Techniques to Identify Themes
GERY W. RYAN
H. RUSSELL BERNARD
University of Florida
Theme identification is one of the most fundamental tasks in qualitative research. It also is one of the most mysterious. Explicit descriptions of theme discovery are rarely found in articles and reports, and when they are, they are often relegated to appendices or footnotes. Techniques are shared among small groups of social scientists, but sharing is impeded by disciplinary or epistemological boundaries. The techniques described here are drawn from across epistemological and disciplinary boundaries. They include both observational and manipulative techniques and range from quick word counts to laborious, in-depth, line-by-line scrutiny. Techniques are compared on six dimensions: (1) appropriateness for data types, (2) required labor, (3) required expertise, (4) stage of analysis, (5) number and types of themes to be generated, and (6) issues of reliability and validity. Keywords: theme identification; qualitative analysis; text analysis; open coding; qualitative research methods
Analyzing text involves several tasks: (1) discovering themes and subthemes, (2) winnowing themes to a manageable few (i.e., deciding which themes are important in any project), (3) building hierarchies of themes or code books, and (4) linking themes into theoretical models. We focus here on the first task: discovering themes and subthemes in texts—and in other qualitative data, like images or artifacts, for that matter.1 We outline a dozen techniques, drawn from across the social sciences and from different theoretical perspectives. The techniques range from simple word counts that can be done by a computer to labor-intensive, line-by-line analyses that, so far, only humans can do. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages. Some methods are more suited to rich, complex narratives, while others are more appropriate for short responses to open-ended questions. Some require more labor and expertise on behalf of the investigator, others less. Making explicit the techniques we use for discovering themes in qualitative data is important for three reasons. First, discovering themes is the basis Field Methods, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2003 85–109 DOI: 10.1177/1525822X02239569 © 2003 Sage Publications
of much social science research. Without thematic categories, investigators have nothing to describe, nothing to compare, and nothing to explain. If researchers fail to identify important categories during the exploratory phase of their research, what is to be said of later descriptive and confirmatory phases? Second, being explicit about how we establish themes allows consumers of qualitative research (including those who fund it) to assess our methodological choices. Third, qualitative researchers need an explicit and jargon-free vocabulary to communicate with each other across disciplines and across epistemological positions. As we see it, theme discovery is practiced by avowed positivists and interpretivists alike. In fact, some of the techniques we describe are drawn from the interpretivist tradition, while others reflect the efforts of positivists who analyze qualitative data. We see nothing wrong with this. All the techniques we describe can help researchers see their data in a new light. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. We rarely see descriptions (even in footnotes or appendices) of how researchers came to discover the themes they report in their articles. The techniques we use for finding themes are, of course, shared within invisible colleges, but wider sharing is impeded by disciplinary or epistemological boundaries. “Many researchers,” said Renata Tesch (1990:115), “read only certain authors and remain quite ignorant of analysis purposes and procedures different from the ones their favorite...