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«Abstract This paper revisits the debate on the units of Content Analysis (CA) for the purposes of Corporate Social Reporting (CSR) research and also ...»

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On the Use of Content Analysis (CA) in Corporate Social Reporting


Revisiting the debate on the units of analysis and the ways to define



This paper revisits the debate on the units of Content Analysis (CA) for the purposes

of Corporate Social Reporting (CSR) research and also reviews a variety of

approaches to defining/classifying those units. More specifically, firstly the

theoretical arguments for a strictly quantitative, more restrictive view of CA vs. a

broader, more qualitative view are considered, followed by a brief discussion on the two main types of CA approaches in the literature, index vs. volumetric studies. Then a review of the literature on the sampling, context and recording/coding units of CA is conducted. The discussion moves on to assessing the use of several classification attempts employed in the literature. With regards to coding, sentences along with derived page size data are suggested as an equally valid approach to the proportion of pages one, whilst with regards to the classification attempts, three particular distinctions, one on symbolic vs. substantive CSD and two thematic ones, are proposed as being able to make the use of CA in the CSR research more meaningful.

KEYWORDS: Corporate Social Reporting (CSR), Corporate Social Disclosure (CSD), Content Analysis (CA), Volume/amount analysis, Index analysis, categorical analysis, thematic analysis Petros Vourvachis Department of Accounting & Finance Kingston University Kingston Hill, Surrey KT2 7LB United Kingdom Telephone: +44 (0)20 8417 5151 E-mail: p.vourvachis@kingston.ac.uk On the Use of Content Analysis (CA) in CSR: Revisiting the debate on the units of analysis and the ways to define them Introduction Although an issue dated to the ancient Greek times (Eberstadt, 1973), increased attention to the responsibilities of corporations is now apparent (see e.g. KPMG,

2005) and Corporate Social Reporting (CSR, hereafter) has been developed to extend the traditional model of financial reporting which emphasises company‟s economic prosperity, to incorporate social and environmental dimensions (Elkington, 1999)1.

Hence, “social accounting is conceived of as the universe of all possible accountings” (Gray et al., 1997, p. 328).

Those investigating CSR have employed a variety of methodological approaches to conduct their research: from case studies (e.g. Cormier and Gordon, 2001; Adams,

2004) and interviews (e.g. Woodward et al., 2001; O‟Dwyer et al., 2005), to surveys using questionnaires (e.g. Deegan and Rankin, 1997; Dunk, 2002), longitudinal studies (e.g. Guthrie and Parker, 1989; O‟Dwyer and Gray, 1998), experiments (e.g.

Belkaoui and Cousineau, 1977; O‟Donovan, 2002) and theoretical investigations (e.g.

Parker, 2005; Unerman and O‟Dwyer, 2006). Still, it appears that “the research method that is most commonly used toassess organisations‟ social and environmental disclosures is content analysis” (Milne and Adler, 1999, p. 237).

Content Analysis (CA, hereafter) is most often viewed in CSR as “a technique for gathering data that consists of codifying qualitative information in anecdotal and literary form into categories in order to derive quantitative scales of varying levels of complexity” (Abbot and Monsen, p. 504). Considering the wide employment of the technique and its idiosyncratic approach to analysis (by transforming, by and large, „qualitative‟ to „quantitative‟ data), a number of methodological concerns have been expressed over its use in CSR research. These concerns can be generally classified as concerning the sampling and measurement units of the analysis; the ways of 1 For the purposes of this paper, Corporate Social Reporting is defined as “… the process of communicating the social and environmental effects of organisations‟ economic actions to particular interest groups within society and to society at large” (Gray et al., 1987, p.ix).

-1defining‟ those units (a term that Krippendorff, 2004, employs to refer to investigating the contextual aspects of CA, which most frequently regards developing classification schemes for those units); and the reliability of the employed instruments. As Adams (2002) stresses, there is a need for these methodological issues to be addressed “if improvements in the extensiveness, quality, quantity and comprehensiveness of reporting are to be achieved” (p. 246).

