The Guide to Thematic Analysis

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Want to know all about thematic analysis? Read this guide to get a foundational understanding of thematic analysis and its contribution to qualitative research.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. What is Thematic Analysis?
    1. Introduction
    2. Thematic analysis explained
    3. What's unique about thematic analysis?
    4. Different approaches to thematic analysis
    5. The mini-guide to thematic analysis
  2. Advantages of Thematic Analysis
  3. Disadvantages of Thematic Analysis
  4. Thematic Analysis Examples
  5. How to Do Thematic Analysis
  6. Thematic Coding
  7. Collaborative Thematic Analysis
  8. Thematic Analysis Software
  9. Thematic Analysis in Mixed Methods Approach
  10. Abductive Thematic Analysis
  11. Deductive Thematic Analysis
  12. Inductive Thematic Analysis
  13. Reflexive Thematic Analysis
  14. Thematic Analysis in Observations
  15. Thematic Analysis in Surveys
  16. Thematic Analysis for Interviews
  17. Thematic Analysis for Focus Groups
  18. Thematic Analysis for Case Studies
  19. Thematic Analysis of Secondary Data
  20. Thematic Analysis Literature Review
  21. Thematic Analysis vs. Phenomenology
  22. Thematic vs. Content Analysis
  23. Thematic Analysis vs. Grounded Theory
  24. Thematic Analysis vs. Narrative Analysis
  25. Thematic Analysis vs. Discourse Analysis
  26. Thematic Analysis vs. Framework Analysis
  27. Thematic Analysis in Social Work
  28. Thematic Analysis in Psychology
  29. Thematic Analysis in Educational Research
  30. Thematic Analysis in UX Research
  31. How to Present Thematic Analysis Results
  32. Increasing Rigor in Thematic Analysis
  33. Peer Review in Thematic Analysis

What is Thematic Analysis?

Thematic analysis is a central method in qualitative research used to identify patterns within data. Under a thematic analysis paradigm, researchers analyze qualitative data to organize and describe their dataset in detail through themes and motifs that emerge from the data itself. This approach is flexible and can be applied across a wide range of social science fields, accommodating various datasets and research questions. The technique does not subscribe to a rigid framework, allowing for adaptation to the specific needs of the study. Thematic analysis is valuable for its ability to unearth nuanced insights into complex data sets, providing a structured yet adaptable tool for qualitative analysis.

This guide will outline the advantages and disadvantages of thematic analysis, discuss its different types and their processes, and showcase its application in diverse social science disciplines.

Thematic analysis is a central method in qualitative research.

Thematic analysis explained

Thematic analysis approaches are among the most flexible methods accessible to both expert and novice researchers. Thematic analysis emphasizes the data itself, enabling researchers to derive significant insights directly from their collected information.

But what is it and what role does it play in analyzing qualitative data? This section will cover the purpose of qualitative research, define qualitative data analysis, outline the thematic analysis process, and explain the necessity of thematic analysis for qualitative researchers. Through this, the significance and functionality of thematic analysis in the context of research will be clarified.

What is the purpose of qualitative research?

Qualitative research aims to understand human behavior, experiences, and the reasons that govern such behavior and experiences. Unlike quantitative research, which seeks to quantify data and generalize results from sample populations to larger populations, qualitative research focuses on understanding the depth and complexity of social phenomena, prioritizing contextualisation over generalization. This type of research is interested in the 'how' and 'why' questions, seeking to provide insights into problems, develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research, and uncover trends in thought and opinions.

Qualitative data collection methods include interviews, focus groups, and observational research, among others. Each method is chosen based on its ability to provide the most meaningful and relevant data for the research question at hand. The primary goal is to gain a detailed and nuanced understanding of people's attitudes, behaviors, and interactions in their natural settings.

Qualitative research methods address phenomena that can't be measured or counted. Photo by OC Gonzalez.

What is qualitative data analysis?

Qualitative data analysis is the process of systematically examining non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand meanings, patterns, and relationships. While quantitative data is more accessible through statistical analysis, qualitative data analysis transforms raw data into findings through a meticulous process of coding and identifying themes or patterns.

