Ph.D Update: Thoughts on Themes and Categories
I have managed to code through the entire data corpus, involving the development and assignment of codes to relevant data segments; codes that capture the meaning of the assigned data segments, along with embedded theoretical memos within the data. These memos explain the nature, function, context and meaning of the code and the segment’s content and any other relevant thoughts, hypotheses and theories related to the content. However, as I was thinking about the next stage I stated to doubt myself and asked myself the main questions:
What is the real meaning of a theme?
How is a theme really constructed?
What type of theme should I be constructing?
These questions reflected the doubts that I had at the time of my understanding of what a theme really is, and the depth and breadth of which I should involve myself with theme analysis and development for the purposes of my research. These questions are continuously asked but I appear to have some clarity in my rereadings and exploration of the literature. I knew at the time the process of making themes but there was something that bought doubt into my mind: is there really no step between developing codes and developing themes? I wasn’t convinced, and hence the formation of the questions and the subsequent reading of literature. Doubt in this case has been used as a means, a process, of developing questions and of endeavouring to explore topics further.
From what I can understand of the literature, there is varying terminology to refer to the same type of theme but for the sake of brevity I shall focus on a couple of authors who are becoming key writers for my understanding and application of thematic analysis.
Braun and Clarke (2006) define the themes as semantic or latent. Semantic refers to theme development based on just the surface level meaning of the data; essentially, the researcher is not interested in anything beyond what is said literally within the text. There is therefore, from what I can understand, no attempt at understanding context, nuances, variety, diversity and deeper meaning at the semantic level. Semantic level is essentially considered to be a descriptive level of meaning.
At the latent level of theme development, however, there are attempts at going beyond the semantic level and into the realm of interpretation, assumptions, concepts, conceptualisations, meaning making, hypothesis making and theorisation. From what I can understand, Braun and Clarke (2006) describe theme analysis and development as a progress from the descriptive level to the level of interpretation and theorisation. What is identified at the semantic level is taken beyond the obvious and observable to what can be known and understood through theories and interpretations. The latent level, however, is not grounded on hairy fairly assumptions as the latent level assumptions and theorisation processes are grounded in the semantic level. Therefore, what I find or observe at the semantic level I can theorise, hypothesise, assume, and make meaning of their existence, functionality, purpose and context.
This actually makes sense, because how can I possibly stop at just a simple observation? How can I simply consider the existence and meaning of something at only the semantic level and not at the latent level? It doesn’t make any sense to me just to observe and know something at the semantic level: I am immediately drawn to theories, well grounded assumptions, hypotheses, and meaning behind existence and function. Is that because I have an academic mind? Can I perceive beyond the observable? Can I understand meaning and function beyond what is right in front of me and clearly observable? Surely I can if I am drawn to this level of understanding?
Moving forwards, I have this understanding now of semantic and latent themes so surely it is common sense that thematic analysis consists of both themes? That my research would involve the construction of both? According to the approach to thematic analysis by Braun and Clarke (2006), I would be correct.
But wait, there’s more!
Category or Theme? Should we consider both?
After spending a long time pouring over methodological papers about thematic analysis and the idea of theme development, I had more questions than answers. I came across literature that was not only encouraging me to doubt and question what to do in the next stage (I shall discuss this more in a future blog post), but also encouraged me to question my own understanding of what a theme is, and also what a category is. Is it not true that categories are an integral part of grounded theory and therefore I should not worry about them? If only our attempts at understanding the world, of social reality and all the components of social reality were that easy!
Methodological authors differ in their description and discussion of the theme development level and of the definition of categories and themes. After a long while of reading however, I am beginning to lean towards discussions around the likes of Vaismoradi et al (2016), who suggested that the thematic analyst considers both the category and theme, where the category represents the semantic content whilst the theme overarch the category and represents therefore latent data.
What is interesting here therefore is that a theme could consist of multiple categories although some authors name categories as sub-themes. Categories or sub-themes themselves are constructed through the grouping of codes; categories therefore describe and functionalise a group of codes and describe their general meaning. From what I understand of the literature and particularly Braun and Clarke (2006) is that categories (or sub-themes) are constructed first before they are them grouped into themes. But it’s not as clear cut as that, because I’ve just recently read another paper and the author suggests that there is no need for theme development and automatically considered their codes to be themes………..
It is a minefield, but the way my mind works I like the idea of progressing from codes to categories to themes (and, therefore, from semantic or manifest data, different authors label them differently, to latent data; from observation to interpretation and theorisation).
What did I learn from that process? That the whole idea of building themes is to move from semantic or manifest level to the level of interpretation and theorising and this makes a lot more sense to me now and comes to me really as quite obvious. Also reflecting back on the process I have used so far this is something that I have always done, I just wasn’t familiar with the terminology! Also, categories themselves are complex and used in different contexts. Previously I thought categories were terms and features exclusive to grounded theory, but categories are general terms but it appears to me that categories are used differently depending on the research method used. Within grounded theory, they are used to build towards a theory whilst in thematic analysis they are used as part of building understanding and not a theory.
I was right to doubt, because I was able to realise and recognise where I have to build my own understanding. This is an ongoing process, but the more I use thematic analysis and read the relevant literature the more I can understand the way in which it relates to the coding process I am carrying out, and the way in which themes can be used for the next stage of the research.
‘Till next time!
Braun, V., Clarke, V (2006): Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3 (2), 77 - 101
Vaismoradi, M., Jones, J., Turunen, Shelgrove, S (2016): Theme Development in Qualitative Content Analysis and Thematic Analysis, Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 6 (5), 100 - 110