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Textual Analysis: Approaches, Writing Tips, & Sample Essay

Textual Analysis Approaches
Textual analysis is a method commonly used by communication researchers to describe and interpret the characteristics of recorded or visual messages, including written texts, audiovisual content, and other forms of communication. It is a systematic approach to analyzing and understanding the content, structure, and meaning of various types of messages.

Sample Textual Analysis Essay: “The Gettysburg Address”

Key Considerations

  1. Selecting the Types of Texts to Be Studied: Researchers must carefully decide which types of texts align with their research objectives. Texts can be broadly categorized into two:
    • Transcripts of Communication: These include verbatim recordings of spoken or written communication, such as transcripts of interviews, speeches, or conversations.
    • Outputs of Communication: These encompass messages produced by communicators, such as written reports, articles, advertisements, or any form of content intended for communication.
  2. Acquiring Appropriate Texts:
    • Outputs of communication are generally more readily available compared to transcripts. Outputs can often be found in libraries, archives, online platforms, and various media sources, making them accessible for research purposes.
    • Archival communication research involves examining communication embedded in existing records of human behavior kept in archives. This approach allows researchers to analyze historical documents, letters, manuscripts, and other preserved materials to gain insights into communication practices of the past.
    • Sampling is often employed to manage the volume of texts for analysis. Researchers should carefully select texts that are representative of the larger population they intend to study, ensuring that their findings can be generalized or applied to a broader context.
    • Researchers need to assess the completeness and accuracy of the texts they acquire. This involves verifying that the texts are in their original, unaltered form and that they are reliable sources for analysis. Incomplete or inaccurate texts can lead to flawed interpretations.
  3. Determining the Analytical Approach:
    • Choosing the appropriate analytical approach is essential in conducting a thorough and valid analysis.
    • Depending on the research goals and the nature of the texts, researchers may opt for any of four main methods: rhetorical criticism, content analysis, interaction analysis, or performance studies.


The four major approaches to textual analysis—rhetorical criticism, content analysis, interaction analysis, and performance studies—each have unique methodologies and goals. They are used across various disciplines to analyze texts, messages, and performances. Here’s a discussion of each approach:

Rhetorical Criticism

Rhetorical criticism is an approach to textual analysis that focuses on examining and evaluating the persuasive elements and strategies used in a text. It is often employed in the fields of communication studies, rhetoric, and literary analysis to gain a deeper understanding of how messages are constructed to influence or persuade an audience. Here is an overview of rhetorical criticism, including its purpose, steps, and types:

Rhetorical criticism serves several purposes:

  1. Understanding Persuasion: It helps researchers and scholars understand how authors or speakers use language and rhetoric to persuade, inform, or entertain audiences.
  2. Analyzing Communication: It provides a framework for analyzing various forms of communication, including speeches, written texts, visual media, and even non-verbal communication.
  3. Uncovering Meaning: Rhetorical criticism seeks to uncover the deeper meaning, themes, and underlying messages within a text.
  4. Evaluating Effectiveness: It allows for the evaluation of the effectiveness of rhetorical strategies, making it useful for assessing the impact of communication.


