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?
  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
    1. Introduction
    2. What is thematic analysis?
    3. What is content analysis?
    4. Thematic analysis and content analysis compared
    5. How do you choose between content and thematic 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

Thematic vs. Content Analysis

Both content analysis and thematic analysis share similarities in terms of the data analysis process, but there are key differences, particularly depending on your objectives to analyze qualitative data. Let's examine the similarities and differences between these two approaches.

Both thematic analysis and content analysis help researchers find patterns in their data corpus.

What is thematic analysis?

Thematic analysis is a foundational qualitative data analysis method that involves identifying, analyzing, and interpreting patterns of meaning or 'themes' within qualitative data. It's a flexible and useful research tool that can provide a rich and detailed yet complex account of data. A defining feature of thematic analysis is its ability to highlight similarities and differences across a data set. It's an unobtrusive method that allows the data to speak, ensuring that the voices and experiences of participants are central to the research findings.

Thematic analysis is typically conducted in six stages:

  1. Familiarization with the data: This initial stage involves the researcher thoroughly reading and re-reading the collected data and making preliminary notes about possible patterns or interesting points.
  2. Generating initial codes: Here, the researcher identifies significant features of the data that relate to the research question and 'codes' them. Coding is a way of organizing data into meaningful groups.
  3. Searching for themes: At this stage, the researcher reviews the codes and starts to identify broader patterns or themes. These themes represent some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set.
  4. Reviewing themes: This involves checking the themes against the coded extracts and the entire data set to ensure they tell a compelling story about the data.
  5. Defining and naming themes: Here, the researcher further refines the themes, identifies the 'story' they tell about the data, and determines what aspect of the data each theme captures.
  6. Producing the report: The final stage is where the researcher writes up the analysis, providing sufficient evidence to support their interpretations.

One of the key strengths of thematic analysis is its flexibility. Unlike some qualitative research methods, it's not tied to a specific theoretical framework, making it adaptable across a variety of research contexts and disciplines. It's ideal for exploring diverse participant perspectives and experiences and can be applied to large or small data sets. Moreover, thematic analysis can be used in a 'realist' way – to report experiences, meanings, and the reality of participants – or in a 'constructionist' manner – examining the ways in which events, realities, meanings, experiences, and so on are the effects of a range of discourses operating within society.

Thematic analysis is also advantageous due to its accessibility. Researchers new to qualitative analysis may find it a good starting point because it offers clear, step-by-step procedures. Yet, it still allows for depth and complexity in the analysis, so it is not solely a method for beginners.

In summary, thematic analysis is a robust and adaptable method of qualitative analysis. It allows for a nuanced understanding of data, highlighting important themes that emerge directly from the data set. Its flexibility and accessibility make it a popular choice in many fields, from psychology and sociology to business and healthcare. When applied rigorously, thematic analysis can yield insightful and valuable findings, providing a bridge between raw data and meaningful results.

What is content analysis?

Content analysis, another popular qualitative research method, is a systematic and objective means of describing and quantifying phenomena, especially in textual data. It involves the direct examination of communication in its various forms, such as written text, speech, images, or even symbolic matter. Unlike thematic analysis or other structural approaches like narrative analysis, content analysis is primarily focused on the presence, meanings, and relationships of certain words, themes, or concepts within the research material. Historically, content analysis was a predominantly quantitative method, focusing on counting the frequency of certain words or phrases. However, its approach has evolved to incorporate more qualitative aspects, giving rise to 'qualitative content analysis.' This form of content analysis goes beyond mere counting and includes interpreting the nuances, context, and underlying meanings in the content.

Qualitative content analysis usually involves three main stages:

  1. Preparation: The first step is to choose the material or content to be analyzed. This could be interview transcripts, documents, media outputs, or any form of communication that is related to the research question. Researchers immerse themselves in the content to gain an overall understanding and develop initial impressions.
  2. Organizing: During this stage, the material is broken down into manageable pieces, usually through coding. Each segment of the content that represents a single idea is assigned a code. Codes can be pre-defined, emergent, or a combination of both, depending on the research approach.
  3. Reporting and interpreting: The final step involves analyzing the coded segments and looking for patterns or themes. These themes are then interpreted in relation to the research question and the broader context. This may include understanding implications, drawing conclusions, or formulating further theories.

Content analysis has several strengths that make it a valuable method in qualitative research. One of its most significant characteristics is its systematic nature. The method involves specific, identifiable steps, from data preparation to final reporting, which gives it transparency and makes it replicable. Content analysis also allows for both depth and breadth in analysis. It enables researchers to interpret data in a nuanced manner, understanding the context and the complexities of the content. At the same time, it can also handle large volumes of data efficiently, making it useful for large-scale studies.

Moreover, content analysis is highly adaptable and can be used in conjunction with other methods and theories. It applies to a wide array of disciplines and topics, from media and communication studies to sociology, psychology, and health research. It's particularly effective when analyzing texts or communication that involve complex symbols or language. Lastly, content analysis provides a bridge between qualitative and quantitative research. Though primarily used qualitatively, it retains its roots in quantitative research. This allows it to provide quantifiable data (like word frequencies), giving researchers a way to provide descriptive statistics alongside rich, qualitative insights.

Content analysis looks directly at the text to derive meaning. Photo by Sandy Millar.

In summary, content analysis is a versatile and robust tool in the qualitative researcher's toolkit. It combines systematic procedures with interpretative depth, handling complex communications efficiently. While it can be used alone, its adaptability makes it an excellent companion to other qualitative methods, providing a holistic view of the research topic. Whether analyzing simple texts or intricate symbols, content analysis offers researchers a methodical and comprehensive approach to qualitative research.

