This is a humble attempt to provide a brief, yet a concise, guideline to the researchers engaged in literacy research. Although there are several research methods borrowed from the fields of Social Sciences and Humanities which are utilized and applied in the study of literary texts and narratives, because of their scientific bearing and religious systematicity, they fail to satisfy the philosophical and comparatively stronger analytical and critical approach characteristic of a piece of literature. In this article, I aim to facilitate the students doing their research in literature, in particular literatures written in English, to get their way through the complexities and demands of research degrees requiring the submission of thesis or dissertation. For this particular piece, I have focused on thematic analysis because of its relevance to and viability for most of the literature-based researches.

In contrast to the traditions of the past, it has become all the more important today for literature and language researchers to sound theoretically, epistemologically, and methodologically sound apart from being philosophically and conceptually thorough. The theory part fares well since there exists a plethora of critical models, concepts and isms such as feminism, ecocriticism, postcolonialism, etc., which inspire the researchers to formulate their own direction and perspective in their research. However when it comes to the method, most of the students would adopt their individual style of analysis that is often vague, haphazard and mostly an account of their personal ideas about the researched material.

Attride-Stirling (2001) emphasizes the need for qualitative psychologists to focus on ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a research but more so on ‘how’ they conducted their analysis. This observation is equally applicable to the researchers of literary texts.  Adding on to their problem, there exists a peculiar mind-set that takes its root from the biases and prejudices nurtured by the theorists and researchers belonging to countries with colonial background, where to reject the research methods originating from the West are claimed as a strategy of resistance.  This practice, does not only hinder the researchers of these countries to bring rigour into their research but also creates a conflict between their aspirations and training. What is important, then, is to make the research by literary researchers, on a par with their peers in other disciples in the Social Sciences and Humanities in terms of how they organize and present their research, but of course, ensuring that they do not jeopardize the individuality and the requirements of their field.

Those readers who are familiar with some of the popular research methods such as content analysis, discourse analysis, textual analysis etc., may have an idea, even though a faint one, that thematic analysis has not gained much attention even within the Social Sciences. This may be, as discussed by many methodologists, because of the method’s loosely demarcated boundaries and flexibility. It is somewhat surprising that even though qualitative in nature, it is hardly ever conceptualized within the parameters of language or literary research. Interestingly, and much to the benefit of literary researchers, both the field and the method under discussion are characterized by open-ended answers to the questions raised and flexible interpretative process of the data set. What becomes a limitation in the Social Sciences, may be used to the advantage of literary researchers. There is also a debate about whether thematic analysis is a method in its own right or a strategy that prevails across all methods. This point of view, however, has been widely discussed and negated in the face of growing research in the Social Sciences and Humanities which extensively draws from the method to analyse the data.

In Thematic Analysis, the data refers to the particular part of the whole corpus (which can be the whole novel, collection of poems, short story etc.) that needs to be analysed. More specifically, the data set (or text set, narrative set) may generate out of a particular interest in a topic as postulated by Braun and Clarke (2006). The themes are extracted out of the coded chunks/excerpts which are then analysed. The selection of themes/patterns is mostly dependent on the research question which underscores the interest of the researcher. Thematic Analysis is thus a method which helps identify and analyse repeated patterns or themes within the data (text) for which codes have to be classified first.

However, it should be understood, no matter what kind of walls are created around the method to systematize it, the themes reside in the researchers’ mind and always demonstrate their subjective inclination or interest (Ely et al 1997). What is termed as ‘theme’ is an important factor justifying researchers’ selection. This factor is assessed by looking into the aspect of ‘prevalence’ which ensures the viability of a theme in terms of the space and presence it holds in the data set. The most important point to remember is to remain ‘consistent’ in assessing the prevalence, since even to check it may involve different methods. Unlike most quantitative methods, in thematic analysis, a researcher has the freedom to reflect on the prevalence by remaining non-specific (such as by using ‘a number of’, ‘many’ etc.) in the presentation of the data.

Thematic Analysis, according to Braun and Clarke (2006), can be conducted inductively or theoretically. Inductive analysis codifies the data without taking into account the researcher’s preconceptions. In this kind of analysis, the review of prior literature may restrict the researcher’s engagement with the data, so it is advised to first browse through the data carefully. In theoretical analysis, on the other hand, the codification process is theory-driven, hence good understanding of available and accessible literature is more helpful in this case.

One of the strengths of Thematic Analysis is that it can draw themes both from motivation, experiences and simple meanings (that reside in the data) which refer to the essentialist point of view and socio-cultural contexts which may refer to the constructionist approach. There can, however, be an amalgamation of both that may be suitable for a more rigorous analysis. The trajectory that may be taken to conduct thematic analysis is charted out below:

First, a thorough reading of the text twice, initially for general understanding, and then to pay close attention to detect the patterns/themes is required. It is important at this stage to note that in the assessment of ‘prevalence’ of themes, a prior perspective must be developed and this can only be possible if the text has already been read by the researcher. Starting with a theme/theory and forcing it on the text, which most of the researcher do, may result in a failure to produce a quality research. At this stage it is advised that the researcher gleans the preliminary findings, which may be tentative, and write them down.

The second step involves the codification of the text. The codes are the refined forms of a researcher’s preliminary findings/ideas which may materialize as specific elements/entities. However, since in Thematic Analysis, the analysis is done recursively, the codes may change as the research progresses. Whether the codes are semantically driven or latent, these little entities (data items) help organize the researched material and eventually cluster together in groups to form themes. While coding the data, it is necessary to collate each code with the excerpt / material it belongs to.

At the third stage, the extracted codes are separated and classified in terms of their similarities and then these clusters are titled as themes which are later named. There can, however, be small or large clusters and some of them may not appear to formulate a major theme. In this case sub themes can also be created out of the smaller clusters, whereas, bigger clusters may attain the status of main themes. A close look at the derived themes may be required in order to check their suitability, diversity and compatibility with the research question/s. In case of overlaps in themes, they should be carefully merged in order to make the set of themes more coherent and compact. It is necessary that the themes exhibit a pattern, if that is not the case, revision of coding process and thematization is required. In other words, a story should emerge out of the themes as discussed by Braun & Clarke.

The fourth and final stage requires the researcher to do the analysis based on the themes – their description, context, function, interpretation (apparent and latent meanings), implication – delineating their relationship with the research questions. This process is supplemented with examples from the text. The analysis part needs to be more than a re-writing of the material selected and a researcher should aim to rigorously engage with it from all aspects mentioned in the beginning of this paragraph. A good thematic analysis should provide a genuine proof of the contention raised or thesis proposed.

Although, it is difficult to provide a fixed rubric to any analytical method, even more so with reference to literary studies, methods can be adopted from other fields, they can be appropriated and adjusted to the requirements of the researched topic, and most importantly new methods can be designed and disseminated for the benefit of fledgling researchers, struggling to cope up with the challenges of ever growing academic requirements. The points shared in this article may prove helpful for such researchers and may pave way for better ideas.


Written by Nadia Anwar

Dr Nadia Anwar is Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at University of Management and Technology, Lahore. She has doctorate in Nigerian Drama from The University of Northampton, UK. Her primary areas of interest include but are not limited to Postcolonial literatures and Nigerian theatre and drama. She has contributed several articles on various social, cultural and literary issues. She has presented her research to numerous international forums and conferences. She has also co-translated, edited and compiled a collection of interactive theatre plays titled Journey through the Lives of Courageous Women for Interactive Resource Center (2004). Her second book The Dynamics of Distancing in Nigerian Drama: A Functional Approach to Metatheatre (2016) has been published in New Series World Literature Studies by Ibidem Verlag.

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