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(Mis)conceptualising themes, thematic analysis, and other problems with Fugard and Potts’ (2015) sample-size tool for thematic analysis

Braun, Virginia; Clarke, Victoria


Virginia Braun

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Dr Victoria Clarke
Associate Professor in Qualitative & Critical Psychology


One of us (VC) was having a conversation with a student recently about the origins and history of thematic analysis (TA). The student had read Qualitative Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy (McLeod, 2011), a text which presents TA as a variant of grounded theory. Victoria commented that she thought that TA evolved from content analysis, and therefore predated grounded theory, and discussed her recent discovery of the use of a variant of TA in psychotherapy research in the 1930s-1950s. The student let out a heavy sigh and slumped in her chair, bemoaning her ability to ever fully grasp qualitative research in all its complexity. This reaction is not uncommon. Students learning and implementing qualitative research at times find it bewildering and challenging; simple models of ‘how to do things’ can appear to offer reassuring certainty. But simplified models, especially if based in confidently-presented-yet-partial accounts of the field or an approach, at best obfuscate and at worst lead to poor quality research.
In our discipline (psychology), students typically learn about qualitative research only after they have been fully immersed in the norms, values and methods of scientific psychology. Many find it difficult to let go of what we call a ‘quantitative sensibility’. For such students, and others not well versed in a qualitative sensibility, Fugard and Potts’ (2015) tool for determining sample sizes in TA research has great intuitive appeal; it provides a life-raft to cling to in the sea of uncertainty that is qualitative research. Thus, we share Hammersley’s (2015) concerns that their tool will be used by funding bodies and others (e.g. editors, reviewers) to determine and evaluate sample sizes in TA research. We fear it will result in further confusion about, and further distortion of, the assumptions and procedures of qualitative research. We here build on concerns expressed by others (Byrne, 2015; Emmel, 2015; Hammersley, 2015) to briefly highlight why this quantitative model for qualitative sampling in TA is problematic, based on flawed assumptions about TA, and steeped in a quantitative logic at odds with the exploratory and qualitative ethos of much TA research.


Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2016). (Mis)conceptualising themes, thematic analysis, and other problems with Fugard and Potts’ (2015) sample-size tool for thematic analysis. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19(6), 739-743.

Journal Article Type Note
Acceptance Date May 26, 2016
Online Publication Date Jun 16, 2016
Publication Date Nov 1, 2016
Deposit Date Sep 26, 2016
Journal International Journal of Social Research Methodology
Print ISSN 1364-5579
Electronic ISSN 1464-5300
Publisher Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 19
Issue 6
Pages 739-743
Keywords codes, coding, domain, positivism, qualitative paradigm
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Additional Information : This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Social Research Methodology on 16 June 2016, available online:


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