Beginning Research | Action Research | Case Study | Interviews | Observation Techniques | Education Research in the Postmodern
Evaluation Research in Education | Narrative| Presentations | Qualitative Research | Quantitative Methods | Questionnaires | Writing up Research
Prepared by Pat Sikes, Professor in Qualitative Inquiry, and Ken Gale
© P Sikes & K Gale, Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, 2006
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 (1953), 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.
In this component we shall be considering some of the implications of this under the following headings:
- What do we mean by narrative in a research context?
- Characteristics of narratives/What makes a good story?
- Narrative accounts of lives
- Narrative accounts of research
The structure of this component differs somewhat from others. This is because we have chosen to reflect /model a narrative approach. Thus whilst we will cover the same areas as other components do, e.g. characteristics of narrative research, how to do narrative research, providing examples of narrative research, setting tasks, we will be doing so in within the context of our own narrative styles: we are positioned in the component – putting our money where our mouths are!
If you want to find out more, have a look at the work to which we have referred and the reading we recommend:
For guidance on the ethical issues in education research for narrative and other approaches, please refer to the ETHICS section in the Beginning Research component.
For more advice on 'how to do it' (data collection, data analysis and writing up research using a narrative approach to auto/biographies and life histories) click here.
1. What do we mean by narrative in a research context?
Essentially, ‘narrative meaning is created by noting that something is a ‘part’ of a whole, and that something is a ‘cause’ of something else’ (Polkinghorne, 1988: 6). 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’ (Polkinghorne, 1995: 5). 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 (always?) 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, David Silverman observes:
all we sociologists have are stories. Some come from other people, some from us. What matters is to understand how and where the stories are produced, which sort of stories they are, and how we can put them to intelligent use in theorizing about social life (1998: 111).
Similarly, Paul Atkinson talks about the way in which ethnographers write down stories in the field and then go home to their studies and write those stories up; ‘writing down’ and ‘writing up’. In the first instance he describes how what was written down is treated as data by the ethnographer within the imagery of ‘transcription uninterrupted by self-conscious intervention or reflection.’ What is ‘written up’ is more clearly located within a constructivist context of writing but, as Atkinson points out, ‘both phases of the work involve the creation of textual materials; both are equally matters of textual construction’ (1990: 61)
It is clear from Atkinson’s claims regarding the textual constructions that take place in educational and social research, that narrative inquiry, in all its different forms, can be firmly located within the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in education and the social sciences. We say ‘so-called’ because, as MacLure points out in an important endnote, the ‘turn’ in question has been referred to in a number of different ways:
Or perhaps it is a ‘textual turn’, a ‘postmodern turn’, a ‘reflexive turn’, a ‘poststructuralist turn’, a ‘narrative turn’, or a ‘literary turn’. All of these terms are in circulation and … they share the work of “registering a new space” for research and theorising across the disciplines … (2003: 4, endnote 2)
Indeed, as Denzin (2000) argues, ‘The study of narrative forces the social sciences to develop new theories, new methods and new ways of talking about self and society’. Narrative approaches to education and social research, therefore, are having a de-stabilising effect on the foundational epistemologies and methodologies of established research practices, whilst at the same time making connections with other domains of practice, theoretical areas and epistemological concerns. The following list does not represent itself in any way as complete, comprehensive or immutable; it is designed to offer a valuable range of connections with the kind of narrative approaches to educational research being examined here. What can be referred to as the ‘narrative turn’ is therefore linked to these other ‘turns’ in multiple and connected ways. As Squire has suggested, ‘looking at the “narrative turn” is to view a snapshot of what these turns have yielded’ (2005: 91).
Bruner and Narrative Intelligence
Bruner (1996) argues that story making is central to creating an understanding of the world into which a person can feel they will fit. He claims that all cultures have logical-scientific and narrative forms of thinking and that not all cultures privilege these two aspects in the same way. He is not trying to establish a binary relation here because, he argues, logical-scientific thinking needs narrative to contextualise and explain it. Conversely, narrative thinking needs to be analysed, understood and described on occasions, perhaps, using logical-scientific forms of thinking to carry out the analysis of the narrative data. In other words the two modes of thought are not mutually exclusive, but, rather, interdependent. The rhetorical stance in Bruner’s work is based upon an extension of the argument that says that these forms of thinking constitute different forms of intelligence and that, in Western society, logical-scientific intelligence is privileged and used to marginalise narrative intelligence.
