Sentiment Analysis: Decoding Emotions for Research

Sentiment analysis in research is a powerful tool for understanding insights in the context of how research participants feel about a particular object, concept, or phenomenon. In this article, we will examine how sentiments expressed in data can provide critical insights about individual perspectives.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. What is sentiment analysis?
  3. What is an example of sentiment analysis?
  4. Why is sentiment analysis important?
  5. How do you collect sentiments?
  6. How do you analyze sentiments?
  7. What are the current challenges for sentiment analysis?


Sentiment analysis is the process of determining whether textual data contains a positive sentiment or a negative sentiment. Researchers use sentiment analysis tools to provide additional clarity and context to the messages conveyed in words to deliver more meaningful insights.

In this article, we'll look at the importance of sentiments, how researchers analyze sentiments, and what strategies and tools can help you in your research.

A sentiment analysis system can be applied to data to provide additional context to textual data.

What is sentiment analysis?

Sentiment analysis is a subset of natural language processing (NLP) that focuses on extracting and understanding the emotional content from data. The primary objective is to classify the polarity of a text as positive, negative, or neutral. This classification is essential for understanding customer sentiment, gauging public opinion, and conducting in-depth research on various topics.

At its core, a sentiment analysis system employs machine learning techniques and algorithms to dissect the language used in text data from many sources, such as:

  • written feedback
  • news articles
  • survey records
  • social media posts

One of the most refined forms of this method is aspect-based sentiment analysis. Rather than merely classifying the overall sentiment of a document, this kind of analysis pinpoints specific topics or aspects within the text and evaluates the sentiment towards each. Such sentiment analysis technologies with natural language processing can also be used for opinion mining.

A simple example

Consider a product review that states, "The camera on this phone is excellent, but the battery life is short." A sentiment analysis model would recognize the positive sentiment towards the camera and the negative sentiment towards the battery life, rather than giving a blanket sentiment score.

Sentiment analysis tools are varied, ranging from simple models that identify positive and negative terms to sophisticated sentiment analysis models that rely on machine learning and data scientists for insightful sentiment analysis. Such tools work by assigning a sentiment score to words or phrases, often based on their context. The result? A sentiment analysis solution that deciphers the nuances of human language, turning unstructured data into actionable insights.

Ultimately, an accurate sentiment analysis bridges the gap between the vast world of text-based data and the need to understand the underlying emotions and opinions it contains. Whether you're a researcher looking to perform sentiment analysis on news articles or a business keen on understanding customer feedback, sentiment analysis is a pivotal tool in today's data-driven world.

What is an example of sentiment analysis?

Sentiment analysis offers tangible examples of its applications across diverse fields. From businesses striving to enhance their products to researchers aiming to grasp public sentiment on various issues, the power of sentiment analysis is evident.

By examining specific sectors, we can better understand the profound impact this analysis has on our decision-making processes and the vast potential it holds in shaping perceptions.

Market research

Conducting market research often consists of analyzing sentiment to gauge public reactions to a product or service. Using sentiment analysis tools, companies can sift through survey responses and online reviews, identifying patterns that might not be immediately apparent.

For example, if a new beverage receives predominantly positive reviews for its taste but negative comments about its packaging, this analytical approach can highlight these specific sentiments, guiding the company in refining its offering.

Positive, negative, or neutral sentiments about products can give businesses important insights about success in the marketplace. Photo by Nimble Made.

Customer feedback

Customer feedback is a goldmine of sentiment analysis datasets for businesses aiming to improve their services. By implementing a sentiment analysis system, companies can categorize feedback as positive, negative, or neutral, making it easier to prioritize areas for improvement.

Suppose a hotel chain discovers that a significant number of negative words in customer reviews pertain to room cleanliness. In that case, they can take immediate measures to address this concern, enhancing the overall guest experience.

Understanding sentiments from customer feedback is a key element of business research. Photo by Patrick Tomasso.

Social media platforms

Social media is awash with opinions and feedback. By employing models for the analysis of sentiments, businesses and researchers can tap into real-time feelings of the masses.

For instance, if a celebrity endorses a brand and sentiment analysis reflects a surge in positive words associated with that brand, it can be concluded that the endorsement had a favorable impact. Conversely, if a political figure makes a statement and the analysis indicates a spike in negative words related to the topic, it provides insights into public opinion.

Social media is a key source of sentiment data. Photo by Domingo Alvarez E.

Why is sentiment analysis important?

Sentiment analysis has rapidly become a crucial tool in today's digital age, helping businesses, researchers, and individuals decode the emotions hidden within vast amounts of data. But why has it garnered such significance?

The reasons are manifold, but they all converge on the idea that understanding sentiment offers a deeper, more nuanced view of human reactions and opinions.

Sentiment analysis use cases & applications

The applications of sentiment analysis are diverse and expansive. For instance, in the realm of politics, sentiment analysis can be used to gauge public opinion on policies or candidates, offering insights that can guide campaign strategies.

In the healthcare sector, sentiment analysis can capture patient feedback, allowing providers to fine-tune their services and improve patient experiences.

Moreover, educators can use sentiment analysis to understand student feedback, making curriculum adjustments that align with student needs and preferences.

Sentiment expressed in patient feedback data can provide key insights about the quality of healthcare services. Photo by National Cancer Institute.

