Thematic analysis (TA) emphasizes identifying, analysing and interpreting patterns of meaning (or “themes”) within qualitative data. It does so mostly through coding, whereas the codes can be (code book, coding reliability) predefined or (reflexive) developed during the analysis. TA is sometimes claimed to be compatible with phenomenology in that it can focus on participants’ subjective experiences and sense-making. TA has a theoretical flexibility is used within realist, critical realist and relativist ontologies and positivist, contextualist and constructionist epistemologies.
Coding within TA will always reflect the researchers’ philosophical standpoints and research values. There can be inductive or deductive approaches. Quasi (never pure) inductive approaches code without trying to fit the data into pre-existing theories or frameworks. Deductive approaches are theory-driven and can involve using theory as a lens to look at the data. Of course, TA can combine inductive and deductive approaches.
Reflexive approaches centre organic and flexible coding processes - there is no code book, coding can be undertaken by one researcher, if multiple researchers are involved in coding this is conceptualised as a collaborative process rather than one that should lead to consensus. Individual codes are not fixed - they can evolve throughout the coding process, the boundaries of the code can be redrawn, codes can be split into two or more codes, collapsed with other codes and even promoted to themes. Reflexive approaches typically involve later theme development - with themes created from clustering together similar codes. Themes should capture shared meaning organised around a central concept or idea.
There is no unifiyn definition of theme within the different TA approaches.
For some thematic analysis proponents, including Braun and Clarke, themes are conceptualised as patterns of shared meaning across data items, underpinned or united by a central concept, which are important to the understanding of a phenomenon and are relevant to the research question.
In the reflexive approach the researches active part in the creation of theme is important. Themes are not emerging (passive researcher) but are actively generated, created and constructed.
Codes and themes are like bricks and brickwalls.
An important tool in the process of TA is the use of a reflexivity journal.
The reflexivity process can be described as the researcher reflecting on and documenting how their values, positionings, choices and research practices influenced and shaped the study and the final analysis of the data. […] Throughout the coding process researchers should have detailed records of the development of each of their codes and potential themes.
Six Phases of thematic analysis
- reading and re-reading data
- generation of initial codes
- combination of codes into themes
- reflection on how theme supports data and theoretical approach
- analysis of themes
- thick description / report of themes
Braun, V., Clarke, V., Hayfield, N., & Terry, G. (2019). Thematic Analysis. In P. Liamputtong (Ed.), Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences (pp. 843–860). Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5251-4_103