Methods, Resources and Tips: Thematic Analysis

Introduction by Suzanne Fergus

As qualitative approaches are very different to the research approaches used in chemistry research, it seemed a good starting point to delve into and explore this a little. The most basic definition of qualitative research is that it uses words as data, which are collected and analysed in a variety of ways. The following table (adapted from Braun and Clarke (2013)) shares some broad differences between qualitative and quantitative approaches.

Quantitative Qualitative
Numbers used as data Words used as data
Seeks to identify relationships between variables with the aim of generalising the findings to a wider population Seeks to understand and interpret more local meanings in a particular context. Sometimes produces knowledge that contributes to more general understandings
Large number of participants take part Generates narrow but rich data, thick descriptions
Tends to be theory testing and deductive (working down from theory into data) Tends to be theory generating and inductive (working up from the data)
Values objectivity and impartiality Values personal involvement and subjectivity
Can be completed quickly Tends to take longer to complete because it is interpretative and there is no formula

So qualitative research is about meaning, not numbers and it doesn’t provide a single answer. In the detailed resource and example available from Dr Ronan Bree (see below), the use of thematic analysis (TA) is a widely used approach to analyse data. Braun and Clarke’s, 2006 (which I recently learned is pronounced ‘Brown’) paper is a must read for anyone choosing to use a thematic analysis approach.

Some key aspects of their TA approach that are worth noting and are aspects I wish I knew when I was starting out include the focus on interpretation, flexibility and not on inter-coder reliability. So coding with more than one researcher does not lead to “better” coding. Other TA approaches use a coding frame and calculation of inter-reliability scores is captured. They argue that inter-rater reliability scores show that two researchers have been trained to code data in the same way. It’s just something to be aware of especially if citing the Braun and Clarke paper as the method used in your project.

Another important point is in the reporting of themes and the time involved to complete the analysis. Paraphrasing the data and summarising in a way that does not go beyond the data or implies patterns is not complete. The analysis should go beyond the questions asked in the interview stages, patterns should not map directly from data collection questions. The themes don’t “emerge”; TA is a more active process through the interaction of the researcher with the data. The TA needs to answer the research question in a detailed, coherent and plausible way. So give yourself more time for analysis of your data.

Thematic Analysis by Dr Ronan Bree

To get started with some thematic analysis especially when you don’t have any coding specific software but would like to carry out some for your own research work, I have invited Dr Ronan Bree to share his approach using thematic analysis colour coding in Microsoft Excel.  I met Ronan at the 2018 Methods of Research for Science Education conference held in Dublin, Ireland and organised by our own CERG members Dr Barry Ryan and Dr Michael Seery. Ronan gave an excellent session outlining in detail the qualitative data analysis process designed and implemented to ensure conclusions made were both reliable and valid.

In this video, some recommendations around setting up a learning & teaching research study are described. In particular, a focus on qualitative data collection and the importance of thorough thematic analysis of the data is outlined (based on the approach described by Braun & Clarke (2006)). The video will link to a particular study in which Excel was used to assist in the thematic analysis process.


Link to a second YouTube video outlining the method behind the thematic analysis process:

Ronan works at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) as a Lecturer in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and previously was based in NUI Galway. His Ph.D identified novel genes expressed during zebrafish embryo development (Supervisors: Professor Lucy Byrnes & Dr. Maura Grealy), and his post-doctoral research performed under the guidance of Professor Noel Lowndes, centred on cells’ response to DNA damage.  Ronan also graduated with a Masters in Arts in Learning and Teaching from DkIT, an experience that allowed him to translate his research skills from the laboratory to the learning environment, both at classroom and practical levels. This helped Ronan to take the giant leap in to reflective practice, qualitative research and the multiple approaches to thematic data analysis.

Some useful references

Bree, R.T., Dunne, K., Brereton, B., Gallagher, G. and Dallat, J. (2014). ‘Engaging learning and addressing over-assessment in the Science laboratory: solving a pervasive problem.’, The All Ireland Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (AISHE-J), 6(3), pp. 206.1-206.36 Available at:

Bree RT, Gallagher G.  (2016).  Using Microsoft Excel to code and thematically analyse qualitative data: a simple, cost-effective approach. AISHE-J: The All Ireland Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 8(2) Available at:

Braun, V and Clarke, V –  website on Thematic Analysis




One thought on “Methods, Resources and Tips: Thematic Analysis

  1. Pingback: Teach, Learn and Research – Attending the MORSE Conference – The Coatless Chemist

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