I am frequently asked about the differences between content analysis and thematic analysis, which is the topic of this blog. There are some similarities between these two analytic approaches. However, there are key differences, too, which make them appropriate for different research designs.
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Thematic analysis is a method of qualitative data analysis. This approach is flexible in that it can be used with different research designs. Thematic analysis is good for exploring patterns across qualitative data from participants and researchers often use this to analyze interviews. Themes are the overarching categories of common data across multiple participants. All textual data contained in a theme tells a story about that theme and is somehow related, representing different dimensions of a phenomenon. Thematic analysis helps researchers understand those aspects of a phenomenon that participants talk about frequently or in depth, and the ways in which those aspects of a phenomenon may be connected.
Content analysis, on the other hand, can be used as a quantitative or qualitative method of data analysis. Even in a qualitative content analysis, there is some quantification of data, as content analysis helps researchers count instances of codes. Content analysis can be applied to other textual data and not just interviews. Content analysis is also appropriate for analyzing visual imagines like pictures or videos. This type of analysis may help researchers with large amounts of textual data, as content analysis is useful for determining how words and word patterns are used in context.
The analytical process for both thematic and content analysis is similar in that the researcher familiarizes herself with data and conducts coding on all data. In thematic analysis, the researcher systematically codes all data and then begins to organize the codes, based on some similarity, into larger and larger categories that may lead to a hierarchical structure of code -> subtheme -> theme. In content analysis, the researcher codes data and and generates categories and subcategories. The presentation of findings between thematic analysis and content analysis are a little different. Themes, along with supporting excerpts from the data, are presented in the final report, including description of those themes in relation to the research questions. In content analysis, researchers often present the results as conceptual maps or models.
Both thematic analysis and content analysis are useful tools in qualitative research. Additionally, content analysis is useful for quantifying qualitative data. Both are also useful for descriptive research designs. However, there are some differences between the two approaches, namely in what researchers are looking for in their data, how data are analyzed, and the presentation of the data.