always of Others with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability) because these highlight the relationship of media and content to overall ideologies. The method is based in a constructionist framework. For textual analysts, media content does not simply reflect reality; instead, media, popular culture, and society are mutually constituted. Media and popular culture are arenas in which representations and ideas about reality are produced, maintained, and also challenged.

Theoretical Background

Central to textual analysis is the idea that content as “text” is a coming together of multiple meanings in a specific moment. Barthes 2013 and Barthes 1977 discuss this idea in detail and provide groundbreaking analysis of cultural phenomena in postwar France. Fiske 1987, Fiske 2010, and Fiske 2011 provide the standard on how popular culture can be “read,” i.e., interpreted for its ideological assumptions. Because the central aim of textual analysis is to understand how representations are produced in media content, Stuart Hall’s chapter 1 “The Work of Representation” in the renowned textbook Hall, et al. 2013 delivers a compact but comprehensive explanation of representation as a concept. To understand the shift to post-structuralism and concepts, such as discourse, hegemony, and the relationship between language and power, that are central to textual work, one can turn to the works of original theorists such as Foucault 1972 as well as Best and Kellner 1991 for contextualized clarification. Moreover, Deleuze and Guattari 2004 is a foundational post-structural text that radically rethinks the relationship between meaning and practice.

  • Barthes, Roland. 2013. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.

    English translation by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers of the original book published in 1957. Part 1: “Mythologies” consists of a series of short essayistic analyses of cultural phenomena, such as the Blue Guide travel books or advertising for detergents. Part 2: “Myth Today” lays out Barthes’s semiotic-structural approach. Although Barthes later acknowledged the historic contingencies of his interpretations, they remain important as they provided relevant perspective and methodological vocabulary for textual analysis for years to come.

  • Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, music, text. Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang.

    Classic collection of Barthes’s writing on semiotics and structuralism. For methodological considerations, the chapters “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” and “The Death of the Author” are especially relevant.

  • Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. 1991. Postmodern theory: Critical interventions. New York: Guilford.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-21718-2

    Accessible introduction to leading postmodern and post-structuralist theorists. For textual analysis, especially the chapter 2 “Foucault and the Critique of Modernity,” chapter 4 “Baudrillard en route to Postmodernity,” and chapter 5 “Lyotard and Postmodern Gaming” provide relevant context for understanding post-structural and postmodern principles.

  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 2004. A thousand plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. London and New York: Continuum.

    This book is the second part of Deleuze and Guattari’s groundbreaking philosophical project, “Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” Originally published in 1980, it explains central post-structural concepts such as rhizomes, multiplicity, and nomadic thought. Foundational for understanding the production of knowledge and meaning, these ideas have stood the test of time and resonate in networked and digitalized societies in the early 21st century.

  • Fiske, John. 1987. Television culture. New York: Routledge.

    A classic book by Fiske. His “codes of television” (pp. 4–20) explain even for beginning researchers the important relationship among reality, representation, and ideology that is foundational for the textual analysis of any media content even beyond television.

  • Fiske, John. 2010. Understanding popular culture. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    Important work by Fiske, originally published in 1989, that lays out the theoretical foundations for cultural analysis.

  • Fiske, John. 2011. Reading the popular. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    Recently reissued companion book to Fiske 2010. Provides a variety of examples for cultural analysis ranging from Madonna and shopping malls to news and quiz shows.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1972. The discourse on language. In The archeology of knowledge and the discourse of language. By Michel Foucault, 215–237. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.

    Based on the author’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1970, this appendix provides a fairly succinct introduction to Foucault’s scholarly program and outlines his specific concepts of “discourse.” The author begins to connect discourses to structures of power and knowledge, an argument that becomes more central in his later writings.

  • Hall, Stuart, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon, eds. 2013. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. 2d ed. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    One of the central goals of textual analysis is to understand and interpret media representations. Chapter 1 “The Work of Representation,” by Stuart Hall, is the most comprehensive introduction to this central post-structural cultural studies concept.

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