Thematic coding is a form of qualitative analysis that involves recording or identifying passages of text or images that are linked by a common theme or idea allowing you to index the text into categories and therefore establish a “framework of thematic ideas about it” (Gibbs 2007).
Whilst there are a variety of different approaches to thematic analysis each method is still a form of thematic coding. These include: Grounded theory; Interpretative phenomenological analysis; Template analysis; and Framework analysis.
It is essential to view the text in a theoretical or analytical way rather than merely approaching it with a descriptive focus. Intensive reading needs to take place during this process to ensure that you are able to identify all of the relevant ideas in the text, including even the most simple.
"Charmaz suggests some basic questions to ask as you undertake this intensive reading that will help you get started:
- What is going on?
- What are people doing? What is the person saying?
- What do these actions and statements take for granted?
- How do structure and context serve to support, maintain, impede or change these actions and statements?" (Charmaz, 2003, pp. 94–5, in Gibbs, 2007, p. 42)
This example "is taken from a study of carers for people with dementia and is an interview with Barry, who is now looking after his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease. The interviewer has just asked Barry, ‘Have you had to give anything up that you enjoyed doing that was important to you?’, and he replies:
- Well, the only thing that we've really given up is – well we used to
- go dancing. Well she can't do it now so I have to go on my own,
- that's the only thing really. And then we used to go indoor bowling
- at the sports centre. But of course, that's gone by the board now. So
- we don't go there. But I manage to get her down to works club, just
- down the road on the occasional Saturdays, to the dances. She'll sit
- and listen to the music, like, stay a couple of hours and then she's
- had enough. And then, if it's a nice weekend I take her out in the 10 car.
At one level this is a very simple reply. In lines 2 to 6 Barry gives two examples of things that he and Beryl used to enjoy together, dancing and indoor bowling, then, without prompting, he lists two things that they still do together, visiting dances at the works club and going out for a drive. So a first idea is to code lines 2 to 4 to the code ‘Dancing’, lines 4 to 6 to ‘Indoor bowling’, 6 to 9 to ‘Dances at works club’ and 9 to 10 to ‘Drive together’. Such coding might be useful if you are analyzing interviews with lots of carers and you wanted to examine the actual activities given up and those still done together and compare them between couples. Then retrieving all the text coded at codes about such activities would enable you to list and compare what people said about them.
However, such coding is simply descriptive; there are usually better ways to categorize the things mentioned and there are other things indicated by Barry's text. In analysis you need to move away from descriptions, especially using respondent's terms, to a more categorical, analytic and theoretical level of coding. For example, you can code the text about dancing and indoor bowling together at a code ‘Joint activities ceased’, and text on works club dances and driving together to the code ‘Joint activities continuing’. Assuming you have done the same in other interviews, you can now retrieve all the text about what couples have given up doing and see if they have things in common. In so doing you have begun to categorize the text.
Thinking about this suggests another way to code the text. Both dancing and bowling are physical activities involving some degree of skilled movement. Clearly Beryl has lost that, so we could code lines 2 to 6 to the code ‘Loss of physical co-ordination’. This code is now slightly more analytic than those we started with, which just repeated Barry's descriptions. Barry does not talk about loss of physical co-ordination, but it is implied in what he says. Of course you need to be careful. This is an interpretation, based, here, on very little evidence. You need to look for other examples in Barry's interview of the same thing and perhaps other evidence in what he says of Beryl's infirmity.
Another thing to notice about this text is the way Barry changes from using ‘we’ about what they used to do together, to saying ‘I’ when he turns to the things they do now. This suggests another pair of analytic codes, one about joint activity with a sense of being a couple, the other about activity where the carer is just doing things for his partner. You might code these as ‘Togetherness’ and ‘Doing for’. Note that these codes do not simply code what happened, but rather suggest the way in which Barry thought about, or conceptualized, these things.
