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Thematic Analysis

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Thematic Analysis

Researchers collect two types of data known as quantitative and qualitative. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and they differ in how they are collected and analysed. Quantitative data is relatively easy to analyse objectively, as we can use statistical analysis to understand what the results are telling us and if they are significant or not. Qualitative data is harder to analyse objectively and relies more on subjective analysis.

Thematic analysis is the method used to analyse and produce qualitative data. The process involves reading a qualitative dataset form, such as a transcript. The researcher then identifies critical themes that are evident in the data. These are reported using extracts of the data as evidence.

Thematic analysis can be used in psychology research when the researcher wants to explain the phenomenon investigated more in-depth.

Thematic Analysis Research using Thematic Analysis StudySmarterResearch using thematic analysis, freepik.com/vectorjuice

Thematic Analysis in Qualitative Research

The purpose of thematic analysis is to analyse qualitative data. The data produced is systematically organised, qualitative data. It is arguably one of the most frequently used forms of analysis where qualitative research is concerned and excels at finding patterns in data to identify an overall theme.

How is a thematic analysis carried out?

The thematic analysis process generally involves six stages that researchers should follow. Before starting a thematic analysis, the researchers need to identify a research question, operationalise a hypothesis, and carry out the research. The data used for thematic analysis needs to be in qualitative form.

1. Read through the data – the researcher becomes familiar with the data by re-reading it multiple times. While reading the data, researchers take notes of their thoughts concerning the data.

2. Decide preliminary codes – systematically organising the data is the starting process. Categorise the data codes based on key themes that the researcher has identified. The codes that researchers use are related to the research question/hypothesis. During this stage, multiple researchers look through the data to compare codes identified (checking if these are consistent and the coding system is reliable).

We distinguish two different types of thematic analysis: theoretical and inductive thematic analysis.

  • Theoretical thematic analysis coding – data is coded if determined to be relevant to the research question.
  • Inductive thematic analysis – researchers carry out a line-by-line and create codes based on the data contents. The data is analysed based on what it initially presents, rather than relying on pre-existing themes being searched for by the researcher.

3. Identify themes in the data – the identified themes are based on patterns researchers identified in the data.

During this stage, the researchers identify if there are themes in the coded data. The identified themes provide a broader context for the coded data.

Thematic analysis example

Potential codes that may be identified in the research are:

  • Anger (shouting)
  • Happiness (smiling)
  • Despair (phrases such as bad things keep happening to me).
  • Hostility (refusing to talk, holding back)
  • Loneliness (phrases such as I spend all my time alone)
  • Sadness (crying)

Therefore, the potential themes researchers possibly use are positive and negative emotions (this groups the coded data together and provides a broader context/explanation for the codes identified; this is a research scenario and is not reflective of any published work).

Following on from identifying themes in the data:

4. Checking themes – themes are modified during this stage. The themes are checked to see if they support the data.

If the themes do not support the data, they can take away the context of the data. The context and depth of information provided is the main advantage of qualitative data, so the researcher should avoid including irrelevant themes. In addition, including themes that do not support the data reduces the validity of the results.

5. Themes are defined – At this stage, the themes are finalised, the sub-themes are defined and the researcher justifies how the themes and sub-themes are related. These are often illustrated in the form of thematic maps.

This example will use the research scenario described above. The research identifies behaviour that is indicative of the codes, for example:

  • Anger (shouting)

  • Happiness (smiling)

  • Despair (phrases such as bad things keep happening to me)

  • Hostility (refusing to talk, holding back)

  • Loneliness (phrases such as I spend all my time alone)

  • Sadness (crying)

The potential themes the researcher could use are positive and negative emotions.

Using the example above that identified the themes as positive and negative emotions, the potential sub-themes identified could be negative thoughts (e.g. bad things keep happening to me) and negative actions (e.g. crying).

Using the example above that identified the themes as positive and negative emotions, the potential sub-themes identified could be negative thoughts (e.g. bad things keep happening to me) and negative actions (e.g. crying).

Thematic Analysis thematic analysis example StudySmarterAn example of what a thematic map looks like, Manreet Thind - StudySmarter

6. The results are written up – this is the final stage where the researcher explains the results that they have found. The researcher needs to justify the codes and themes found to show that bias did not influence them (which reduces the validity of the research). In the report, the researcher will write the codes and themes found and provide data extracts as support.

Content Analysis vs Thematic Analysis

Thematic and content analysis differ in that thematic analysis is used purely for qualitative research and gives a detailed account of key themes and categories. Content analysis, however, can be used for both qualitative and quantitative research, as it uses coding units to quantify the themes present in the qualitative data set.

Content analysis is an analysis method used to identify words, themes, and concepts in qualitative data and transform them into quantitative data. This method follows a similar protocol to thematic analysis.

An act or theme in a transcript is given a ‘coding unit’, which is clearly defined beforehand on its meaning. The content analysis then analyses the data and counts how many instances of these different coding units occur, allowing for quantitative statistical analysis of the qualitative data.

Whereas in thematic analysis, a researcher codes themes in the text to then apply them and organise them into categories of related themes, grouping them to identify key themes and categories and present them accordingly.