A number of papers discuss methodological issues in CSR with a focus on CA, most notably including Guthrie and Mathews (1985), Gray et al. (1995b), Hackston and Milne (1996), Milne and Adler (1999) and Unerman (2000) (see also Guthrie et al., 2004 and Beattie and Thomson, 2007, for discussions on the use of CA in the related field of intellectual capital reporting). Whilst Milne and Adler (1999) and Unerman (2000) comprehensively discuss a variety of issues with regards to the reliability of the CA instruments and the inclusiveness of sampling units, respectively, there seems to still be a debate over the measurement units (Milne and Adler suggest different measurement units from Unerman); there also seems to be a lack of studies offering alternative approaches to defining the CA units (see Guthrie and Mathews, 1985;

Gray et al., 1995b; and Milne and Adler, 1999, for some brief accounts).

The objective of this paper is thus to add to the literature by revisiting the debate on the CA units and by offering a discussion on a variety of approaches to employing CA in CSR. To satisfy this objective a number of theoretical CA and empirical CSR sources are reviewed and similarly to Unerman (2000) the paper is also informed by observations made during the conduct of a longitudinal case study – a content analysis of published documents of 25 years of British Airways Plc to investigate motivations for CSR. Although discussion of the BA study‟s findings is beyond the scope of this paper, references to it are made throughout the text for illustration purposes.

The remainder of this paper is organised as follows. The theoretical arguments favouring a strictly quantitative vs. a wider qualitative CA approach are reviewed initially, in an attempt to broadly situate CSR empirical research into the CA theoretical literature. Then follows a discussion on the method employed to investigate the objectives of the paper and on the index vs. amount/volume CA distinction. Subsequently, the sampling, context and recording of CA units are

-2discussed respectively, with the latter section further divided into two sub-sections, on words, sentences and proportion of pages, and on derived, page-size data. This is followed by a discussion on ways to conduct CA, with divisions on categorial and thematic distinctions. The concluding section of the study summarises the findings and provides some suggestions for further research.

Quantity vs. quality in CA

A major debate in CA which originated in the late 1940s and 1950s (see e.g. Janis, 1949; Lasswell, 1949; Berelson, 1952; George, 1959; Osgood, 1959) and is still sparkling (see e.g. Boyatzis, 1998; Neuendorf, 2002; Berg, 2004; Krippendorff, 2004) considers whether CA is a strictly quantitative technique or it should (or indeed could) further take a qualitative form. For example, Berelson (1952) has defined CA as “a technique for objective, systematic, and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication” (p. 18) whilst Krippendorff (1969a) considers it to be “the use of replicable and valid methods for making specific inferences from text to other states or properties of its source” (p. 11) 2. It is not the purpose of this paper to reject or endorse any of these approaches; it should be noted, however, that this is in essence a pseudo-dilemma, given that by definition CA is both a qualitative and a quantitative technique, employing qualitative data which are subsequently quantified, and concentration on either approach may lead researchers to overlook the challenges arising from the method‟s multifaceted character (Gephart, 2004). A brief review of these arguments, therefore, helps to identify broad CA types and general issues and provide a basic reference point for the subsequent discussion.

Proponents of the more restricted view of CA (such as Lasswell, 1949; Berelson, 1952; Deese, 1969; Neuendorf, 2002, see also e.g. Kassarjian, 1977 and Gibson and Guthrie, 1995, in the CSR field) emphasise that it should be systematic, objective and generalisable and that quantification is essential. To ensure that these criteria are met, these theorists further argue for a focus of CA on the manifest (the „surface‟) rather than the latent (deeper) meaning of the text and to the syntactic (combinations of signs 2 Rosengren (1981) assigns these views to the „Anglo-American‟ vs. the „Continental‟ and Sepstrup (1981) to the „positivistic‟ vs. the „Marxist/critical‟ research traditions, respectively.

-3without regard for meaning) and semantic (meaning of signs) dimensions of communication, rather than the pragmatic one (the relationship between the communication symbol and its user) (Morris, 1946; Berelson, 1952; George, 1959;

Stone et al., 1966). However, within this stream of the literature a further major distinction could be made among the „classical‟ researchers supporting the use of objective standard categories “to facilitate comparative and cumulative research” (Holsti, 1969b, p. 114) and the „pragmatists‟, endorsing the use of categories drawing on the theory and the research questions and specifically developed for the data and problem at hand (Marsden, 1965; Stone, 1969; Sepstrup, 1981; Weber, 1985). Other, more restrictive distinctions within this view have also been suggested, mainly based on the degree of quantification or the specific field characteristics (Marsden, 1965;

Deese, 1969; Holsti, 1969a). All these approaches however, have been criticised as being too narrow, producing potentially misleading inferences (Stone et al., 1966).

