Textual Analysis

What is a Textual analysis?

Textual analysis incorporates methodologies which seek to understand how language, symbols, and/or pictures are presented in text with the aim to gain a better understanding of how people make sense of and communicate (Belsey, 2013).

Visual, spoken and written messages all provide cues to ways in which the communicate may be understood by the reader and may be influenced by much larger social norms and structures. For instance there are messages which may be a reflection of the political, religious, historical, ethical or cultural contexts which may be present within their culture and thus it is the role of the researcher to understand the social structures which influence these messages (Fairclough, 2003).

Textual analysis is an expansion of content analysis which itself considers text just through the actual words used while textual considers the wider environment (Belsey, 2013).

When and why should you use a Textual analysis?

Textual analysis is usually creative and qualitative in form. There is a focus on illuminating something about the underlying social/ political/ cultural context of the objects being investigated. Textual analysis is also well used in business and forms the basis on analysis which a team may do to better understand consumer behaviour and opinions.

What are the benefits of using a Textual analysis?

The main benefit is the ability to derive meaning from text and written communications which per Hennink et al (2020) can also be defined as unstructured data. Unstructured data without any analysis done is hard to understand and can become a large amount of useless data. Analysis is needed to structure this into key themes, categories or theories which are then useful to the user.

Take for instance a business who has 1,000 returned product reviews from customers over their experience with the business. Currently this is a large amount of unstructured qualitative data, 1,000 different responses without any amalgamation done to understand the linkages and themes. The first process of this would be clustering these responses with the use of thematic analysis and coding techniques to find key words and phrases (Taylor et al, 2015). This can also be expanded to include categorisation of these key words, clustering, pattern recognition and visualisation (Hennink et al, 2020). This is where textual analysis begins to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text. For instance if the business identified that a majority of responses tagged the word satisfied with delivery times then the business can conclude that their delivery system is performing above customer expectations. On the other hand the combination of the words high and price suggests that customers are not happy with the current product pricing and this represents a risk to the future competitiveness, sales and market share of the business. Thus this text gains meaning as is used as justification for a strategic change. How the responses are structured and the linguistics of such can also be of interest for the business to provide a better understanding of their customers.

Business may do a similar process online to work out their sentiment on social media by the categorisation of words as positive, neutral or negative which then forms a Key Performance Indicator for them to watch. Analysis is also done on other elements of the communication such as how provided (i.e. social channels, letters, official website) as well as the structure of visuals included in the text to gain a much deeper understanding which looks beyond the text element of the product review.

What is the difference between Textual and Content analysis?

Textual analysis is seen as an extension on content analysis. Consider a speech by a politician. Content analysis will look to understand the meaning of this speech through analysis of the text alone. The researcher may look to identify key words and phrases which can then be categorised into particular ideologies (i.e. pro/anti-immigration) and thus determine the meaning of the speech. However textual analysis would go further and consider not only the actual words spoken but also how the text is structured, the linguistics of the text and how it is delivered by the politician including the use of any visual aids. For instance if we consider a political rally by Donald Trump these are usually high-octane speeches with the use of music to create a party-like environment for supporters, with the delivery by President Trump usually animated to covey passion. These rallies may also be held in specific locations such as along the Mexican border or within an old industrial town to provide a visual backdrop for viewers and act as a way to extenuate the meaning of the speech.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Textual analysis.

The main advantage has already been mentioned that textual analysis allows for the researcher to gain a deeper understanding of the text beyond the words used. As mentioned with Donald Trump, understanding the actual words used is only part of the process in explaining the rise of Trumpism. It is also important to understand the theatrics of the delivery of these words and the visuals used to support.

However the main disadvantage is that this process can be highly complex and time consuming to undertake. There is also the issue that such analysis can be subject to the bias or objectivity of the researcher undertaking the work and that they themselves can perceive the meaning of the text different to another researcher. Thus there is a need to undertake a significant amount of reading prior to the analysis to have a balanced viewpoint on the topic. Tracy (2019) is concerned that both content and textual analysis is inherently reductive when it comes to complex texts, creating simplified conclusions which are too often reliant on basic forms of analysis such as word counts. Textual analysis expands the research to not only consider the actual words being used in the text but again there are worries that a researcher without a detailed understanding of theories such as e-semiotics among others could overly simplify the conclusions and miss out on meaning (Belsey, 2013).

What fields of study can benefit from the use of a Textual analysis?

This type of analysis is widely used in cultural and media studies. Researchers in these fields consider cultural or media objects such as a music video, advertisement or movie and treat them as text which needs to be analysed to understand the reasoning behind the message (Brennen, 2017). Usually these researchers will work with a theoretical framework (i.e. semiotics, media theory) with the objective to connect certain elements within their texts to current social/ political culture.

This analysis may focus on different elements of the text from the location of the text to the choice of words or overall design. For example a researcher studying luxury brand advertisements may use a semiotics framework to determine to understand how certain symbols present in advertisements promote the idea of luxury and the aspirational lifestyle which this brand is seeking to become part of in the consumer’s mind. Applying this over the advertisements from multiple brands (i.e. Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Dior) would allow the researcher to conclude on similarities to between understand this link between text and social structures.

Literature is another field which uses textual analysis to find the deeper meaning behind the text. For instance a researcher may place an emphasis on understanding the deliberately constructed elements of the text such as the narrative perspective of a book and use such to then understand how this element will contribute to the texts meaning. Other areas of study look deeper into the unintended meanings which may be built into the text such as how older novels may have different meanings in todays society.

How do you complete a Textual analysis?

Textual analysis is all about understanding how symbols in the text are communicate and influence how people make sense of and communicate experiences. For instance if you consider the rules of football the researcher might seek to understand how the kind of language used in the written rules are used to communicate the type of behaviour that is expected from players. Thus textual analysis links in with many qualitative research methods such as thematic analysis and coding. The researcher may seek to see common themes or keywords used in the text (Tracy, 2019). Analysis will also go further to also understand how the style of language used or accompanying imagery also communicates to encourage behaviour.

Textual analysis example

An example could be to consider a film such as Cloud Atlas. The researcher would not only investigate the dialogue in the movie but also the cinematography and sound used to understand the literal meaning of such as well as the symbolism, values and assumptions it reveals. As mentioned earlier texts can also have both intended and unintended meanings. A film meaning could be to provide entertainment and tell a story to the audience however behind this could be links with culture and politics among others. With Cloud Atlas the main premise of the movie was the interconnectivity of time, on destiny and reverberating actions and eternal recurrence which all came from the original novel penned by David Mitchell. However during the movie there was also subtle links towards oppressive politics, mental health and mass consumerism which are not spoken but feature in the imagery.


Belsey, C. (2013). Textual analysis as a research method (pp. 160-178). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Brennen, B. S. (2017). Qualitative research methods for media studies. London: Taylor & Francis.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Psychology Press.

Hennink, M., Hutter, I., & Bailey, A. (2020). Qualitative research methods. London: SAGE Publications Limited.

Taylor, S. J., Bogdan, R., & DeVault, M. (2015). Introduction to qualitative research methods: A guidebook and resource. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Tracy, S. J. (2019). Qualitative research methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. London: John Wiley & Sons.

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