Thematic analysis in HCI

Braun and Clarke’s thematic analysis have become a staple of qualitative HCI research. Here’s why themes don’t emerge and how to get started with reflexive Thematic Analysis


Braun and Clarke’s thematic analysis has become a staple of qualitative HCI research. Here’s how to get started with their reflexive Thematic Analysis method and why themes don’t emerge.

In 2015 at the very beginning of my PhD, my advisor gave me a simple yet essential advice for academic writing: look at papers similar to what you want to achieve. New to qualitative methods, I analyzed a sample of qualitative papers published at CHI that year. Qualitative analysis either referenced Grounded Theory by Charmaz, thematic analysis by Braun and Clarke (B&C), or simply stated using open coding. During CHI reviewing this year, Samantha and I noticed many references to thematic analysis used language and concepts Braun and Clarke have often disavowed. They have in face expressed frustrations regarding how their paper is interpreted and used. We thought it would be helpful to summarize their recent writings on the methods, in hope it would be helpful to researchers new to thematic analysis as we were.

These past few years, their 2006 paper took off, reaching 71 739 citations according to Google Scholar at the time we write this article. Some time last year, they even gave their approach a new name: reflexive thematic analysis. They’ve also vigorously opposed that ‘themes emerge from the data’. As junior researchers, we found applying thematic analysis both easy (a way to annotate data) and difficult (there are theoretical and methodological ramifications we don’t have a clear grasp on). We’ve also kept up with discussions on thematic analysis in psychology and social sciences. Here’s a summary of Braun and Clarke’s concerns regarding uses of their approach to TA and how it applies to HCI research.

Before we continue, let’s just note this article will not get into the matter of Grounded Theory and how to do it. We’ve included more resources at the end of this article.

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