What is thematic analysis?
Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It minimally organises and describes your data set in (rich) detail. However, it also often goes further than this, and interprets various aspects of the research topic (Boyatzis, 1998). The range of different possible thematic analyses will further be highlighted in relation to a number of decisions regarding it as a method (see below).
Thematic analysis is widely used, but there is no clear agreement about what thematic analysis is and how you go about doing it (see Attride-Stirling, 2001; Boyatzis, 1998; Tuckett, 2005, for other examples). It can be seen as a very poorly „branded‟ method, in that it does not appear to exist as a named‟ analysis in the same way that other methods do (e.g., narrative analysis, grounded theory). In this sense, it is often not explicitly claimed as the method of analysis, when, in actuality, we argue that a lot of analysis is essentially thematic – but is either claimed as something else (such as discourse analysis, or even content analysis (e.g., Meehan, Vermeer, & Windsor, 2000)) or not identified as any particular method at all – for example, data were “subjected to qualitative analysis for commonly recurring themes” (Braun & Wilkinson, 2003: 30). If we do not know how people went about analysing their data, or what assumptions informed their analysis, it is difficult to evaluate their research, and to compare and/or synthesise it with other studies on that topic, and it can impede other researchers carrying out related projects in the future (Attride-Stirling, 2001). For these reasons alone, clarity around process and practice of method is vital. We hope that this paper will lead to more clarity around thematic analysis.
Relatedly, insufficient detail is often given to reporting the process and detail of analysis (Attride- Stirling, 2001). It is not uncommon to read of themes „emerging‟ from the data (although this issue is not limited to thematic analysis). For example, Singer and Hunter‟s (1999: 67) thematic discourse analysis of women‟s experiences of early menopause identified that “several themes emerged” during the analysis. Rubin and Rubin (1995: 226) claim that analysis is exciting because “you discover themes and concepts embedded throughout your interviews”. An account of themes emerging‟ or being „discovered‟ is a passive account of the process of analysis, and it denies the active role the researcher always plays in identifying patterns/themes, selecting which are of interest, and reporting them to the readers (Taylor & Ussher, 2001).4 The language of „themes emerging‟: can be misinterpreted to mean that themes „reside‟ in the data, and if we just look hard enough they will „emerge‟ like Venus on the half shell. If themes „reside‟ anywhere, they reside in our heads from our thinking about our data and creating links as we understand them. (Ely, Vinz, Downing, & Anzul, 1997: 205-6)
It is important at this point for us to acknowledge our own theoretical positions and values in relation to qualitative research. We do not subscribe to a naïve realist view of qualitative research where the researcher can simply „give voice‟ (see Fine, 2002) to their participants. As Fine (2002: 218) argues, even a „giving voice‟ approach “involves carving out unacknowledged pieces of narrative evidence that we select, edit, and deploy to border our arguments”. However, nor do we think there is one ideal theoretical framework for conducting qualitative research, or indeed one ideal method. What is important is that the theoretical framework and methods match what the researcher wants to know, and that they acknowledge these decisions, and recognise them as decisions.
Thematic analysis differs from other analytic methods that seek to describe patterns across qualitative data – such as „thematic‟ discourse analysis, thematic decomposition analysis, IPA and grounded theory.5 Both IPA and grounded theory seek patterns in the data, but are theoretically bounded. IPA is wed to a phenomenological epistemology (Smith, Jarman, & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2003), which gives experience primacy (Holloway & Todres, 2003), and is about understanding people‟s everyday experience of reality, in great detail, so as to gain an understanding of the phenomenon in question (McLeod, 2001). To complicate matters, grounded theory comes in different versions (Charmaz, 2002). Regardless, the goal of a grounded theory analysis is to generate a plausible – and useful – theory of the phenomena that is grounded in the data (McLeod, 2001). However, in our experience, grounded theory seems increasingly to be used in a way that is essentially grounded theory „lite‟ – as a set of procedures for coding data very much akin to thematic analysis. Such analyses do not appear to fully subscribe to the theoretical commitments of a „full-fat‟ grounded theory, which requires analysis to be directed towards theory development (Holloway & Todres, 2003). We argue, therefore, that a „named and claimed‟ thematic analysis means researchers need not subscribe to the implicit theoretical commitments of grounded theory if they do not wish to produce a fully worked-up grounded-theory analysis.
The term thematic discourse analysis is used to refer to a wide range of pattern-type analysis of data, ranging from thematic analysis within a social constructionist epistemology (i.e., where patterns are identified as socially produced, but no discursive analysis is conducted), to forms of analysis very much akin to the interpretative repertoire form of DA (Clarke, 2005). Thematic decomposition analysis (e.g., Stenner, 1993; Ussher & Mooney-Somers, 2000) is a specifically-named form of „thematic‟ discourse analysis which identifies patterns (themes, stories) within data, and theorises language as constitutive of meaning and meaning as social.
These different methods share a search for certain themes or patterns across an (entire) data set, rather than within a data item, such as an individual interview or interviews from one person, as in the case of biographical or case-study forms of analysis such as narrative analysis (e.g., Murray, 2003; Riessman, 1993). In this sense they more or less overlap with thematic analysis. As thematic analysis does not require the detailed theoretical and technological knowledge of approaches such as grounded theory and DA, it can offer a more accessible form of analysis, particularly for those early in a qualitative research career.
In contrast to IPA or grounded theory (and other methods like narrative, discourse or CA), thematic analysis is not wed to any pre-existing theoretical framework, and so it can be used within different theoretical frameworks (although not all), and can be used to do different things within them.
Thematic analysis can be an essentialist or realist method, which reports experiences, meanings and the reality of participants, or it can be a constructionist method, which examines the ways in which events, realities, meanings, experiences and so on are the effects of a range of discourses operating within society. It can also be a „contextualist‟ method, sitting between the two poles of essentialism and constructionism, and characterised by theories such as critical realism (e.g., Willig, 1999), which acknowledge the ways individuals make meaning of their experience, and, in turn, the ways the broader social context impinges on those meanings, while retaining focus on the material and other limits of „reality‟. Therefore, thematic analysis can be a method which works both to reflect reality, and to unpick or unravel the surface of „reality‟. However, it is important that the theoretical position of a thematic analysis is made clear, as this is all too often left unspoken (and is then typically a realist account). Any theoretical framework carries with it a number of assumptions about the nature of the data, what they represent in terms of the „the world‟, „reality‟, and so forth. A good thematic analysis will make this transparent.