The analysis begins with data collection, followed by reading and re-reading the data to gain a deep familiarity with its content. Researchers then proceed to data coding by applying tags or labels that categorize segments of the data into meaningful groups for further analysis. These codes are refined and grouped into themes that capture the essence of the entire data set. A theme is a pattern within the data that represents a significant aspect of the research question or provides insight into the dataset.

Qualitative data analysis is iterative, requiring researchers to move back and forth between the dataset and the emerging analysis to ensure that the themes accurately represent the data. This approach allows for the identification of subtleties and complexities within the data that might not be apparent on the surface. The process is critical for developing a comprehensive understanding of the context, motivations, and experiences of research subjects.

Qualitative data analysis refers to a whole host of analytical approaches such as narrative analysis, discourse analysis, and qualitative content analysis. Each provides a systematic and rigorous approach for uncovering and interpreting the richness and diversity of data, and what is important is that the analytical approach fits with the research question. Through the analysis process, researchers can construct a coherent narrative that not only addresses their research questions but also adds depth and dimension to their findings.

What is the thematic analysis process?

The thematic analysis process involves several stages, each crucial for the thorough examination and interpretation of qualitative data. This process typically begins with the collection of data, which can be in the form of interviews, focus groups, observations, or textual and visual materials. As data collection begins, the thematic analysis process follows these steps:

  1. Familiarization with the data: Researchers immerse themselves in the data, reading and re-reading the material, and possibly taking initial notes. This stage is essential for understanding the breadth and depth of the content.
  2. Generating initial codes: Through a careful examination of the data, researchers identify specific elements that appear interesting and code them accordingly. Coding involves tagging segments of the data with labels that summarize or account for each piece of information. This process helps in organizing the data into manageable chunks for further analysis.
  3. Searching for themes: Codes are then reviewed and grouped together into potential themes. A theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research question and represents some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set.
  4. Reviewing themes: This step involves refining the themes to ensure they work in relation to the coded extracts and the entire data set. It may involve splitting, combining, or discarding themes.
  5. Defining and naming themes: Once a set of coherent themes has been established, each theme is clearly defined and named. This involves identifying the essence of what each theme is about and determining what aspect of the data each theme captures.
  6. Producing the report: The final step involves weaving together the analytical narrative and data extracts, and contextualizing the analysis in relation to existing literature and the research question. A typical thematic analysis report should present a coherent and logical story that convinces the reader that the chosen themes reflect the data and address the research question.
One of the easiest ways to analyze data is to sort them into categories or themes.

Why do qualitative researchers need thematic analysis?

Thematic analysis offers qualitative researchers a flexible yet systematic approach for examining data. This method is not tied to any specific theoretical framework, allowing researchers to apply it across a wide range of epistemologies and research questions. Here are several reasons why thematic analysis is indispensable for qualitative researchers:

  • Versatility: It can be used with various data types, including interview transcripts, survey responses, and social media content, making it applicable to many research fields.
  • Depth of insight: Thematic analysis allows researchers to delve into the complexities and nuances of their data, providing a rich, detailed, and complex account of their findings.
  • Accessibility: The process is accessible to researchers at different levels of experience, from beginners to experts, due to its clear and systematic nature.
  • Transparency: By providing a structured approach to data analysis, thematic analysis enhances the transparency of qualitative research. Researchers can clearly demonstrate how their findings are derived from the data, which is crucial for the credibility and trustworthiness of the research.
  • Comprehensiveness: It enables researchers to examine large volumes of data in a manageable way, ensuring that potential insights are not overlooked.

What's unique about thematic analysis?

Advantages with conducting thematic analysis center on its ease of use. In particular, thematic analysis stands out among other qualitative research methodologies for its flexibility, accessibility, and broad applicability. When compared to other qualitative methods such as discourse analysis, narrative analysis, and content analysis, thematic analysis offers distinct advantages and features that cater to a wide range of research needs and questions.

Discourse analysis

Discourse analysis focuses on the way language is used in texts and conversations to construct meanings and social realities. It pays close attention to the context in which language is used and how power relations and identities are constructed through discourse. In contrast, thematic analysis takes a broader view of the data beyond (but including) language and discourse. This makes thematic analysis more versatile and applicable to a broader variety of data types, not just textual or conversational data.