Other things you might have noticed about the passage that might be candidates for codes include Barry's rhetorical use of ‘Well’ in lines 2 and 3. He says it three times. Is this an indication of a sense of resignation, loss or regret? Again, from such a short passage it is not clear. But you might code it ‘Resignation’ for now and later see if it is consistent with other text of Barry's you have coded to ‘Resignation’. It is interesting to note that Barry says he still goes dancing, on his own. A different interpretation of this use of ‘well’ and the fact that it is the first thing that Barry mentions, is that dancing was a key thing that he and Beryl did together as a couple. You might therefore think that it is a kind of core or central activity of the couple, something that was central to their life together as a couple. Again, it would be useful to examine other carers to see if there are similar defining activities and to see if this identifies any differences between carers. Perhaps carers where the defining activities have been less affected by Alzheimer's are different from those where it has."
Source: Gibbs (2007)
Advice for using this method
This advice has been contributed by Helen Marshall, based on discussions in the Melbourne-based Qualitative Interest Group (QIG).
Start thinking about analysis when you start the project: Analysis should start when you begin the project and define your research question and purposes. Different purposes demand different types of analysis. Suppose you are collecting some qualitative data (perhaps using interviews asking clients about the best and worst things about a service). Maybe you are collecting this data to help you create the questions for a large-scale quantitative survey of clients where they rate the service on dimensions that have been suggested by your qualitative research. As you think about analysis, you realise that you only need to collect and analyse the data until there are no new categories or dimensions emerging. So, you would interview and analyse only till the data ceased to surprise you with new categories. But if the purpose of your data was to report to the providers on clients’ experiences, you might want to interview and analyse all the data from a larger sample, perhaps carefully chosen to represent different kinds of clients. You would go on looking for categories despite there being no surprises, and you would add in looking for patterns of difference between groups of clients, till you thought you had a good picture of how the different groups felt about the service. Thinking through the purposes of your project will help you sort out what kind of analysis is needed. This, in turn, will help you decide how to budget and organise the project.
View coding as part of the analysis: Coding is not separate from the analysis; it is part (a crucial part) of the process. Almost all qualitative researchers do some coding so that they can locate bits of data without trawling through all records and so they can ‘look across’ the data going beyond what someone says or does to a theme or idea of some kind (Richards 2015 p.103). There are many ways to code (see Saldaña 2009) but it always involves breaking data up into chunks of some kind. Often the breaking up will involve chunking broad ‘topics’ and also ‘analytic’ concepts. If you see material that you code at ‘people listened to me’ in your data on best things about a service, you are seeing a possible theme as well as a kind of topic. And maybe you will see links to some kind of concept (such as the idea of ‘giving voice’).
Build reflection into analysis: Time after time, in QIG meetings we say, ‘I started with this idea, and as I coded my data, I began to see the idea differently and had to do more and different coding’ Qualitative analysis is a reflective (thoughtful) and reflexive (self-aware) process and we need to find ways to enable that reflection and reflexivity.
Build rigour into analysis: Since Miles and Huberman challenged us in 1984 to find ways of showing that our analysis was not plain wrong, the literature on how to do robust and rigorous qualitative research has burgeoned (see, for example, Miles Huberman and Saldaña 2014, Denzin and Lincoln 2018). While there are many differing takes on ‘rigour’, QIG discussions keep coming back to two points. First, how can we be sure that what we say about our data is defensible? (What warrant is there for a statement that ‘for most of our clients the most important element of the service is being listened to’.) Second, how can we make sure that theoretical inferences drawn from our data are warranted? (Why is it sensible to argue that ‘being listened to’ is about being ‘giving voice’?)
- Using thematic analysis in psychology
This paper by Braun and Clarke (2006), discusses a number of considerations when undertaking a thematic analysis, and suggests a six phase approach to developing codes, themes and ultimately a report.
This software allows you to collect, organise and analyse content from interviews, focus group discussions, surveys, audio, social media and web pages.
Charmaz, K. (2003) 'Grounded Theory', in J.A. Smith (ed.), Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods. London: Sage.
Gibbs, G. R., (2007). 4 Thematic coding and categorizing. Analyzing Qualitative Data. London: SAGE Publications, Ltd
Gibbs, G. R., (2010). Coding part 2: Thematic coding. [Web Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lv3DJFBLqI
'Thematic coding' is referenced in:
- Rainbow Framework :