  1. Historical Criticism:
    • Purpose: Examines how past events shape and are shaped by rhetorical messages.
    • Key Aspect: Researchers evaluate not only the description of past events but also the reasons behind why those events occurred as they did.
  2. Oral Histories:
    • Purpose: Investigates spoken accounts of personal experiences to gain a deeper understanding of historical events.
    • Key Aspect: Focuses on capturing and analyzing the oral narratives of individuals to uncover their perspectives on the past.
  3. Historical Case Studies:
    • Purpose: Analyzes texts related to a specific historical event or period to understand the role played by communication.
    • Key Aspect: Explores how communication contributed to shaping historical outcomes in a particular context.
  4. Biographical Studies:
    • Purpose: Examines the public and private texts of prominent individuals to understand how their messages contributed to their accomplishments.
    • Key Aspect: Analyzes the role of communication in the lives and achievements of noteworthy figures.
  5. Social Movement Studies:
    • Purpose: Analyzes persuasive strategies used to influence the historical development of specific social campaigns or causes.
    • Key Aspect: Explores how communication strategies played a role in the success or failure of social movements.
  6. Neo-Aristotelian Criticism:
    • Purpose: Evaluates whether Aristotle’s criteria for effective rhetoric were applied in a text intended to influence a specific audience.
    • Key Aspect: Assesses the text’s adherence to Aristotle’s principles of ethos, logos, and pathos.
  7. Genre Criticism:
    • Purpose: Rejects a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating persuasive messages and considers that standards vary by the genre of text.
    • Key Aspect: Recognizes that different types of communication, such as forensic, epideictic, and deliberative rhetoric, have distinct criteria for evaluation based on their intended purposes.
  8. Dramatistic Criticism:
    • Purpose: Analyzes texts using Kenneth Burke’s five elements of communication (act, purpose, agent, agency, and scene) to understand symbolic acts.
    • Key Aspect: Pentadic Analysis isolates and examines the essential characteristics and differences between these elements.
  9. Metaphoric Criticism:
    • Purpose: Assumes that reality cannot be known directly and explores how metaphors shape our understanding of the world.
    • Key Aspect: Focuses on identifying and analyzing metaphors used within communication to convey meaning.
  10. Narrative Criticism:
    • Purpose: Assumes that many persuasive messages function as narratives or stories.
    • Key Aspect: Analyzes how storytelling elements, such as plot, characters, and narrative structure, convey persuasive messages.
  11. Fantasy Theme Analysis:
    • Purpose: Based on Ernest Bormann’s work, examines the common narrative elements or “fantasy themes” used in communication.
    • Key Aspect: Explores how these shared stories and symbols influence group identity and persuasion.
  12. Feminist Criticism:
    • Purpose: Analyzes how conceptions of gender are produced and maintained in persuasive messages.
    • Key Aspect: Focuses on identifying and critiquing gender stereotypes, power dynamics, and gendered language in communication.

Steps in Writing a Rhetorical Criticism Essay:

Rhetorical criticism typically involves a systematic process for analyzing texts. It involves a series of steps to dissect and understand the rhetorical strategies employed by the author or speaker. Here are the typical steps in rhetorical criticism for textual analysis essays:

  1. Select the Type of Rhetorical Criticism:
    • Before you begin analyzing a text, you should decide which specific type or approach of rhetorical criticism best suits your research goals and the nature of the text you’re studying.
    • This choice should align with the specific aspects of the message you want to investigate.
  2. Select the Text:
    • After determining the type of rhetorical criticism you’ll employ, you can then select the text that you intend to analyze.
    • The choice of text should align with the type of criticism you’ve chosen. For example, if you’re conducting genre criticism, you’d choose a text that fits the genre you want to explore.
  3. Understand the Context:
    • Understanding the historical and cultural context of the text remains a crucial step, regardless of the type of rhetorical criticism you’re using.
    • The context provides essential background information that helps you interpret the text effectively within its historical and cultural milieu.
  4. Analyze Rhetorical Strategies:
    • The specific methods and criteria for analyzing rhetorical strategies will vary depending on the chosen type of criticism.
    • For instance, if you’re using Neo-Aristotelian Criticism, you’ll focus on evaluating the text based on Aristotle’s principles of ethos, logos, and pathos. Other types may have different sets of criteria or principles.
  5. Analyze Language and Style, Examine Visual and Non-Verbal Elements, and Consider Audience Response:
    • The choice of rhetorical criticism may influence which elements of the text you emphasize during the analysis.
    • Some types, like visual rhetoric or dramatistic criticism, may place a stronger emphasis on visual and non-verbal elements, while others may prioritize linguistic or argumentative aspects.
  6. Interpret Themes and Messages:
    • Identify and interpret the central themes, messages, and underlying meaning of the text. Consider how the rhetorical strategies contribute to conveying these themes.
    • Analyze how the text engages with the rhetorical situation and addresses the exigence.
  7. Provide Analysis and Conclusion:
    • Present your analysis coherently, making connections between the rhetorical strategies and their impact on the message.
    • Offer insights into the text’s significance within its historical, cultural, and rhetorical context.
  8. Reflect on Implications:
    • Discuss the broader implications of your analysis. Consider how the rhetorical strategies and messages within the text relate to larger issues or societal trends.
    • Reflect on the enduring relevance of the text’s persuasive techniques.