Foucault and Discourse Theory
Whilst there are many proponents of discourse theory it is the French historian and thinker Michel Foucault (1977, 1991) who is probably most well known for proposing discourse theories within the context of his work. The idea that physical things and actions exist but they only take on meaning and become objects of knowledge within discourse, is at the heart of Foucault’s constructionist theory of meaning and representation. In short we can consider discourses as systems of representation. So for Foucault, for example, since we can only have knowledge of things if they have meaning, it is discourse, not the things in themselves which produces knowledge. Therefore the study of the discourses of education, for example, has to include statements about education, in the form of narratives, which give us a certain kind of knowledge about these things. Foucault argues that the rules which influence narratives to do with education, for example, emerge through the construction of discourse. Discourses are therefore to do with what can be known in a particular place and at a particular time and they are also therefore about power, because they govern, in these spatial and temporal contexts, what is ‘say-able', ‘do-able’ or ‘think-able’. Foucault says that discourses are ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak … (they) are not about objects; they do not identify objects, they constitute them and in the practice of doing so conceal their own invention’ (1977: 49). Personal or professional subjectivities can be seen to personify particular discourses; so in education the public identity of the ‘teacher’, the ‘manager’ and the ‘student’ are produced through (educational) discourse. Narratives express and give life to discourses. From a research point of view Foucault offers at least two approaches that connect with narrative forms of inquiry. On the one hand, the archaeological method of discourse analysis looks at the way in which particular stories or narratives have become sedimented and accepted in place and time. On the other, what he calls a genealogical method of discourse evaluation is used to look critically and reflexively at these stories to see whom they benefit, how they colonise and marginalise and, as a consequence, what can be done about this, what new ‘voices’ or new relations might emerge.
Derrida and Deconstruction
Derrida (1976; 1978; 1982) uses deconstruction as a means of laying bare hidden and vital weaknesses in the text, promoting instability and fracturing the unity it attempts to represent. The text of a particular narrative might appear to be unified but the conclusions that are drawn from it may be questioned, problematised and further challenged. Deconstructive interventions are largely about reflexivity; a fracture in the text of a narrative is exposed, a new text emerges, which is itself is susceptible to deconstruction. And so it goes on …
Derrida wished deconstruction to be used, for example, to challenge and expose the ‘logo-centrism’ of the text, wherein the text is given authority, validity and legitimacy by virtue of its appeal to logic and rationality and its representation of linear cause-effect relations: scientific narratives perhaps. It is also relevant to note, what Derrida cites as, the ‘phallo-centrism’ of the text wherein the masculine is privileged over the feminine within the construction of the text. This would refer to narratives that were gendered in some way, perhaps through the exclusive and undifferentiated use of masculine personal pronouns.
Derrida uses the duality of the notion of ‘differance’ to challenge, what he refers to as the ‘metaphysics of presence’, in which the text is somehow presented as containing certain essential features or qualities that somehow exist in the text. He would challenge the view that a particular narrative could be ‘essentialised’ as having, for example, good or bad qualities. The dual meaning of ‘differance’ is made up through the interplay of difference and deferral:
Difference refers to where different words or signs in a narrative are given different meanings, interpretations and conceptual frameworks and deferral describes the way in which the author’s intentions or meanings can be deferred indefinitely through processes of signification. In the narrative we only have the ‘trace’, the track or footprint, the author’s mark and how it is interpreted. So ‘differance’ describes the ‘absence’ of any fixed meaning or identity, ‘presence’, in the text of the narrative. Derrida was keen to challenge, for example, the presence of structure in structuralist theory. In particular he argued against the influential structuralist approach of the Swiss linguist Saussure (1974) which claimed that the use of certain signifiers in language (words and gestures) are structurally configured (through sentence construction or grammar) and would lead us to the signified (established meaning).