The type of analysis used depends on the type of data the researcher is looking for.
  • For example, if the researcher is carrying out a case study, they would use thematic analysis to obtain enriched data that will help them learn more about the patterns or trends concerning the phenomenon.

  • Whereas content analysis may be used to find the relationship between occurrences of certain themes/behaviours and a phenomenon.

Evaluation of thematic analysis

Psychological research widely employs thematic analysis. Many advantages of using this data analysis method exist. However, there are drawbacks to using this method as well.

Researchers need to keep these in mind to identify if the data analysis method is appropriate. If researchers find that the method is inappropriate for their research, for example, other methods can be used if their research is better with quantitative data. This method is called content analysis.

Advantages of thematic analysis

The advantages of thematic analysis are:

  • This process highlights patterns and behaviours that may affect or outcome of a situation with evidence. This in-depth information can increase understanding of why certain occurrences happen.

  • The researchers may identify unexpected themes, providing guidelines for future research.

  • This analysis approach is flexible so that the analysis can be accommodated to the data. For example, themes or codes do not have to be pre-defined. Moreover, in quantitative analysis methods, the analysis type that can be used is restricted based on if the data meet the criteria, which is not the case in thematic analysis.

  • Using thematic analysis also provides a lot of detail that quantitative research can miss.

  • Triangulation can increase objectivity.

Disadvantages of thematic analysis

The disadvantages of thematic analysis are:

  • The researcher analyses the data, so themes identified and results may be due to investigator bias, reducing the reliability and validity of findings.

  • Thematic analysis can be a time-consuming process.


Thematic Analysis - Key Takeaways

  • Thematic analysis is an analysis method used to analyse qualitative data. The data is analysed based on identifying themes in the data and grouping them into key themes and categories.
  • The purpose of thematic analysis is to analyse qualitative data. This analysis method also produces qualitative data, which can be used in psychology research when the researcher wants to explain the phenomenon investigated in-depth.
  • There are six stages to carrying out a thematic analysis. These are reading through the data, deciding preliminary codes, identifying themes in the data, verifying the themes, defining the themes, and finally, writing the results.
  • The advantages of thematic analysis are that it provides in-depth information – it is a flexible data analysis method, and unexpected results can easily be identified. The disadvantages of this analysis method are that it can be time-consuming, and bias can easily influence the analysis procedure.
  • The thematic analysis differs from content analysis in that content analysis can be used for qualitative and quantitative research and transforms qualitative data into quantitative data using coding units and statistical analysis.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thematic Analysis

Thematic analysis is an analysis method used to analyse qualitative data. The data is analysed based on identifying themes in the data and grouping them into key themes and categories.

There are six stages to carrying out a thematic analysis:

  1. Read through the data 
  2. Decide preliminary codes
  3. Identify themes in the data 
  4. Check themes identified 
  5. Define themes 
  6. Writing up results 

The codes in a thematic analysis are methods that meaningfully group data based on key themes identified by the researcher.  

We distinguish two different types of thematic analysis: theoretical and inductive thematic analysis. 


  • Theoretical thematic analysis coding – data is coded if determined to be relevant to the research question.
  • Inductive thematic analysis – researchers carry out a line-by-line and create codes based on the data contents. The data is analysed based on what it initially presents, rather than relying on pre-existing themes being searched for by the researcher.

The purpose of thematic analysis is to analyse qualitative data. This analysis method also produces qualitative data. When the researcher wants their research to provide an in-depth explanation of the phenomenon being investigated, he can use a thematic analysis. 

Final Thematic Analysis Quiz

Question

Why would researchers use thematic analysis instead of content analysis? 

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Answer

So that they can obtain enriched data that will help them learn more about the patterns or trends concerning the phenomenon.

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Question

What type of data is required for thematic analysis?

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Answer

Quantitative 

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Question

Do the content and thematic analysis produce the same form of data?

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Answer

Yes

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Question

What are the stages of thematic analysis?

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Answer

Reading through the data, deciding preliminary codes, identifying themes in the data, verifying the themes, defining the themes, and finally, writing the results.

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Question

What are the advantages of thematic analysis? 

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Answer

  • It provides in-depth information
  • It is a flexible data analysis method
  • Unexpected results can easily be identified

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Question

What are the disadvantages of thematic analysis? 

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Answer

  • It can be time-consuming
  • Bias can easily influence the analysis procedure

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Question

Of the following, which are examples of themes? 

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Answer

Positive emotions

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Question

Of the following, which are examples of sub-themes? 

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Answer

Negative emotions

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Question

What is coded data in thematic analysis?

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Answer

The codes in a thematic analysis are methods that meaningfully group data based on key themes identified by the researcher.

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Question

Which type of thematic analysis matches the following definition ‘data is coded if determined to be relevant to the research question’?

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Answer

Theoretical thematic analysis

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Question

Which type of thematic analysis matches the following definition: ‘line-by-line coding is carried out, and codes are created based on the data contents’?

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Answer

Theoretical thematic analysis

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Question

What determines the themes identified?

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Answer

The themes identified are based on patterns the researchers identified in the data.

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Question

During which step does the data begin to be organised systematically?

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Answer

The second stage, where the preliminary codes are decided.

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Question

Which are examples of qualitative datasets?

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Answer

Transcripts

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Question

Which of the following provides a broader context of the data?

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Answer

Themes

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