Thematic analysis | a reflexive approach

Welcome to our thematic analysis (TA) resource and information pages. We've developed this site to provide a key resource for people are interested in learning about, teaching about, and/or doing, TA – especially the approach we’ve developed: reflexive thematic analysis. We (Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke) feature the resources we've developed (often with Nikki Hayfield and Gareth Terry), but the content goes way beyond those too. These pages focus on defining our approach to TA and addressing queries about TA according to the way we have conceptualised it. We hope you find this information a rich and useful resource to facilitate your TA learning and practice, as unfortunately, we simply don’t have time to answer in person the many, many queries we get. Find out more about us.

What is thematic analysis?

Briefly, thematic analysis (TA) is a popular method for analysing qualitative data in many disciplines and fields, and can be applied in lots of different ways, to lots of different datasets, to address lots of different research questions!

It is one of a cluster of methods that focus on identifying patterned meaning across a dataset.

TA is best thought of as an umbrella term for a set of approaches for analysing qualitative data that share a focus on identifying themes (patterns of meaning) in qualitative data. The different versions of TA tend to share some degree of theoretical flexibility, but can differ enormously in terms of both underlying philosophy and procedures for producing themes.

We have developed a widely-cited approach to TA that is theoretically flexible, characterised by its foregrounding of researcher subjectivity.

We now call this approach reflexive thematic analysis to distinguish it from other approaches to TA.


What is reflexive thematic analysis?

We now call our approach reflexive TA as it differs from most other approaches to TA in terms of both underlying philosophy and procedures for theme development.

We initially outlined our approach in a 2006 paper, Using thematic analysis in psychology. We have written extensively about our approach since then, and our thinking has developed in various ways, so do check out some of our more recent writing.

Although the title of this paper suggests TA is for, or about, psychology, that’s not the case! The method has been widely used across the social, behavioural and more applied (clinical, health, education, etc.) sciences.

The purpose of TA is to identify patterns of meaning across a dataset that provide an answer to the research question being addressed. Patterns are identified through a rigorous process of data familiarisation, data coding, and theme development and revision.

One of the advantages of (our reflexive version of) TA is that it’s theoretically-flexible. This means it can be used within different frameworks, to answer quite different types of research question.

It suits questions related to people’s experiences, or people’s views and perceptions, such as ‘What are men’s experiences of body hair removal?’ or ‘What do people think of women who play traditionally male sports?’

It suits questions related to understanding and representation, such as ‘How do lay people understand therapy?’ or ‘How are food and eating represented in popular magazines targeted at teenage girls?’

It also suits questions relating to the construction of meaning, such as ‘How is race constructed in workplace diversity training?’

(Note these different question types would require different versions of TA, informed by different theoretical frameworks.)


Different orientations in thematic analysis

There are different ways TA can be approached – within our reflexive approach all variations are possible:

  • An inductive way – coding and theme development are directed by the content of the data;
  • A deductive way – coding and theme development are directed by existing concepts or ideas;
  • A semantic way – coding and theme development reflect the explicit content of the data;
  • A latent way – coding and theme development report concepts and assumptions underpinning the data;
  • A (critical) realist or essentialist way – focuses on reporting an assumed reality evident in the data;
  • A constructionist way – focuses on looking at how a certain reality is created by the data.

More inductive, semantic and (critical) realist approaches tend to cluster together; ditto more deductive, latent and constructionist ones. In reality, the separation isn’t always that rigid. What is vitally important is that your analysis is theoretically coherent and consistent.

In our reflexive TA approach, you need to think about which approaches suit your project, and actively decide on the ‘version’ of reflexive TA you do.


Phases in doing reflexive thematic analysis

The approach to TA that we developed involves a six-phase process for doing analysis.

Although these phases are sequential, and each builds on the previous, analysis is typically a recursive process, with movement back and forth between different phases. These are not rules to follow rigidly, but rather a series of conceptual and practice oriented ‘tools’ that guides the analysis to facilitate a rigorous process of data interrogation and engagement. With more experience (and smaller datasets), the analytic process can blur some of these phases together.

  1. Familiarisation with the data | This phase involves reading and re-reading the data, to become immersed and intimately familiar with its content.
  2. Coding | This phase involves generating succinct labels (codes!) that identify important features of the data that might be relevant to answering the research question. It involves coding the entire dataset, and after that, collating all the codes and all relevant data extracts, together for later stages of analysis.
  3. Generating initial themes | This phase involves examining the codes and collated data to identify significant broader patterns of meaning (potential themes). It then involves collating data relevant to each candidate theme, so that you can work with the data and review the viability of each candidate theme.
  4. Reviewing themes | This phase involves checking the candidate themes against the dataset, to determine that they tell a convincing story of the data, and one that answers the research question. In this phase, themes are typically refined, which sometimes involves them being split, combined, or discarded. In our TA approach, themes are defined as pattern of shared meaning underpinned by a central concept or idea.
  5. Defining and naming themes | This phase involves developing a detailed analysis of each theme, working out the scope and focus of each theme, determining the ‘story’ of each. It also involves deciding on an informative name for each theme.
  6. Writing up | This final phase involves weaving together the analytic narrative and data extracts, and contextualising the analysis in relation to existing literature.

Answers to frequently asked questions

Please feel free to download our extensive list of frequently asked questions that quite comprehensively address many of the queries people have about what TA is, how TA fits in relation to other approaches, and various ‘doing TA’ related questions.


Resources for thematic analysis

There are so many publications on TA these days! Where do you start?  We've cureated an extensive reading list of resources organised into sections, to help guide you through the diversity of approaches and practices around thematic analysis. This is intended as a starting - rather than end - point of reading...

We also upload public recorded talks we do, relevant to TA, and have two talks available to viewers | Watch now.

Reading list and resources for thematic analysis
Download and view (135.7 kB, PDF)

Evaluating and reviewing (reflexive) thematic analysis research | a checklist for editors and reviewers

After reading far too many manuscripts which either mash-up different versions of TA, or say they followed ‘Braun & Clarke’ and then do something completely at odds with what we’ve recommended, we developed some detailed guidelines intended for editors and reviewers who receive manuscripts that use ‘thematic analysis’.

These guidelines expand and clarify the points we initially made in our 15 point checklist for quality (reflexive) TA, and are useful beyond the editing/reviewing context.

You can download a PDF of these guidelines – and we encourage you to share with editors, reviewers, and others who might find them useful.