Thematic analysis and content analysis compared

Thematic analysis and content analysis are two essential tools in the qualitative researcher's toolbox. While they share similarities in their general objective - to explore and interpret qualitative data - they differ significantly in their focus, process, and outcomes. Understanding these differences is crucial when deciding which method best suits a specific research question and context. At a high level, both thematic analysis and content analysis involve a systematic approach to data, with coding and theme development as key stages. Both methods strive to reduce the complexity of qualitative data, identifying key themes or patterns that can help answer the research question. They share a common goal of turning the unstructured mass of qualitative data into structured, interpretable insights. However, while the overarching objectives may align, the focus and process of each method differ notably.

Data focus and interpretation

Thematic analysis places a strong emphasis on individuals' experiences, views, and perceptions, often striving for a depth of understanding of people's lived realities. It aims to identify themes that provide insight into a particular group or culture. The interpretation in thematic analysis often involves a 'realist' approach, where researchers attempt to report on the reality of participants, or a 'constructionist' approach, exploring how discourses shape individuals' realities. Content analysis, on the other hand, is primarily focused on the content or communication itself - the words, phrases, symbols, or images. It's often used to understand the content's context, intentions, or effects. Its interpretation can be 'manifest,' focusing on the obvious, visible components of the content, or 'latent,' seeking to uncover the underlying meanings.

Coding and theme development

The process of coding in thematic analysis is largely inductive, with codes and themes developed from the data itself. This 'bottom-up' approach allows for unexpected findings to emerge, which can lead to rich and complex interpretations. In contrast, content analysis often employs a more deductive coding process, with pre-determined codes or categories applied to the data. This 'top-down' approach is more structured and can allow for more straightforward comparisons across different data sets. However, it's worth noting that content analysis can also be conducted inductively, particularly in the qualitative form.

Quantitative elements

Another notable difference between the two methods is their relationship with quantitative research. Content analysis originated as a quantitative method and retained elements of this in its approach. While it's now often used qualitatively, it can still provide numerical data, such as word frequencies or theme occurrences. This allows for some degree of statistical analysis alongside qualitative interpretation, bridging the gap between the two research paradigms. Thematic analysis, however, is predominantly a qualitative method, with less emphasis on counting and more on exploring the data's depth and complexity. While it can incorporate some quantitative elements, these are generally secondary to qualitative analysis.

Flexibility and accessibility

Both thematic analysis and content analysis are highly flexible and adaptable to different research questions, contexts, and theoretical frameworks. However, thematic analysis is often viewed as more accessible, particularly for researchers new to qualitative analysis, thanks to its clear, step-by-step process and the depth of guidance available. Content analysis, with its roots in quantitative research and its focus on the content itself, can require more experience or specific skills, particularly when dealing with complex or symbolic content.

In summary, while thematic analysis and content analysis share some commonalities, they provide different perspectives and tools for exploring qualitative data. Thematic analysis offers a deep, nuanced understanding of individuals' experiences and realities, while content analysis provides a structured, focused examination of the content and its meanings. Their differences highlight the importance of aligning the research method with the research question, the data, and the researcher's skills and experience. The choice between thematic analysis and content analysis is not so much about which is 'better' but rather which is most suitable for the task at hand.

How do you choose between content and thematic analysis?

The decision to use thematic analysis or content analysis in a research project should be guided by the nature of the research question, the type of data available, and the goals of the research.

Research question

Thematic analysis is particularly beneficial when the research question aims to explore experiences, perceptions, and understandings of individuals or groups. It's a powerful tool for shedding light on the lived realities of the participants, making it suitable for exploratory research, where the objective is to understand complex phenomena in depth. On the other hand, content analysis may be a more appropriate choice when the research question focuses on the content or communication itself. If the study aims to examine the presence, relationships, or meanings of certain words, themes, or concepts within a specific content, content analysis would be the suitable approach.

Data type

Thematic analysis lends itself well to large volumes of rich, detailed data, such as in-depth interviews or focus groups, where participants provide comprehensive accounts of their experiences. Content analysis as either a quantitative or qualitative method is advantageous when working with extensive textual data or symbolic communications, such as documents, speeches, media content, or visual data. It can efficiently handle large amounts of data and is particularly useful when the content is complex or contains hidden meanings.

Research goals

If the research goal is to provide a rich, nuanced understanding of a phenomenon from the participant's perspective, thematic analysis would be the ideal choice. It facilitates the development of detailed interpretations and is effective at revealing complexity and diversity within the data. This approach is useful if, for example, you are analytically examining narrative materials to read between the lines to reach underlying meanings. Conversely, if the research aims to quantify certain aspects of the data or draw comparisons across different data sets, content analysis could be a better fit with its roots in quantitative research. It allows for systematic counting and comparison and provides nuanced qualitative insights.

Researcher's expertise

Finally, the researcher's expertise should be considered. Thematic analysis, with its clear, step-by-step guidance and emphasis on depth over breadth, can be an excellent starting point for those new to qualitative research. Content analysis, especially when dealing with complex or symbolic content, may require more experience or specific skills.

The choice between thematic analysis and content analysis hinges on the specifics of the research project and the researcher's expertise. Both methods offer unique strengths and are adaptable to various contexts, making them versatile tools in qualitative research. Understanding their key characteristics, similarities, and differences can aid researchers in selecting the most suitable method for their research, thereby ensuring robust, meaningful, and insightful findings.