For Derrida texts are always unstable and can always be placed ‘under erasure’, meaning that, at this time and in this place, their existing form is inadequate but, nevertheless, necessary.
Wittgenstein and Language Games
Describe the aroma of coffee. - Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? - But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded? (Wittgenstein 1972: 159)
Wittgenstein’s use of language games (1972; 1975) is incorporated within an approach to understanding and meaning which, he claims, identifies a fundamental error of thinking, in focusing upon language as a form of expression rather than upon its use in life. For Wittgenstein language use is a form of human rule governed activity, integrated into human transactions and social behaviour; it is context dependant and purpose related. In the above quotation he expresses a kind of disbelief about systems of thought that claim that language is able to provide lasting descriptions that somehow establish meaning in a fixed way. Wittgenstein’s idea of language games encourages us to pose the question: how can descriptions of this kind claim to somehow transcend the boundaries of time and place? In Wittgenstein’s conceptualisation of the language game we are encouraged to examine language in use, where words, within the context of narrative forms, are like tools which are used in ways that are particular to the users, the situation and the context. In this respect they are similar to the rules in a game and we can consider their different uses in the following contexts:
giving or taking orders
describing or measuring
reporting an event
forming and testing hypotheses
engaging in a discussion
presenting a seminar paper
When you are writing or speaking, using narratives, you might want to consider your own use of figures of speech (tropes) with which you are familiar, such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, repetition, etc, within the use of language games. In general terms, language games may be characterised as being made up of:
words and sentences,
gestures, patterns and intonations
learning the rules
The French philosopher and writer Julia Kristeva (1986) is known for introducing the term ‘intertextuality’ into the study of language and poststructural thought in the latter part of the 20th century. Her use of intertextuality draws on the Latin word intertexto, meaning to intermingle while weaving, and she uses this imagery to support her claim that all forms of signification, stories, poems, films, etc, are made up or fabricated on the basis of their transformation of other systems of signs or language. So a particular story or narrative is not simply the work of the author, it is in fact constituted by its relationship to other stories and systems of signs. Bakhtin’s (1981) dialogic approach has influenced Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality, particularly in relation to his concept of heteroglossia. This literally means ‘other’ (hetero) ‘tongues’ or ‘voices’ (glot) where the narratives we use intersect with one another and through this process form new narratives. Narrative approaches to education research, according to this view, would need to promote an awareness of the way in which the narrative text in question, either in the form of narrative as data or data as narrative, can be seen to be connected to and multiply related to other narrative texts.
Deleuze and Becoming
Multiplicity and connection also form a substantial part of the thinking of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1988; 1993; 1994; 2002; 2004.) His post structural insistence that we inhabit an unstable and changing world of becoming connects him in some ways to the other poststructural thinkers mentioned in this component. All of Deleuze’s work is characterised by challenge to conventional forms of thought and the promotion and invention of new ways of thinking. Nothing is ever fixed and for him there are as many worlds as there are ways of thinking and talking about them. His writing is inhabited by a number of key concepts or ‘figures’, these he uses within the context of his own vocabulary and compositional style. So narratives are crucially important to Deleuze, not simply in the way that they are used to represent the world but more in the way in which they are used to invent it. In language concepts are created, new ‘lines of flight’ are made, the multiple interconnections and contradictions of human interaction appear in complex rhizomatic forms, thinkers, writers and researchers engage in nomadic inquiry and see sedimented structures dissolve as their foundational forms are questioned and interrogated. Deleuze was concerned to look at the way we create and express ourselves through images and sensations; his was a ‘logic of sense’ not a logic of reason. From the point of view of narrative inquiry Deleuze’s work with his friend Felix Guattari is interesting. Much of their collaborative work is based upon a dialogue between them, involving the exchange of ideas and the interplay of different ways of thinking. Their narrative exchanges were crucial to the development of their thinking, as Deleuze said in conversation with Claire Parnet: ‘we do not work together, we work between the two’ (2002: 17). What is exchanged between them is in narrative form and the creativity of their philosophy emerges through the writing.
