Friday, 3 October 2014


Human beings are storying creatures. We make sense of the world and the things that happen to us by constructing narratives to explain and interpret events both to ourselves and to other people. The narrative structures and the vocabularies that we use when we craft and tell our tales of our perceptions and experiences are also, in themselves, significant, providing information about our social and cultural positioning: to paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of my language are the limits of my world.
In recent times there has been what has been described as a narrative and auto/biographical turn within the social sciences. This ‘turn’ is associated with post-modernism and the concomitant lack of faith in grand, master or meta narratives. For researchers this has opened up the possibility of explicitly framing and realising their research in terms of it both being, and using, narrative.

A.    Definition of Narrative Research
Narrative research deal with the human experience. A narrative provides links, connections and meaning to human activity. The stories told bring together the diverse aspects of the human experience. Narrative as data acquired through research may utilize story telling, life history, in depth interview, biography or focus groups.  It usually recounts one person's experience.
Essentially, ‘narrative meaning is created by noting that something is a ‘part’ of a whole, and that something is a ‘cause’ of something else’.Narratives provide links, connections, coherence, meaning, sense. ‘Narrative descriptions exhibit human activity as purposeful engagement in the world. Narrative is the type of discourse that draws together diverse events, happenings and actions of human lives’. So far, so general. Donald Polkinghorne’s definitions could be taken to apply to many different types of communicative accounts that are used in all spheres of life. Consequently, accounts of research that describe controlled experiments and report statistical data and findings could well be considered to be narratives within these parameters. However, in terms of research activity, narrative research is usually associated with qualitative methodologies and methods, both in terms of the sorts of data qualitative research collects and works from, and with regard to how that data is analysed/interpreted and then re-presented. 
Narrative research is research that is concerned with stories. These can be stories as told and they can be stories that we enquire into: narratives as data, data as narratives. Referring specifically to sociologists, although, we would argue, with application to any of the social disciplines.

B.     Characteristic of Narrative Research
1.      Liminality
We might begin to identify a good story by its liminal qualities, whereby the narrative in some way takes us from the threshold of one experience to another
2.      Transgression
The transgressive qualities of a story might serve to enhance its quality. 

3.      Evocation
The importance of evocation, whereby we are emotionally moved by the text; it evokes in us feelings of happiness or sadness, reminding us perhaps of similar feelings that we have experienced ourselves in our own lives.
4.      Complexity
The use of complex forms of writing can often provide the text with added impact and make a substantive contribution to the ideas and views being expressed in the writing. 
5.      Creativity
Whilst notions of creativity continue to be contested, it is commonplace to talk of writing in terms of its creative qualities. 
6.      Audience Engagement
There is a sense in which the narrative has to ‘reach out’ to the listener or the reader in order to draw them in to the story being told.

1.      Substantive Contribution
Under this criterion we would begin to examine the way in which the narrative might be seen to contribute to our understanding of social and cultural life. 
2.      Aesthetic Merit
The aesthetic quality of a narrative relates literally to its ability to ‘open our senses’ (this could be contrasted with its anaesthetic qualities, wherein our senses are dulled).
3.      Reflexivity and Participatory Ethics
Narrative approaches to educational research can be safely described within the context of post modern or, more specifically post structural, epistemologies and methodologies. 
4.      Impact
In using narrative approaches to educational research we would need to look at the narratives being used in terms of their ability to evoke responses in others, to transgress taken for granted ways of thinking and possibly to invoke an emancipatory agenda.

5.      Experience- Near
If narratives are seen as representations of the way in which we ‘story’ our worlds then it seems reasonable to ask if the text appears to be ‘truthful’ or if it acts as a fair representation of the events that it describes.

D.    The Structure of Narrative Research
According to Labov, narratives can be seen to be structured around the following six functional elements:
  • The abstract, summarises the point of the narrative.
  • The orientation provides information about the time, the place, the situation and the overall setting for the narrative.
  • The complicating action provides details to do with the content, the sequence and the focus of the narrative.
  • The evaluation is the narrator’s interpretation of the events of the narrative.
  • The resolution, describes the way in which the narrative works toward its conclusion and how issues within it might be resolved.
  • The coda is designed to end the narrative by returning the listener to the present.

