Thematic Analysis: Inductive vs Theoretical

Inductive vs theoretical thematic analysis

Themes or patterns within data can be identified in one of two primary ways in thematic analysis: in an inductive or ‘bottom-up’ way (e.g., see Frith & Gleeson, 2004), or in a theoretical or deductive or ‘top-down’ way (e.g., see Boyatzis, 1998; Hayes, 1997). An inductive approach means the themes identified are strongly linked to the data themselves (Patton, 1990) (as such, this form of thematic analysis bears some similarity to grounded theory). In this approach, if the data have been collected specifically for the research (e.g., via interview or focus group) the themes identified may bear little relationship to the specific question that was asked of the participants. They would also not be driven by the researcher‟s theoretical interest in the area or topic.

Inductive analysis is therefore a process of coding the data without trying to fit it into a pre-existing coding frame, or the researcher‟s analytic preconceptions. In this sense, this form of thematic analysis is data-driven. However, it is important to note, as we discussed earlier, that researchers cannot free themselves of their theoretical and epistemological commitments, and data are not coded in an epistemological vacuum.

In contrast, a „theoretical‟ thematic analysis would tend to be driven by the researcher‟s theoretical or analytic interest in the area and is thus more explicitly analyst-driven. This form of thematic analysis tends to provide less of a rich description of the data overall and a more detailed analysis of some aspects of the data.

The choice between inductive and theoretical maps onto how and why you are coding the data as well. You can either code for a quite specific research question (which maps onto the more theoretical approach) or the specific research question can evolve through the coding process (which maps onto the inductive approach).

For example, if a researcher was interested in talking about hetero sex, and had collected interview data, with an inductive approach they would read and re-read the data for any themes related to heterosexual, and code diversely, without paying attention to the themes that previous research on the topic might have identified. For example, the researcher would not look to Hollway‟s (1989) influential research identifying discourses of hetero sex, and code just for male sexual drive, have/hold or permissive discourse themes.

In contrast, with a theoretical approach, the researcher may well be interested in the way permissiveness plays out across the data, and focus on that particular feature in coding the data. What this would then result in is a number of themes around permissiveness, which may include, speak to, or expand on something approximating Hollway‟s original theme.

Semantic or Latent Themes

Another decision revolves around the „level‟ at which themes are to be identified: at a semantic or explicit level, or at a latent or interpretative level (Boyatzis, 1998). A thematic analysis typically focuses exclusively or primarily on one level. With a semantic approach, the themes are identified within the explicit or surface meanings of the data and the analyst is not looking for anything beyond what a participant has said or what has been written.

Ideally, the analytic process involves a progression from the description, where the data have simply been organised to show patterns in semantic content, and summarised, to interpretation, where there is an attempt to theorise the significance of the patterns and their broader meanings and implications (Patton, 1990), often in relation to previous literature (see Frith & Gleeson, 2004, for an excellent example of this).

In contrast, a thematic analysis at the latent level goes beyond the semantic content of the data, and starts to identify or examine the underlying ideas, assumptions, and conceptualisations – and ideologies – that are theorised as shaping or informing the semantic content of the data. If we imagine our data three-dimensionally as an uneven blob of jelly, the semantic approach would seek to describe the surface of the jelly, its form and meaning, while the latent approach would seek to identify the features that gave it that particular form and meaning. Thus for latent thematic analysis, the development of the themes themselves involves interpretative work, and the analysis that is produced is not just a description but is already theorised.

Analysis within this latter tradition tends to come from a constructionist paradigm (e.g., Burr, 1995), and in this form, thematic analysis overlaps with some forms of „discourse analysis‟ (which are sometimes specifically referred to as „thematic discourse analysis‟ (e.g., Singer & Hunter, 1999; Taylor & Ussher, 2001)), where broader assumptions, structures and/or meanings are theorised as underpinning what is actually articulated in the data. Increasingly, a number of discourse analysts are also revisiting psycho-analytic modes of interpretation (e.g., Hollway & Jefferson, 2000), and latent thematic analysis would also be compatible with that framework.

Epistemology: essentialist/realist vs constructionist thematic analysis

As we have argued, thematic analysis can be conducted within both realist/essentialist and constructionist paradigms, although the outcome and focus will be different from each. The question of epistemology is usually determined when a research project is being conceptualised, although epistemology may also raise its head again during analysis, when the research focus may shift to an interest in different aspects of the data.

The research epistemology guides what you can say about your data, and informs how you theorise meaning. For instance, with an essentialist/realist approach, you can theorise motivations, experience, and meaning in a straight- forward way, because a simple, largely unidirectional relationship is assumed between meaning and experience and language (language reflects and enables us to articulate meaning and experience) (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Widdicombe & Wooffitt, 1995).

In contrast, from a constructionist perspective, meaning and experience are socially produced and reproduced, rather than inhering within individuals (Burr, 1995). Therefore, thematic analysis conducted within a constructionist framework cannot and does not seek to focus on motivation or individual psychologies, but instead seeks to theorise the socio-cultural contexts, and structural conditions, that enable the individual accounts that are provided. Thematic analysis that focuses on latent‟ themes tends to be more constructionist, and it also tends to start to overlap with thematic discourse analysis at this point. However, not all „latent‟ thematic analysis is constructionist.