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Developing Psychology Case Study, UWE, Singapore Thematic analysis is a poorly demarcated and rarely-acknowledged, yet widely-used qualitative analytic method
University University of the West of England (UWE)
Subject Developing Psychology
Posted on: 15th Jul 2023

Developing Psychology Case Study, UWE, Singapore Thematic analysis is a poorly demarcated and rarely-acknowledged, yet widely-used qualitative analytic method

Thematic analysis is a poorly demarcated and rarely-acknowledged, yet widely-used qualitative analytic method within and beyond psychology. In this paper, we aim to fill what we, as researchers and teachers in qualitative psychology, have experienced as a current gap: the absence of a paper that adequately outlines the theory, application, and, evaluation of thematic analysis, and one which does so in a way accessible to students and those not particularly familiar with qualitative research.

That is, we aim to write a paper that will be useful as both a teaching and research tool in qualitative psychology. Therefore, in this paper, we discuss the theory and method for thematic analysis and clarify the similarities and differences between different approaches that share features in common with a thematic approach. Qualitative approaches are incredibly diverse, complex, and nuanced (Holloway & Todres, 2003), and thematic analysis should be seen as a foundational method for qualitative analysis.

It is the first qualitative method of analysis that researchers should learn, as it provides core skills that will be useful for conducting many other forms of qualitative analysis. Indeed, Holloway and Todres (2003: 347) identify “thematizing meanings” as one of a few shared generic skills across qualitative analysis.

For this reason, Boyatzis (1998) characterizes it not as a specific method but as a tool to use across different methods. Similarly, Ryan and Bernard (2000) locate thematic coding as a process performed within „major‟ analytic traditions (such as grounded theory), rather than a specific approach in its own right. We argue thematic analysis should be considered a method in its own right.

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One of the benefits of thematic analysis is its flexibility. Qualitative analytic methods can be roughly divided into two camps. Within the first, there are those tied to, or stemming from, a particular theoretical or epistemological position. For some of these – such as conversation analysis ([CA] e.g., Hutchby & Wooffitt, 1998) and interpretative phenomenological analysis ([IPA] e.g., Smith & Osborn, 2003) – there is (as yet) relatively limited variability in how the method is applied, within that framework.

In essence, one recipe guides analysis. For others of these – such as grounded theory (e.g., Glaser, 1992; Strauss & Corbin, 1998), discourse analysis ([DA] e.g., Burman & Parker, 1993; Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Willig, 2003) or narrative analysis (e.g., Murray, 2003; Riessman, 1993) – there are different manifestations of the method, from within the broad theoretical framework.

Second, there are methods that are essentially independent of theory and epistemology and can be applied across a range of theoretical and epistemological approaches. Although often (implicitly) framed as a realist/experiential method (e.g., Aronson, 1994; Roulston, 2001), thematic analysis is actually firmly in the second camp, and is compatible with both essentialist and constructionist paradigms within psychology (we discuss this later). Through its theoretical freedom, thematic analysis provides a flexible and useful research tool, which can potentially provide a rich and detailed, yet complex account of data.

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