These steps in rhetorical criticism provide a structured framework for researchers to conduct a thorough analysis of persuasive messages within texts and gain a deeper understanding of the rhetorical strategies at play.

Content Analysis

Content analysis is a research method and approach to textual analysis that systematically examines and interprets the content of texts. It is often used in various fields, including communication studies, social sciences, and media research, to uncover patterns, themes, and trends within texts. Content analysis can be broadly categorized into two types: qualitative and quantitative. Here’s a discussion of content analysis, including its types and steps:

Types of Content Analysis:

  1. Qualitative Content Analysis:
    • Focus: Qualitative content analysis is primarily concerned with understanding the meanings, themes, and nuances within a text.
    • Methodology: Researchers engage in an in-depth, subjective analysis of text content. They often use coding and categorization to identify themes and patterns.
    • Use: Qualitative content analysis is commonly used in disciplines such as qualitative research in social sciences, literary analysis, and cultural studies.
  2. Quantitative Content Analysis:
    • Focus: Quantitative content analysis aims to quantify and analyze specific elements or characteristics within a text.
    • Methodology: Researchers use predefined coding schemes and statistical techniques to analyze text content quantitatively.
    • Use: Quantitative content analysis is frequently used in media studies, marketing research, and political science to measure the frequency of specific keywords or themes in texts.

Steps in Content Analysis:

  1. Selecting Texts:
    • Begin by selecting the texts you want to analyze.
    • These texts should align with your research objectives and may include documents, articles, speeches, advertisements, social media posts, or any other written or visual content.
  2. Determining the Unit of Analysis: Decide what constitutes a unit of analysis within the text. The unit can vary based on research goals:
    • Physical Units: These involve analyzing text at a surface level, such as counting words, sentences, or paragraphs.
    • Meaning Units: Researchers identify segments of text that convey a specific meaning or idea.
    • Syntactical Units: Analyze the grammatical structure of the text, including sentence length or complexity.
    • Referential Units: Focus on identifying references or mentions of specific concepts or entities.
    • Thematic Units: Analyze content based on broader themes or topics.
  3. Developing Content Categories:
    • Create content categories or codes into which the units can be classified. These categories should be predefined and align with your research questions.
    • Ensure that categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, meaning that every unit of analysis should fit into one category.
  4. Analyzing the Data:
    • Apply the content categories to the text systematically. This involves reading or reviewing the text and assigning codes or labels to each unit based on the predefined categories.
    • Depending on the type of content analysis (qualitative or quantitative), you may use software tools for data management and analysis in quantitative content analysis.
    • Calculate frequencies, percentages, or other relevant statistical measures if conducting quantitative content analysis.
    • In qualitative content analysis, engage in a deeper interpretation of themes, patterns, and meanings that emerge from the coded data.
    • Maintain rigor and consistency throughout the analysis process, including intercoder reliability if multiple researchers are involved.

Content analysis offers a structured approach to extracting valuable insights from textual data. The choice between qualitative and quantitative content analysis depends on your research goals and the type of data you are analyzing. It is a versatile method used to explore various aspects of textual content, from themes and meanings to quantitative patterns and trends.

Interaction Analysis

Interaction analysis is an approach to textual analysis that focuses on the examination and interpretation of communicative interactions within a specific context. It seeks to understand how individuals or groups engage in communication, including verbal and non-verbal exchanges, to construct meaning, achieve goals, and navigate social dynamics. Here, we’ll discuss key characteristics, fundamental tasks, types, and steps in conducting interaction analysis:

Key Characteristics in Describing Interaction:

  1. Contextual Sensitivity: Interaction analysis emphasizes the importance of considering the context in which communication occurs. This includes the physical environment, social norms, cultural factors, and historical background.
  2. Multimodal Analysis: Interactions may involve various modes of communication, such as verbal language, non-verbal cues (gestures, facial expressions), paralanguage (tone, pitch), and visual elements (images, symbols).
  3. Sequential Nature: Interactions unfold sequentially, with one communication act often influencing the next. Researchers examine the order and timing of communicative behaviors.
  4. Co-construction of Meaning: Interaction is a collaborative process where meaning is co-constructed by participants. Analysis explores how individuals negotiate shared understanding.
  5. Power and Social Dynamics: Researchers consider power dynamics, social hierarchies, and roles within interactions, as these elements can significantly impact communication.
  6. Emphasis on Process: Interaction analysis is interested in the process of communication, including how interactions evolve over time, rather than solely focusing on end products or outcomes.

