Word Clouds

Here is an interesting application of word clouds. It is a word cloud analysis of Public Opinion Quarterly, the leading journal in Public Opinion Research:


Word clouds are a fast and easy tool that produce a visual picture of the most frequently used words in a body of text or ‘bag of words.’ They are frequently used as a tool for content analysis.

On my ‘my research’ page above, there is a link to a paper I wrote about text analytic strategies. In the paper, I addressed word clouds in great detail. I did that because word clouds are fast gaining popularity and recognition in the survey research community and in the wider society at large. However, the clouds have a lot of limitations that are rarely considered by people who use them.

One of the complications of a word cloud is that word frequency alone doesn’t speak to the particular ways in which a word was used. So when you see ‘public,’ you think of the public/private dichotomy that is such a big debate in the current public sphere. However, in the context of a survey ‘public’ could also easily be used as a noun, to refer to potential respondents. While word clouds appear to give a lot of information in a quick visual, the picture underlying that information can be clouded by the complexities of language use.

I don’t think that these pictures can map directly onto the underling topical landscape, but they can provide a quick window into the specific words that we have used over the years and the changes in our lexicon over time.


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