Using Narrative to Inquire
In the social sciences, the word ‘story’ in relation to a particular research project can still have negative consequences for how that work is regarded within the wider academic research community. This is despite the considerable influence of, what Denzin is quoted as referring to earlier as, the ‘narrative forces’ that are impacting upon all areas of educational and social research. Stories are still often equated with fabrication and untruths: in other words with the opposite of the traditional goals of (scientific) research. Thus, whilst most people would probably accept that stories can and do tell ‘truths’ about human experiences, they may feel more comfortable when their stories come in the guise of novels, rather than research accounts. Despite the so-called ‘paradigm wars’ appearing to reach their final stages, we can still find evidence of academics in some quarters coming back to the unhelpful and outmoded science vs. non-science, positivist vs. interpretative/naturalistic, objective vs. subjective, binary. (See the RESINED component on Education Research in the Postmodern for further discussion.)
Without wishing to rehearse at length the arguments around this unhelpful polarisation, it is still the case that the hegemonic influence of the positivist science paradigm continues to be strong and pervasive, shaping conceptualisations and expectations of what constitutes ‘proper’, ‘valid’, ‘objective’, ‘truthful’ and ‘worthwhile’ research. We see at work here the normalising function and disciplinary power of, what Foucault would describe as a ‘regime of truth’ (1991), establishing through discursive technologies legitimate modes of theory and practice. Ironically, when advocates of positivism criticise narrative research and researchers for telling, or rather ‘making up’ stories and, therefore, not meeting criteria of ‘objectivity’, ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’, they often seem to have conveniently forgotten that all approaches to and understandings of, research are ‘made up’ social constructions. As Patricia Clough has stated, ‘all factual representations of reality, even statistical representations, are narratively constructed’ (1992: 2): because there is no other way of doing it. There are no techniques for totally accurately and truthfully capturing and relating aspects of life – or indeed, any observations or hypotheses about the natural and physical world. All attempts, whether they come in words or numbers or visual images, can only be re-presentations, and, hence, interpretations. And, particularly when it comes to reporting social research, as Laurel Richardson points out, because social communication takes place through narrative:
narrative is quintessential to the understanding and communication of the sociological. All social science writing depends upon narrative structure and narrative devices, although a ‘scientific’ frame frequently masks that structure and those devices, which is, itself a metanarrative (cf Lyotard, 1979). The issue is not whether sociologists should use the narrative, but which narratives will be provided to the reader.’ (1997: 27)
Failing to acknowledge this, as has been the tradition, does not bring us any closer to ‘truth’. All we can have, returning to Silverman’s point quoted earlier, are the accounts, the stories, the narratives that we hear and tell (or read and write). Furthermore we cannot get away from the influence of the experiences, perceptions, beliefs and values that have shaped the tellers and listeners. What we need to do is find ways of using stories for purposes of scholarship, for moving towards better understanding of the social situations we are concerned to investigate as researchers and for better communication of those understandings.
Narrative as Data: Data as Narrative?
At this point it is important to reiterate and to make it absolutely clear that the narratives and stories we are referring to can be both the stories we decide constitute the ‘data’ for any particular research project AND the stories we tell as researchers. Thus data can be the narrative accounts that we collect in our search for information, either from informants or from other sources (e.g. written in questionnaires, diaries, logs, etc; spoken in interviews; observation reports made by researchers themselves; reflective practice accounts; personal reflections for auto-ethnographies; photo/video journals; documentary evidence, etc). Research stories, are the accounts that researchers give of their work, usually presented in written form, in theses, journal articles, books, reports on so on. Traditionally, within the context of modernist forms of thinking, these accounts have taken particular ‘scientific’ forms that emphasise objectivity, rationality and logical reasoning, seeking (or purporting) to tell universal truths. Explicitly and avowedly narrative research accounts by contrast, tend to emphasise subjectivities and contextual circumstances and the way in which events are causally linked and given meaning by their connections. They tell a story that is usually temporally and spatially located. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, it is possible for research to present narrative data in a traditional scientific, rather than explicitly narrative, form (see for example Sikes, P. & Everington, J. (2003) ‘'I’m a woman before I’m an RE Teacher': Managing Religious Identity in Secondary Schools’ Gender and Education 15, 4: 393-406, which may be obtained by University of Plymouth staff and students via the staff/student portal from the e-Library, Electronic Journals). Indeed, it is only in relatively recent times, as post-modernist notions and understandings concerning multiple realities have begun to have wider influence and currency, that narrative presentations have really gained any degree of acceptability in academia (see Richardson, 2000; Plummer, 2001).
