Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Thematic Reflection

Thematic analysis refers to the process of recovering structures of meanings that are embodied and dramatized in human experience represented in a text


In human science research the notion of theme may best be understood by examining its methodological and philosophical character. Too often theme analysis is understood as an unambiguous and fairly mechanical application of some frequency count or coding of significant terms in transcripts or texts, or some other break-down of the content of protocol or documentary material. On the basis of these applications there are now computer programs available that claim to do the theme analysis for the researcher. But “analyzing” thematic meanings of a phenomenon (a lived experience) is a complex and creative process of insightful invention, discovery and disclosure. Grasping and formulating a thematic understanding is not a rule-bound process but a free act of “seeing” meaning.


In other words, phenomenological themes are not objects or generalizations; metaphorically speaking, they are more like knots in the webs of our experiences, around which certain lived experiences are spun and thus lived through as meaningful wholes. Themes are the constellations that make up the universes of meaning we live through. By the patterns and light of these themes we can navigate and explore such universes.


However, the thematic meanings of human experience are self-constituted. They reflect the ways that we tend to make sense of life as human beings–as human beings who are embedded within certain linguistic, historical and cultural contexts. That is why we can say that human meanings are discovered but also self-disclosing, constructed by us but also constructed of us.


Thematic reflection has hermeneutic or interpretive power when it allows us to proceed with phenomenological descriptions. For example, when we are interested in the phenomenology of reading a novel, we may soon notice some possible themes: (1) When we open a book we experience this wondrous sensation that this thinglike “object” this book can draw us into the otherworldly space of the text. (2) When we begin to read a book, we enter it, as it were. (3) Reading a novel means that we begin to care for the people who make up the novel. (4) While we read a story we experience action without having to act ourselves. (5) When we interrupt a book, we exit the world created by the word, etc. These kinds of themes are only fasteners, foci, or “knots” around which the “web” of a phenomenological description of the experience of “reading a novel” can be constructed.


Ultimately the concept of theme is itself only of heuristic importance. It may be considered simply as a means “to get at” the phenomenon we are addressing. Thematic reflection can provide a measure of control and a sense of order in our research and writing. Generally we can take a macro and a micro approach to thematic investigation of a text –looking at the text as a whole, or examining it line-by-line through selected parts.


As we gain themes and thematic statements from our various sources, we may wish to capture the thematic statements in more phenomenologically sensitive paragraphs. Thus we can write notes and paragraphs on the basis of our reading and other research activities. Of course, composing these “linguistic transformations” is not a mechanical procedure. Rather, it is a creative, hermeneutic process.