Fundamental Tasks in Decision-Making in Interaction Analysis:

  1. Identifying Interaction Units: Determine what constitutes an interaction unit, which could be a turn in conversation, an exchange, or a series of related actions.
  2. Segmentation: Decide how to segment interactions into manageable units for analysis, considering factors like boundaries and boundaries.
  3. Coding and Categorization: Develop a coding scheme to categorize different aspects of interactions, such as speech acts, non-verbal behaviors, or thematic content.
  4. Pattern Recognition: Recognize patterns and recurring themes within interactions, including patterns of agreement, disagreement, or conflict.
  5. Interpretation: Interpret the meaning and significance of communicative acts, considering context and the goals of participants.

Types of Interaction Analysis:

  1. Conversation Analysis: Focuses on the structure and organization of spoken conversations, including turn-taking, adjacency pairs (e.g., question-answer), and repair sequences.
  2. Discourse Analysis: Analyzes larger units of language, such as narratives, interviews, or written texts, to uncover underlying structures and themes.
  3. Ethnographic Interaction Analysis: Embedded within ethnographic research, this approach explores the cultural and social context of interactions, emphasizing participant observation.
  4. Pragmatic Analysis: Investigates how language is used in context to achieve specific communicative goals, emphasizing speech acts, implicature, and politeness strategies.

Steps in Conducting Interaction Analysis:

  1. Select the Interaction: Choose the interaction or set of interactions you want to analyze, considering their relevance to your research question.
  2. Define the Research Question: Clearly articulate your research question or objectives. What aspects of the interaction are you interested in exploring?
  3. Collect Data: Gather relevant data, which may include audio or video recordings, transcripts, field notes, or written texts, depending on the type of interaction.
  4. Segmentation: Divide the interaction into manageable units or segments. This can involve transcribing spoken language, identifying gestures, or noting significant events.
  5. Coding and Categorization: Develop a coding scheme based on your research question. Code the data by applying relevant codes or labels to segments of the interaction.
  6. Pattern Recognition: Look for patterns, themes, and recurring elements within the data. Consider the sequential organization of interactions.
  7. Interpretation: Interpret the data within the context of your research question and relevant theories or frameworks. Analyze the meaning and significance of communicative acts.
  8. Report Findings: Present your analysis in a clear and organized manner, often using examples from the interaction to support your interpretations.

Interaction analysis is a versatile approach that can be applied to various forms of communication, from face-to-face conversations to written discourse. Its focus on the dynamic and process-oriented nature of interactions makes it a valuable method for understanding how meaning is constructed through communication.

Performance Studies

Performance studies is an approach to textual analysis that focuses on the interpretation and understanding of texts as performances. In performance studies, texts are not limited to written or spoken words but can encompass a wide range of expressive forms, including theater, dance, film, rituals, and everyday social interactions. This approach seeks to explore how texts are enacted, embodied, and conveyed through performance. Below, we’ll discuss performance studies, its types, and steps involved in analyzing performances as texts:

Types of Performance Studies:

  1. Theatrical Performance Studies:
    • Focuses on analyzing theatrical productions, including plays, musicals, and other staged performances.
    • Explores elements such as acting, staging, direction, costume design, and the use of space.
  2. Dance Performance Studies:
    • Concentrates on the analysis of dance performances, choreography, and movement as forms of communication.
    • Examines the physicality, gestures, and body language of dancers as expressive elements.
  3. Film and Media Performance Studies:
    • Analyzes film, television, and digital media as performance texts.
    • Explores the role of actors, directors, cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scène in conveying meaning.
  4. Ritual and Ceremonial Performance Studies:
    • Investigates cultural and religious rituals, ceremonies, and performances as texts that convey symbolic meaning.
    • Explores the roles of participants, symbols, and traditions in rituals.
  5. Everyday Performance Studies:
    • Focuses on analyzing everyday social interactions and behaviors as performances.
    • Examines how individuals enact roles and identities in various social contexts.