In thinking about narrative research, both in terms of data and presentation, the work of the social constructivist Jerome Bruner is helpful. Bruner has suggested that there are two basic ways in which human beings think about, make sense of, and tell about the world: narrative cognition and logico-scientific paradigmatic cognition (Bruner, 1986). Essentially, logico-scientific cognition is concerned with universals, empiricist reasoning and proof: and narrative cognition, with how the particular and specific contribute to the whole. Bruner suggests these types of cognition are irreducible to each other and complementary. Both use narrative structures, albeit different ones. Neither is inherently ‘better’ than the other. Nor is one necessarily more ‘truthful’ or ‘real’.
Researchers who chose to use the sorts of narratives that obviously and explicitly tell stories do so because they believe that this approach is most effective for communicating the ‘data’ they want to get across. These stories convey their own epistemological, ontological, ethical and political position. We will be looking at what this means in following sections of the component.
2. Characteristics of narrative/What makes a good story?
A good story is one that takes the reader or listener along with it, one that engages their interest and makes them want to know more. Different people respond to and have preferences for, different styles, but the general requirement for a good story is that it be told or written in a clear and coherent manner. Obfuscatory, boring and turgid use of words, an over-reliance on technical terms and unnecessarily complicated and complex structures all tend to militate against good storying. We have already emphasised that all accounts are actively and socially created, whatever form they take. Those with a feel for or propensity towards narrative, be they researchers or informants, may have an intuitive talent, but they are also likely to be self-consciously concerned to craft their tales, paying attention to aesthetics and literary considerations, weighing carefully the use of one word against another. Of course, fluency can mask deficiencies in content and theorising but there is no reason to suppose that researchers who use narrative are any more likely to intend to deceive than those who use traditional forms (see Sikes, 2000).
An important characteristic of most good stories is the extent to which the way in which they are written enables writer/teller to make imaginative contact with the reader/hearer. To a considerable degree, this relationship depends upon shared beliefs and values but it can also be aided by skilful writing. With reference to fiction, Virginia Woolf suggests that:
the writer must get into touch with his (sic) reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which, therefore, stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut. (1992)
Those seeking to communicate a) experiences and perceptions of events that have actually, as opposed to fictively or imaginatively, happened and, b) theoretical and analytical interpretations of those events, need also to aim for that ‘intimacy’ and ‘common meeting place’. Stories are an effective means of getting there.
Qualities and Characteristics?
So, what other characteristics might we be able to identify in a ‘good story?
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. Gerrig talks of the way in which a good story is able to ‘transport (the reader) into the narrative world’ and provide liminal spaces in which the reader can ‘use their own experiences of the world to bridge the gaps in the text' (1993:17). So the liminality of the text embodies certain ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy and transports the reader beyond the normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behaviour, perhaps opening the way to something new. The genre of magical realism may be seen to offer this quality in some of its writings (see Marquez, 1998 and Suskind, 1987).
The transgressive qualities of a story might serve to enhance its quality. St.Pierre (1997) talks about ‘transgressive data’ where ‘data’ from our emotions, our dreams and the world of the senses can be used to enhance the quality of the representations of the experiences we have. bell hooks (1994; 1999) invites us to write in transgressive ways: ‘Words invite us to transgress-to move beyond the world of the ordinary’ (1999: 152)
In her influential paper 'Writing: A Method of Inquiry', Richardson (2000) challenges the formal criteria for assessing forms of writing and asserts 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. Sparkes (2001) also examines the criteria that we employ to try to establish the validity of texts and suggests the legitimacy of certain forms of narrative content if it can be used to evoke particular emotions that are relevant to the purpose of the writing.