On the contrary, proponents of the broader view (such as e.g. Goldhamer, 1969; Hays, 1969; Krippendorff, 1969a,b; Paisley, 1969 and Easterby-Smith et al., 2002, see also e.g. Unerman, 2003; Day and Woodward, 2004 and Thomson and Bebbington, 2005) consider that qualitative-oriented approaches are more valid, since “one can draw more meaningful inferences by non-quantitative methods” (Holsti, 1969a, p. 10).

These theorists argue for a focus on the latent meaning of text and the pragmatic and semantic dimensions of communication and further support the development of inductive categories based on some type of thematic analysis of the text (as in Boyatzis, 1998). However, and in addition to being accused of being more subjective and unreliable (Lasswell, 1949; Sepstrup, 1981), a further major limitation of such a wide approach is that it is difficult to develop a definition for it (Barcus, 1969) and identify conditions that differentiate it from other systematic forms of qualitative analysis without considering it as a „universal‟ qualitative technique of message analysis, encompassing all the rest3.

3 For example, Krippendorff (2004) seems to consider discourse analysis, social constructivist analysis, rhetorical analysis, ethnographic content analysis and conversation analysis some kind of forms of more qualitative CA. Furthermore, methods such as linguistic analysis (Marsden, 1965), narrative analysis, semiotic analysis, hermeneutics and grounded theory (as defined and illustrated by Schwandt, 2001 and Lewis-Beck et al., 2004) would also comply with these broader definitions of CA. Such an approach however, would further add to the existing confusion over the meaning of the method, as illustrated in a reply of an English Academic to Barcus‟ (1969) CA survey: “I am so old-fashioned that I haven‟t any idea what you mean by content analysis. If it means to you what it means to me, then every course I have ever taught involves analysis of content” (p. 549).

-4Evidently, however, all these arguments are associated with the wider debates of positivism vs. interpretivism and quantitative vs. qualitative methods and in many respects are not incompatible (see e.g. Weber, 2004). Indeed, a number of prominent CA theorists acknowledge that “approaches and methodologies are never good per se;

they are good for something” (Rosengren, 1981, p. 14, emphasis in original), reject this rigid dichotomy and conclude by recommending the use of mixed methods and abductive logic for more complete inferences (see e.g. Berelson, 1952; Pool, 1959;

Holsti, 1969a;b; Krippendorff, 1969a,b; 2004, Rosengren, 1981, and also Sepstrup, 1981; Boyatzis, 1998; Berg, 2004; Franzosi, 2004a,b); such mixed approaches may e.g. include the generation of inductive categories with subsequent quantified coding (what Tashakkori and Teddlie [1998] term „mixed-method‟ approaches) or the parallel conduct of CA approaches focusing on the manifest and the latent content of the text, for triangulation purposes (Tashakkori and Teddlie‟s „mixed-model‟ approaches).

Table 1 summarises these arguments. Naturally, the distinctions are not clear cut (e.g.

in qualitative approaches some manifest content is also considered in an attempt to investigate the latent) and some further sub-divisions of the four main approaches may be identified (see Janis, 1949; Marsden, 1965; Deese, 1969). Due to the primarily quantitative orientation of CA in CSR research, the lack of mixed CSR studies4 and the apparent vagueness in defining the broader view, this paper primarily focuses on studies subscribing to the more restrictive view of the method. However, some exclusively qualitative approaches have also been considered, when these do not subscribe to an alternative systematic qualitative analysis approach and can take a quantitative form. Considering, further, that the bulk of the approaches subscribing to the more restrictive view could be deemed pragmatic due to the lack of „standard‟ CSR classifications, an alternative, oft employed classification, the index vs.

volumetric CA is reviewed and discussed in the findings. The next section details how this review was conducted.

4 This particularly refers to the lack of „mixed-method‟ studies. There are some examples of „mixedmodel‟ studies in the CSR literature, where evidence from interviews is coupled with CA of Annual Reports (see e.g. O‟Dwyer, 1999; Zain, 1999); this is, not surprisingly, evident in PhD works, where research efforts take a wider scope.

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