A common mistake made by inexperienced qualitative researchers is to think that interpreting findings is simply a matter of summarising the interview contents indexed under each theme. This is likely to result in a very flat, descriptive account that does little to bring participants’ experiences to life. In any case, most templates include dozens of themes, when you include all levels of coding; to summarise them all would only be possible in a document of thesis length, and would be in danger of invoking stupefaction rather than insight in the reader.
You must remember that the template is not the end product of the analysis, it is only a tool to help you produce an interpretation of the data that does as much justice as possible to its richness within the constraints of a formal report, paper, or dissertation. The way you interpret your data should be shaped by the aims of your study and the nature of the data itself; there is no set of hard and fast procedural rules to follow. Below are some suggestions for strategies you might try and some of the pitfalls you might want to avoid.
It is often helpful to compile a list of the themes occurring in each transcript, which is something that most CAQDAS programmes can achieve quite easily. If you are coding by hand, make sure you do it clearly and legibly, colour-coding top-level themes can help. Such lists can help you give an overview of your thematic coding and may reveal interesting patterns, which warrant closer attention.
You need to be careful though not to slip into using them in a positivistic way, as if themes were variables on which to compare sub-groups of participants. You also need to be very wary of assuming that the frequency with which themes occur is necessarily any kind of indicator of their salience. The fact that a theme is particularly common or rare, may point to something worth closer attention, but in qualitative analysis it must never be taken as any kind of ‘evidence’ in and of itself. The process of listing themes is about raising questions, not answering them.
Interpreting data in a template analysis approach must involve making judgements about the salience of particular themes to the understanding you are attempting to build of the phenomena under investigation. If you fail to do this, you will simply be overwhelmed by the amount of detail in your findings and not be able to develop a coherent account from them.
To prioritise, it can be helpful to look at themes in the context of individual participants’ accounts, as well as examining the data across participants. Ask yourself which themes seem to get to the heart of a participant’s ‘story’ in the interview transcript. Some may seem important because the participant keeps returning to them; others may stand out because of their strong emotional content. Going back to look closely at individual accounts is valuable because it can help you avoid one of the main pitfalls of thematic analyses; the tendency to focus too much on what is common across cases and lose sight of the context in which themes are identified in individual accounts.
The opposite pitfall to that of failing to prioritise is that of narrowing the focus of your interpretation too soon. This may happen, for example, when you allow your initial research question to guide you so strongly that you disregard all themes that are not obviously of direct relevance. If a theme that does not appear to be relevant to your research question stands out as clearly important to your participants, it could mean that your research question itself was blinkered by your own unacknowledged assumptions. You may need to revise or add to the question(s) your research was seeking to address. Even if you do not feel this is necessary, the emergence of such strong, though tangential themes might be helpful to discuss as part of the contextual background to the main focus of your analysis.
It is easier to avoid the trap of prematurely narrowing the focus of your analysis if you are working with others who can challenge you and ensure that you reflect on the process. Visit the quality checks and reflexivity section for more information.