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. The ethnographic research methodology employed by Geertz (1973) provides, what he refers to as, ‘thick descriptions’ of observed phenomena, based upon idiosyncratic and individual accounts. These afford rich, complex or ‘thick’ descriptions of the social life and cultural lives being observed. The autoethnographic writing of Ronai (1998) is a good example of the use complex interweaving of form and content working to both convey and enhance the quality of the research being described. She uses to great effect multi-layered texts to represent the complex interactions and subject re-positioning of herself in relation to those she is observing in her autoethnographic research practice.
Whilst notions of creativity continue to be contested, it is commonplace to talk of writing in terms of its creative qualities. In proposing the idea of the ‘narrative intelligence’ of texts, Bruner (2002) talks of the creative fusion of memory and the imagination in the re-invention of our life stories. Deleuze and Guattari describe processes of thinking and their presentation in narrative forms in terms of a creative process: ‘philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts … the object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new …’ (1994:5). In this respect the creativity quality of the narrative will reside in its ability to represent the fluidity, flexibility and multiplicity of the kind of thinking being referred to here.
How does the story capture the attention of the reader or the audience? 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. Theorists such as Bakhtin (1981, 1986) and Kristeva (1986) talk about the iterative and intertextual nature of narrative; in this way of thinking we can be seen to ‘perform’ our stories to others; we have an intention to convey, or to communicate in particular ways. As Bakhtin pointed out:
In point of fact, word is a two sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee. Each and every word expresses ‘one’ in relation to the ‘other’. (1986: 86)
How do we evaluate narrative? Of course, within the context of narrative inquiry, the idea of establishing criteria for evaluating texts is highly problematic. Questions might be raised about, what Foucault calls, the ‘fixity’ of meaning and whether the criteria that we might ‘fix’ for one text is necessarily valid for another. The way in which we establish criteria for beginning to assess creative, transgressive and non traditional forms of research poses many problems. Whatever criteria we might establish for the purposes of achieving this are open to further scrutiny and questioning. This will usually occur within the context of the perennial discussions that we will need to engage in concerning the validity and reliability of the research documents that we produce and encounter. The following represents some tentative suggestions that could be offered to assist in beginning to establish criteria to use in the evaluation of narrative approaches to education research. In offering these suggestions we are drawing upon the criteria that Richardson (2000) uses to review papers that have been submitted for publication in social scientific journals.
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. Such an approach would begin to consider the perspective taken within a particular narrative and how this might contribute to the construction of knowledge and meaning making. A clear relationship between the narrative and the perspective would normally be visible.
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!). We need to examine the narrative in terms of its ability to invite interpretive responses and to elicit reactions from the reader. In this respect there is a need to examine the text of the narrative in terms of its artistic form and style of presentation. Richardson suggests, for example, that aesthetic or creative writing practices might be inhibited by the use of ‘old, worn-out metaphors’ (2000: 935).
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. Therefore, a substantial concern is attached to what the narrative actually ‘represents’. This concern is based upon an awareness of the instability of language and, what Lyotard (1984: xxiv) has referred to as an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’. According to this view our narratives allow us to present and represent the world, as we see it, in different ways; these different ways may reflect certain cultural antecedents to do with gender, class, ethnicity and so on. We need therefore to ask questions of the following order about the narrative itself: ‘How did the author come to write this narrative?’, ‘What conditions led to this text being said?’, ‘Whose views does the text represent?’, ‘How was the information obtained?’ and so on. Such questions reflect our reflexivity concerning the narrative. In particular, it is Foucault who alerts us to the need to demonstrate an ethical sensitivity to all forms of expression. Further we need to ask does the text of the narrative concern itself with ethical issues, is there a separation between the public and private spheres of life, are the research participants represented in fair and accurate ways?
If we see the narrative as being in certain senses a ‘performance’ then it becomes reasonable to assess the impact it might have had upon those who have engaged with it in some way: how has it affected the ‘audience’? So 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.
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. So that whilst post modern approaches generally encourage us to tolerate ambiguity and to search for a plurality of meanings our communal sense of the ‘real’ encourages us to look at narratives in terms of their cultural credibility: does the narrative provide a fair and reasonable account of the worlds of gender, class and ethnicity that it claims to represent?