E.     Narrative Research Techniques
Some tschniques use in narrative research are:
1.      Restorying
2.      Narrative analysis
3.      Oral history
4.      Artifacts
5.      Storytelling
6.      Letter writing
7.      Autobiographical and biographical writing

F.     Narrative Accounts of Research

The following list of narrative approaches is by no means comprehensive but is intended to provide readers with a notion of the possibilities open to them: 

1.      Autoethnography

Autoethnographies are accounts in which writers/researchers tell stories about their own lived experiences, relating these to broader contexts and understandings in much the same way as life historians analyse life stories in the light of historical, sociological or/and psychological theories and perspectives.

2.      Ethnographic Fiction

Ethnographic fiction is a narrative form in which fictional stories, which could be true, are told within an accurate cultural/social framework

3.      Poetry

Some writers use poetic forms to re-present interview transcripts because they believe poetry comes closer to speech patterns and rhythms: others chose it for its power to reflect emotions.

4.      Performance ethnography

Performance ethnography is an attempt to re-present an experience without losing the experience.

5.      Mixed Genres

Mixed genre work can be considered as a form of triangulation in which scholars take from literary, artistic and scientific genre in order to try to give as rich a picture of the situation they are concerned with as possible.


G.    Writing Narrative as a Method of Inquiry 
Writing Narrative as a method of inquiry offers an approach to narrative research that begins to look into personal interpretations and feelings, nascent ideas and shows a willingness to open up new ways of thinking and disrupting practices.  Richardson’s approach encourages the narrative researcher to engage in practices that offers alternatives to the ‘prefabricated narratives that we use to assemble the events of our lives’ (op cit).  There are close parallels with her methodology and the philosophical writing of Deleuze and what he sees as the important creative role of concept making within it:
Such approaches to narrative research practice talk of creativity: they are not to produce concepts in a congealed or fixed sense, rather to create them as part of a process of nomadic inquiry and narrative expression, so that creating concepts is performance.  As we have already seen for Deleuze the important notions of the ‘fold’ and ‘becoming’ talk of the narrative process of creating concepts in ways which are fluid; opening and closing, folding and unfolding, never fixed, always being reflexive about those representations that precede the creative process of becoming.  The following brief narrative is from a teacher beginning to use writing (and talking) as methods of inquiry within the context of classroom practices.

H.    Narrative interviewing
Narrative interviewing is a research methodology, like so many others cited here, that Gubrium and Holstein refer to as ‘postmodern’.  We would argue that within the somewhat ‘catch-all’ nature of the ‘postmodern’ descriptor, narrative interviewing can be more aptly described as employing a post-structural approach to research practice.  So narrative interviewing has emerged not only as a new methodology but also a critique of what Atkinson and Silverman have referred to as the ‘interview society’. 
 In this society they claim that the interview has discursively established itself as a neutral method of data collection, producing trustworthy and accurate results within the context of a relationship between interviewer and interviewee which is unbiased and fair.  As Fontana and Frey claim: ‘As a society we rely on the interview and by and large take it for granted’. The popularity of the structured or semi-structured interview as a preferred method of data collection can also be seen to reflect the emergence of ‘evidence’ based practices in which the research being carried out will be seen to have certain ‘outcomes’ which are themselves measurable and conveniently susceptible to appropriate forms of ‘analysis’.  Narrative interviewing can be most concisely and succinctly described through the use of the sub-heading to Fontana and Frey’s paper  ‘The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Texts’.  It is within this title that we see the emergence of a different methodological approach as well as a critique of a previous form.  The post structural flavour of this critique attempts to offer a reflexive approach to the way in which interviews have traditionally been represented.


That all writing is narrative writing is widely accepted. However, in the context of research, ‘narrative’ is generally understood to refer to qualitative research that uses and tells stories. Many people who use explicitly narrative approaches do so, at least partly, out of a political conviction that social research should be accessible and interesting. They believe that it should seek to capture something of the sense of life as it is lived, and they want to avoid the negative ethical and power consequences of assuming the sort of authoritative voice that denies the possibility of multiple realities. Having said this it is important to reiterate that it is only possible to re-present, not re-create experiences, perceptions and emotions.
Researchers and writers who want to go further in pushing the boundaries of what is regarded as legitimate scholarship often experience tension between writing as they want to and getting their work into the public domain. Bill Tierney’s suggestion that we should refrain from the temptation of either placing our work in relation to traditions or offering a defensive response. I increase my capacity neither for understanding nor originality by a defensive posture. To seek new epistemological and methodological avenues demands that we chart new paths rather than constantly return to well-worn roads and point out that they will not take us where we want to go.

Stephen E. Brock. Qualitative Research: Narrative and Ethnographic Research. California State University, Sacramento.


Post a Comment