Qualitative research, Thematic analysis

Why themes don’t ’emerge’ from the data

Frequently, I read methods sections of articles or dissertations, or over hear students and academics commenting on how in thematic analysis their themes ‘emerged’ from the data. (I have probably been guilty of this myself in the past!)


This assumption that in thematic analysis it is only the job of the researcher to grab these (pre-existing) themes out of an interview transcript or field notes, ignores the labour that goes into qualitative data analysis, including the organisation of data, levels of coding, and the subsequent generation of themes.

Themes are constructed by the researcher/s, and are shaped and reshaped in the often cyclical process of analysis, interpretation, analysis, interpretation and so on…

Qualitative researchers are also storytellers, organising and structuring data via the stages of coding (whether deductive and/or inductive coding), organising these codes, and then constructing themes from these codes.

In this process the messy qualitative data is reorganised and a story is woven and constructed from the themes.

So, how should we refer to this process? Perhaps, instead of ‘emerging’ from the data, themes are generated, identified, and/or constructed by the researcher from the qualitative data.