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On themes, codes and the importance of doing analytical writing in qualitative research methods

I am really glad to be able to write more technical threads on Twitter in 2020. Technical in the sense that they pertain to stuff I have scientific and technical expertise on. I love writing about academic writing, organization and time management, research planning and execution, but writing about research methods, and in particular, qualitative research methods, is very much my jam.

I recently came across Dr. Sally Thorne (The University of British Columbia)’s editorial in the journal Nursing Inquiry Beyond theming: Making qualitative studies matter. As many of you may know, my Grandma on my Mom’s side was a nurse and I really admired her, and I also have great friends who are scholars in the nursing field. I regularly read nursing journals particularly for qualitative research insight. Thus I was fascinated with Dr. Thorne’s editorial as it touched on topics I wanted to discuss myself.

Dr. Thorne’s editorial started a great conversation with two authors who I respect a lot and who I believe are now canonical in thematic analysis: Dr. Virginia (Ginny) Braun, and Dr. Victoria Clarke. You should read the entire thread to read their responses to concerns about Dr. Thorne’s conclusion. Dr. Clarke and Dr. Braun expressed a very legitimate worry that badly-done and/or badly-understood thematic analysis may lead to its delegitimation. I do enjoy, use and respect the version of thematic analysis that Clarke and Braun do, and I understand this worry. Thorne, in her Twitter response to their concerns, expressed respect towards the thematic analysis that Braun and Clarke espouse, and I agree with her, though I also share the same concern as Braun and Clarke to some extent.

Thematic analysis, well done, is a legitimate qualitative research strategy.

My discussion of Thorne’s editorial is below.

Herein lies the rub: a number of qualitative scholars and educators fail to teach the analytical part of doing qualitative research. In her editorial, Thorne aptly points to the fact that we teach how to obtain qualitative data on the field, textually, but then we need to teach HOW TO DO ANALYSIS. Dropping categories and themes, as Thorne (2020) rightfully says, and bits and pieces of textual evidence to support our writing DOES NOT MEAN YOU’RE DOING ANALYSIS.

We need to go further, Thorne says, and I agree.

TEACH ANALYTICAL WRITING.

Thorne says, and I quote:

“for a qualitative product to be worthy of publication, I believe that it must demonstrate that it extends beyond naming categories and themes and reporting on patterns.”

YES.

We can and must show patterns, trajectories, developments, insights.

Quoting Thorne again:

“Telling your reader that you found three themes and fourteen categories and then going on to briefly describe them and provide a text excerpt example of each is hopelessly insufficient.”

Yes, this is certainly not enough to add to our understanding and the literature. You need ANALYSIS.

A really fantastic discussion on stuff that I have been droning about for ages. If you’re interested in qualitative methods, you should read this thread and the responses I got.

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