Monday, 18 May 2020

Thematic Analysis: A Research Method

Catherine Best

Webmaster for the Phi Mu (All England) Chapter of Sigma
Qualitative research is described as a process through which, an open and flexible approach to enquiry and data collection can emerge (Kumar, 2014). It seeks to explore diversity, emphasise feelings and critique the lived experience, the findings of which can be communicated using a narrative approach (ibid).

Moreover, qualitative research has been widely used within healthcare as a means of acquiring knowledge and to provide insight into the real lives, events and perspectives of both patients and health care professionals (Braun and Clarke, 2014).

One way in which qualitative data can be analysed is through the process of thematic analysis, described by Clarke and Braun (2017, p.297) as ‘a method for identifying, analysing and interpreting patterns of meaning (‘themes’) within qualitative data’.

Such patterns emerging through a meticulous process of data familiarisation and data coding; theme development and revision (Guest et al, 2012). Coding, being used to represent identified themes and provide summary markers for further development (ibid). There is however, much more to thematic analysis than simply summarising the data, for as Maguire and Delahunt, (2017, p.3353) purport ‘a good thematic analysis’ also ‘interprets and makes sense’ of the data collected.

Furthermore, thematic analysis also offers a set of established tools that researchers can use, to ensure the development of a robust and high-level critique of qualitative data; making the data more easily accessible to those not considered part of academia (Braun and Clarke, 2014).

It could be argued therefore, that this type of research method, is the most empowering of all research. For ultimately it allows early career researchers to develop an understanding of how to interpret data (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Research and its outcomes should not be confined to the ivory towers of universities, but made widely available to a more expansive audience, delivered in such a way that it can be understood by the many, rather than the elitist few.

Thematic analysis therefore, offers a flexible approach [within qualitative research] towards the analysis of data, creating a more structured and implicit construct, without compromising depth of the analysis undertaken (Javadi and Zarea, 2016). Moreover, an effective thematic analysis enables both reflection and clarification of the research itself (ibid).

Any form of research is required to demonstrate rigour, reliability and validity, a process which helps to determine trustworthiness (Roberts et al, 2019) and a critique of the literature as to the rigour of thematic analysis, has generated an interesting discourse. Thematic analysis, argues Bazeley (2009), fails to stand up to scrutiny as a valid research method and asserts that problems can occur with the interpretation of data, with particular reference to themes. Furthermore, reliability is of greatest concern within thematic analysis because more interpretation is required when defining the codes used (Guest et al, 2012).

Moreover, the lack of extensive literature on thematic analysis compared to other types of research, may lead to novice researchers being unclear as to how to undertake such research (Nowell et al, 2017).

On a more positive note, however, thematic analysis argues Braun and Clarke, (2006) provides a flexible and accessible form of analysis, an understanding of which, can be easily grasped. It can also be useful in analysing small, medium and even large sized data sets (Herzog et al, 2019), although as Guest et al, (2012) argue, interpretation of large amounts of data, using thematic analysis, can also be challenging.

To demonstrate a clear, replicable and transparent method and therefore effectively manage direct criticism, Braun and Clarke (2006) outline a series of phases which researchers must embrace in order to produce a thematic analysis. This phased approach is considered the most influential and the clearest of the frameworks as it offers a well-defined structure upon which to theme and analyse data (Maguire and Delahunt, 2017). This framework argues Braun and Clarke, (2006) ensures the researcher familiarises self with the data, adequately prepares the data for analysis, reduces the data into a set of codes, searches for themes, reviews and then define themes and ultimately critiques the findings in the format required.

Overall, considering the advantages and limitations of this method, thematic analysis could be considered a valid research method as it enables the generation of a rich source of information, through which a clear unbiased approach to the analysis of data can emerge and effective interpretations made.


Bazeley, P (2009) Analysing Qualitative Data: More than ‘Identifying Themes’. The Malaysian Journal of Qualitative Research, 2 (2) pp. 6-21.

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2014) What can ‘‘thematic analysis’’ offer health and wellbeing researchers? International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Wellbeing 9 (1), pp.1-2.

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3 (1) pp.77-10.

Clarke V. and Braun V. (2017) Thematic analysis, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12 (3) pp.297-298.

Guest, G. Macqueen K.M. and Namey, E.E. (2012) Applied Thematic Analysis. Sage Publications.

Herzog, C. Handke, C and Hitters, E. (2019) Analyzing Talk and Text II: Thematic Analysis. In: Van den Bulck, H. Puppis, M. Donders, K. and Van Audenhove, L. (Eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Methods for Media Policy Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Javadi, M. and Zarea, K. (2016) Understanding Thematic Analysis and its Pitfalls. Journal of Client Care 1 (1) pp.33-39.

Kumar, R. (2014) Research Methodology. A step-by-step guide for beginners. 4th edition. Sage.

Maguire, M. and Delahunt, B. (2017) Doing a Thematic analysis: A Practical, step-by-step Guide for Learning and Teaching Scholars. All Ireland Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 8 (3) pp.3351-33514.

Nowell L. S. Norris J. M. White D. E. and Moules N. J. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16 (1) pp.1-13

Roberts, K. Dowell, A. and Nie, J. Attempting rigour and replicability in thematic analysis of qualitative research data; a case study of codebook development. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 19 (66) pp.1-8

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