Narrative analysis

Narrative analysis looks into the storytelling aspects of data, exploring how individuals construct and convey their experiences and realities through narratives. This approach is particularly focused on the structure and function of stories within the data, examining how these narratives help individuals make sense of their world. Thematic analysis, by contrast, is less concerned with the form or structure of narratives and more focused on identifying and analyzing themes that cut across the data, regardless of how they are narrated.

Content analysis

Content analysis is a method that quantifies content in terms of predetermined categories and often involves counting the frequency of words, themes, or concepts within the data. While content analysis provides a systematic way to analyze textual data, it tends to focus more on surface-level aspects of the data and less interpretative analyses compared to thematic analysis. Thematic analysis goes beyond mere counting or categorization to interpret the underlying ideas, assumptions, and conceptualizations within the data.

Combining data analysis strategies can create a richer analysis process. Photo by Lucas K.

Different approaches to thematic analysis

Thematic analysis is a flexible method for qualitative research, accommodating various approaches based on the researcher's objectives, theoretical framework, and the nature of the data. Three notable approaches are inductive thematic analysis, deductive thematic analysis, and reflexive thematic analysis. Each approach has distinct characteristics and applications, tailored to specific research needs.

Inductive thematic analysis

Inductive thematic analysis is driven by the data itself, rather than being guided by pre-existing theories or researcher expectations. This bottom-up approach allows themes to emerge directly from the data, with coding and theme development rooted in the content of the dataset. Inductive analysis is particularly useful when exploring new or under-researched areas where the researcher aims to gain fresh insights without the constraints of existing theoretical frameworks.

Deductive thematic analysis

Deductive thematic analysis, in contrast, is a top-down approach where the researcher starts with pre-defined codes or theoretical concepts that guide the analysis. This method is applied when the research is framed by specific theories or when the study aims to examine particular aspects of the data. Deductive analysis ensures that the investigation remains closely aligned with the research questions or hypotheses that are based on the literature or theoretical considerations. This approach can provide a focused examination of the data, allowing for a targeted exploration of predefined themes.

Reflexive thematic analysis

Reflexive thematic analysis emphasizes the active role of the researcher in the analysis process. It involves continuous reflection on the way researchers' biases, assumptions, and backgrounds influence the interpretation of the data. Reflexive thematic analysis is not strictly inductive or deductive but is characterized by a constant dialogue between the researcher, the data, and the emerging analysis. This approach acknowledges the subjective nature of the analysis and seeks to make the research process as transparent as possible, allowing for a nuanced and in-depth understanding of the data.

The guide to thematic analysis

Thematic analysis is a flexible method for gathering key insights from qualitative data, and it merits a comprehensive discussion to cover all the important points that facilitate a rigorous analysis and transparent research inquiry. That's why we've written this guide to provide you with a foundational understanding of thematic analysis that you can apply to your qualitative research.

We've divided this guide into several sections, which we've outlined below. If you are new to thematic analysis or to qualitative research, we suggest reading these articles in order so you can get a sense of not only the process of conducting thematic analysis, but the reasoning behind this methodological approach. However, if you simply need a refresher on certain aspects of thematic analysis, feel free to navigate to the article that is most appropriate for you.

Introduction to thematic analysis

In this section, we'll explore the advantages and disadvantages of thematic analysis.

Thematic analysis basics

This section provides some basic information about thematic analysis through examples and some important aspects to keep in mind when applying thematic analysis to your research.

Types of thematic analysis

There are many kinds of thematic analysis to consider, so we'll look at each of the major types of thematic analysis in this section.

Thematic analysis with qualitative data collection

Qualitative data collection takes on various forms, so it will be important to understand how to apply thematic analysis to each of the major types of qualitative data.

Thematic analysis with other forms of qualitative analysis

What is the best analytical approach for your research? In this section, we'll compare thematic analysis to other analytic methods in qualitative research.

Research fields using thematic analysis

How is thematic analysis applied in various social science fields? We'll explore its use in four different research areas in this section.

Publishing thematic analysis research

After you analyze qualitative data, your job is to persuade your audience of its impact. We'll discuss this in the following articles.