Does the concept of “thematic networks” have a place in the “analytical toolbox”?

Answer: it might, particularly in analyzing information gathered in oral interviews and perhaps in the structuring of our proofs.

Attride-Stirling, in an article referenced in the previous post and cited below, discussed Thematic Networks as a way of analyzing data.  I thought this approach might give me some insight about how to analyze and ultimately to be a better analyzer of genealogical data.  After reading the article closely, I have come to the conclusion that its most obvious application for genealogists is in the summarization of oral interviews.

Example: you interviewed a series of World War II veterans for an article for your local genealogy society newsletter.

Attride-Stirling’s approach is to organize in “layers” by 1.) basic themes 2.) organizing themes and finally, 3.) global themes.  Using a common analogy, the basic themes might be thought of as observations at the 1000 foot level, the organizing themes as the 20,000 foot level and the global themes as the 50,000 foot level.

Basic themes:  As you read the interviews, code individual comments either by letter or number….1.) Fred’s battle #10, 2.) Fred’s battle #12, 3.) Alan’s R&R in Italy, 4.) Alan’s bombing run #3, 5.) Alan’s bombing run #9, 6.) Fred’s USO experience, etc.  I recommend placing each comment on a separate post-it.

Organizing themes:  Now, take your multiple comments (each on a post-it) and place into clusters or organizing themes (in our example: battles fought, and recreation).  By using post-its, I find that I can move comments around easier as I change my mind.  The post-it idea was not advanced by Attride-Stirling but is a method i have used for quality improvement exercises and works well if, like me, you are a graphic learner.

Global themes:  As you look at your organizing themes you may see some global themes, perhaps as simple as “WWII”.

Obviously, this is a very simple example.  The author states that the strength of this approach is when there are at least four organizing themes but it is also possible to have multiple global themes.

On the 26th I will be conducting an oral interview with the father of a friend who is visiting for Christmas.  I will put the interview results through this process and report back about the applicability of the Thematic Network approach in that relatively simple example.  I hope that it will help with the analysis of the information and the writing of the final report.

There is another possible use for this method.  I believe that it might assist us in separating “chaff” from the substantive arguments in our proofs.  Write the proof, code the basic themes, do the post-it exercise to identify the organizing themes, and see what does not organize itself.  In this exercise, you can start with the global theme and work towards the basic.  The extraneous information that does not support the global or organizing themes either needs to be discarded or needs to be rewritten/refocused to be eligible to be included.

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Tell me what you think.   Am I “pole vaulting over mouse excrement?”

Jennifer Attride-Stirling, “Thematic networks: an analytic tool for qualitative research,” Qualitative Research, vol I (3):385-405. December  2001.

Happy Holidays!


What I have done since the last post:  lots of quality time with the family, skiing and shopping with my daughter.  also, reread Attride-Stirling’s article.


4 comments on “Does the concept of “thematic networks” have a place in the “analytical toolbox”?

  1. I was wondering if you could clarify what you meant by this: “The extraneous information that does not support the global or organizing themes either needs to be discarded or needs to be rewritten/refocused to be eligible to be included.”

    On the surface, it appears that you are advising discarding/manipulating information to support “themes,” rather than basing conclusions on *all* available information.

    That can’t be right.

    • jkmorelli says:

      Not what I am saying at all, Michael.

      In all of our genealogy decisions, we accept, reject or research more our decisions/assumptions. I am suggesting as one writes genealogy proofs or even the write ups for the oral interviews we may find ourselves with “hanging chads”….pieces of information that aren’t additive to the argument (using the term in the academic sense) or that cause us to pause because it confuses the argument. One always has to decide what evidence supports the argument, refutes the argument or is irrelevant. I am suggesting that this process can identify the irrelevant. I have seen many papers which present an argument the has irrelevant information. This only confuses the reader.

      This process of selection of that which is meaningful should not be construed as manipulating the outcome. Perhaps I should have been more clear that, of course, evidence that refutes the argument is just as valid as that which supports the argument and should be presented.

      Also it is possible that what appears to be irrelevant isn’t and that additional research or even changing the focus (not the content) of the argument might result in the irrelevant now being relevant. None of this is manipulative unless you are suggesting that just writing anything in narrative form rather than just the inclusion of data points is manipulative.

      i hope this clarifies my intent. Thanks for your comments. Always of interest.


  2. sandyw0601 says:


    I just found this blog and am really enjoying reading it. I have been a genealogy hobbyist, on and off, for a long time. I recently found out about BCG certification. I haven’t decided if I will pursue it formally, or simply work on the portfolio they describe.

    I too have always been fascinated with analysis and various ways to do it. I was a financial analyst for many years and then a special education teacher. Each of these activities require analysis of various types. I have always looked for tools to help, although with mixed results.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your journal and new posts.


    • jkmorelli says:

      Welcome! I engage in qualitative analysis in my “day job” and it is sometimes difficult to make a case that is convincing to scientists who are more quantitative. I think analytical types inherently do thematic mapping–the only surprise to me was the new vocabulary. It works in many situations in which I am involved as I sure it does for you. Let me know if you liked any of the other postings as well.


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