Benefits of sentiment analysis

Beyond its various applications, the benefits of sentiment analysis are profound. Firstly, it offers an efficient way to process large volumes of unstructured data, turning it into actionable insights. Businesses, for example, can use sentiment analysis to get ahead of potential public relations crises by identifying negative sentiments early.

Furthermore, it provides rule-based systems that can circumvent the time-consuming task of manually reviewing each piece of feedback. This not only saves time but also reduces the risk of human bias.

Most significantly, by understanding both positive and negative phrases and their context, organizations can better align their strategies and offerings with their audience's true feelings and needs.

Understanding sentiments can help businesses identify emerging trends regarding the quality of the customer experience. Photo by CJ Toscano.

How do you collect sentiments?

Collecting sentiments involves gathering data from various sources to be analyzed for emotional content. This task, while seemingly straightforward, requires a systematic approach to ensure that the data obtained is both relevant and of high quality.

One of the primary sources for sentiment collection is social media platforms. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are brimming with user-generated content that reflects public opinion on a vast array of topics. By utilizing specialized web scraping tools or APIs provided by these platforms, one can amass large datasets of posts, comments, and reviews to analyze.

Social media contains posts, comments, and reviews that can be analyzed for sentiments. Photo by Piotr Cichosz.

Customer reviews on e-commerce websites, such as Amazon or Yelp, are another treasure trove of sentiments. These reviews often provide detailed insights into customer sentiment about products, services, and overall brand perception. Similarly, survey responses, when designed with open-ended questions, can provide valuable data that captures the sentiments of the respondents.

In the news and media sector, news articles and op-eds are rich sources of sentiment. Collecting sentiments from these sources can help gauge public sentiment on current events, governmental decisions, or societal issues.

Forums and online communities, like Reddit or specialized industry forums, offer another avenue. Here, users often engage in in-depth discussions, providing nuanced views that are ripe for sentiment analysis.

However, while collecting sentiments, it's essential to consider privacy and ethical guidelines. Ensuring that data is anonymized and devoid of personally identifiable information is crucial. Moreover, always be aware of terms of service when extracting data from online platforms, as some might have restrictions on data scraping.

How do you analyze sentiments?

Analyzing sentiments is a multifaceted process that goes beyond merely identifying positive or negative words. It examines the context, nuances, and the intricate elements of human language. With advancements in machine learning and data science, this analysis has become more refined and precise.

Sentiment scores

At the foundation of this analytical approach lies the sentiment score. This score is usually a numerical value assigned to a piece of text, indicating its overall sentiment. For instance, a system to analyze sentiment might assign values on a scale from -1 (negative) to 1 (positive), with 0 representing a neutral sentiment. Sentiment scores provide a quick overview, enabling researchers and businesses to categorize large datasets swiftly.

Sentiment analysis algorithms

A machine learning algorithm, natural language toolkit, or artificial neural networks can power sentiment analysis work. These range from simple rule-based algorithms, which identify sentiments based on predefined lists of positive and negative words, to more complex machine learning techniques. Machine learning-based sentiment analysis models, especially those utilizing deep learning, consider the broader context in which words are used, leading to more advanced sentiment analysis.

Sentiment analysis tools

There's a plethora of tools available, each tailored for different requirements. Some tools are designed for specific industries, while others are more general-purpose. Many of these tools leverage advanced models, making it easier for users without a deep technical background to extract meaningful insights from textual data. The qualitative data analysis software ATLAS.ti, for example, includes a sentiment analysis tool to automatically code data.

What are the current challenges for sentiment analysis?

Sentiment analysis, despite its transformative potential and growing adoption, is not without its share of challenges. The intricacies of language and emotion often pose complexities that even the most advanced systems can find challenging to navigate.

Sarcasm and irony: One of the most significant challenges is detecting sarcasm and irony. A statement like "Oh, great! Another flat tire!" may be classified as positive by rudimentary analysis models because of the word "great." However, the context clearly indicates a negative sentiment.

Cultural nuances: Cultural and regional variations in language can affect sentiment interpretation. A word or phrase that's considered positive in one culture might be neutral or even negative in another. Without a culturally-aware model, these nuances can easily be missed.

Short and ambiguous texts: Platforms like Twitter, with their character limitations, often contain short and sometimes ambiguous messages. Without ample context, determining the sentiment of such messages can be tricky.

Polysemy: Words with multiple meanings, based on context, can pose challenges. For instance, the word "light" can be positive when referring to a "light meal" but negative when talking about "light rain" during a planned outdoor event.

Emotionally complex statements: Some statements might contain mixed emotions, making them hard to classify. For example, "I love how this camera captures colors, but its weight is a bit much for me." This statement contains both positive and negative sentiments about the same product.

Evolution of language: Language is dynamic. New words, slang, and expressions constantly emerge, especially on digital platforms. Keeping sentiment analysis tools updated to recognize and correctly interpret these new terms is a continual challenge.

Addressing these challenges requires a combination of improved algorithms, larger and more diverse training datasets, and a deeper understanding of linguistics and cultural contexts. As technology advances and sentiment analysis solutions become more sophisticated, the hope is that these challenges will diminish, leading to even more accurate and insightful outcomes.