Approaches to qualitative data analysis

Qualitative data analysis

When we talk about qualitative data analysis, we are referring to the analysis of text. This text can come from a variety of sources, such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, and documents. There are a variety of approaches to analyzing qualitative data. In this article we will provide a brief description of three common approaches which we use in our research: content analysis, thematic analysis, and grounded theory.

Content analysis

Content analysis focuses on the occurrence of selected terms within texts, and their relationships. It involves the systematic coding and categorizing of textual information. The end product is a list of codes and frequencies, without much in the way of theme description, data extracts (or example quotes), or in-depth discussion of patterns in the data.

Thematic analysis

Thematic analysis is “a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This approach provides a rich description of the data. It may go further than description, and seek to provide interpretation of the research topic.

Thematic analysis may be inductive, deductive or a mix of the two. Inductive means the themes are identified from the data by the researcher. A deductive approach does not generate new codes and themes. Data are coded into a pre-determined set of themes (or coding framework) which may come from previous research studies. If you’re interested in reading more, check out our article about thematic analysis.

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What is the difference between content analysis and thematic analysis?

There are similarities between the two approaches. Both involve coding the data to find themes or patterns. Content analysis is more concerned with the quantification of data, whereas thematic analysis is more concerned with a rich, detailed account of the data.

  • Content analysis – focus is on frequency of occurrences, and the reporting of common issues in the data.
  • Thematic analysis – more in depth, considers meaning and context, with verbatim examples.

Grounded theory

Grounded theory also seeks patterns in textual data, but unlike thematic analysis, it is theoretically bounded. It is a systematic procedure to generate a theory that is “grounded” in the data. Theory is generated from the data inductively, using “constant comparative analysis”.

Constant comparative analysis is a procedure for coding, categorizing and comparing data. Themes (or categories) are compared with other data we have collected, and similarities and differences are noted. From the differences observed we either adapt the categories or develop new ones.

In grounded theory the processes of collecting and analyzing data are iterative. Analysis begins when the first data are collected, and further data collection builds on the analysis. We identify patterns which are refined as new data are collected.


This article summarised some common approaches to analyzing qualitative data. The list is not exhaustive – we focused on the approaches we use most commonly in our work:

  • Content Analysis
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Grounded Theory

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