Steps in Conducting Performance Studies:

  1. Select the Performance Text:
    • Choose the performance text you want to analyze.
    • This could be a theatrical production, dance performance, film, ritual, or any form of performance.
  2. Contextualize the Performance:
    • Understand the cultural, historical, and social context in which the performance occurs.
    • Consider factors such as the time period, cultural norms, and the audience’s expectations.
  3. Observe and Document the Performance:
    • Attend or watch the performance, taking detailed notes, and if possible, recording the performance for later analysis.
    • Pay attention to elements such as physical movements, gestures, facial expressions, dialogue (if applicable), music, and staging.
  4. Analyze Performer’s Choices:
    • Examine the choices made by performers and directors.
    • Consider how actors embody characters, how choreography conveys meaning, or how directors use staging and mise-en-scène to create impact.
  5. Interpret Symbolism and Meaning:
    • Interpret the symbolism and meaning embedded in the performance.
    • Analyze how the performance communicates ideas, emotions, or social commentary.
  6. Consider Audience Reception:
    • Reflect on how the audience perceives and interprets the performance.
    • Consider how the audience’s reactions and engagement contribute to the overall meaning.
  7. Analyze Performative Elements:
    • Explore the performative elements of the text.
    • These may include the use of scripts, scores, movement, and the embodiment of characters or roles.
  8. Apply Relevant Theories or Frameworks:
    • Utilize relevant theories or analytical frameworks.
    • These may be from performance studies, theater studies, semiotics, or other disciplines to guide your analysis.
  9. Report Findings:
    • Present your analysis in a coherent and organized manner.
    • Use examples from the performance to support your interpretations.

Performance studies offer a unique perspective on texts by considering how they are embodied, enacted, and conveyed through live or recorded performances. This approach allows for a deeper understanding of the expressive and communicative power of performance as a form of text.

Writing a Textual Analysis Essay: Dos and Donts

  1. Read and Understand the Text Thoroughly:
    • Do: Carefully read and reread the text you are analyzing. Make sure you fully understand its content, context, and purpose.
    • Don’t: Don’t rush through reading the text. Take the time to digest its content and nuances.
  2. Identify the Thesis or Main Argument:
    • Do: Clearly identify the author’s thesis or main argument. This is the central point you will analyze in your essay.
    • Don’t: Don’t overlook the importance of pinpointing the thesis. Your analysis should revolve around it.
  3. Consider the Author’s Intent:
    • Do: Reflect on the author’s purpose, tone, and intended audience. Analyze how these factors shape the text.
    • Don’t: Assume the author’s intent without sufficient evidence or context.
  4. Use Evidence from the Text:
    • Do: Support your analysis with specific evidence from the text, such as quotes, examples, and textual references.
    • Don’t: Don’t rely solely on your opinions or general statements. Back up your claims with concrete evidence.
  5. Analyze, Don’t Summarize:
    • Do: Focus on analysis rather than summarization. Explain how the author’s choices (language, structure, etc.) convey meaning and support their argument.
    • Don’t: Avoid providing a mere summary of the text without delving into deeper analysis.
  6. Consider the Literary Devices and Rhetorical Appeals:
    • Do: Analyze literary devices (e.g., symbolism, imagery) or rhetorical strategies (e.g., ethos, logos, pathos) used in the text. Explain how these appeals contribute to persuasion and effectiveness.
    • Don’t: Don’t overlook the rhetorical elements. They are often crucial to understanding the text’s effectiveness.
  7. Organize Your Essay Effectively:
    • Do: Structure your essay logically with a clear introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each paragraph should focus on a specific aspect of your analysis.
    • Don’t: Avoid disorganized or rambling writing. A well-structured essay is easier for the reader to follow.