In tentatively offering these criteria we share with Richardson an awareness of the problematic nature of such a task; in using the optical metaphor of the lens we are aware that there are many ways of ‘looking at’ the narratives that story our lives.
The Structure of Narrative
As we have noted, stories link and make connections, they provide a framework for comprehension. A key way in which they do this is through the structure provided by a plot. Plots usually follow a linear, time ordered sequence, having a beginning, middle and an end - although linearity and notions of chronological time are suspended in some experimental and many post-modern narratives. In some sense or another, plots often involve the resolution of a tension, crisis or problem – although this does not have to be something negative or serious. The ‘problem’, for instance, could be how best to recount the story of how a research project proceeded, given the various elements and voices that need to be incorporated. A plot determines what gets included in any particular narrative, and there can be sub-plots, telling associated stories that add further depth and interest. Too many offshoots though, and the main plot can be lost!
It is considered by some to be possible to carry out an analysis of the structure of narrative. Such an approach forms part of the field that is referred to as Narrative Analysis (see Riessman, 1993; 2002; 2004). In an influential paper entitled 'Speech Actions and Reactions in Personal Narrative' (1982) William Labov provides a clear and explicit exposition of the method known as Structural Analysis. 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.
Such an approach could be used as part of a Data Collection and Analysis whereby narrative could be collected as data through the use of field notes or taped transcripts and then analysed according to the structural approach proposed by Labov. (For a critique of this approach see Gale, 2007.)
Others have argued that this use of structure is somewhat narrow and that the structure of narrative texts can in fact take many forms. The conventional usage appears to take the figurative form described by Richardson within ‘our customary, unconscious use of the metaphor 'Theory is architecture' where structure co-exists in a family of words like ‘foundation’, ‘support’, ‘construct’ and so on' (2000:927). However other writers have used various structural devices in order to represent the complexity of the topics they are investigating. Deleuze and Guattari, for example, argue for a more complex, non hierarchical, non linear, structural configuration which is defined by movement, multiplicity and states of becoming. They refer to this as rhizomatic:
…unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature … It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills …(it) operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots … it has multiple entryways and its own lines of flight. (1988:21)
Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the figure of the rhizome provides a rich and highly appropriate structural form that might be used to explain the twists and turns, the layers and dimensions that complex narrative texts can sometimes take. The dense, multi-layered nature of some of Carol Ronai’s (1998) writing provides an excellent illustration of this. Within a complex structural formation of this kind Deleuze employs the figure of the ‘fold’ to describe the way in which this rhizomatic structure can always be seen to be changing and moving, making connections and multiplying in diverse ways. The following image might help in displaying this more clearly:
(I remember) my mother with her mixing bowl, her sleeves rolled up and her arms bare, gradually adding flour, butter, water and other ingredients in a growing and sweet smelling cake mixture; I remember that she used to talk about ‘folding in the butter’ and it is this image of folding in that begins to allow the idea of the fold to unfold for me. As the butter is folded in, from the outside so to speak, some richness, some new quality begins to emerge in the mix, something is unfolding. (Gale, 2007)
In Deleuze’s work (2003) the fold relates to processes of individuation, of literal becoming; the process of ‘folding in’ adds richness, multiple layers and intensification, the process of unfolding opens out, reveals and makes the familiar strange. This figure from the writing of Deleuze provides an excellent illustration of the complex structural forms that narrative writing can take, particularly within conversational contexts such as unstructured interviews or interactions taking place in naturalistic settings.
Closely associated with plot are themes. Themes organise content in order to bring out the key messages and the interpretations that the teller wishes to get over. On the whole, themes are more general than plots because they usually relate to concepts and theories as opposed to providing a specific sequence and structure. For example, an account of a research project that looked at managerial styles in secondary schools might be organised, and analysed, around themes relating to power, democratic leadership, gendered relationships, and collaboration. As part of her approach to Narrative Analysis, Reissman (2004) describes Thematic Analysis as its most common form, where the researcher attempts to interpret the themes that exist within the text of the narrative in an attempt to give meaning to what is being expressed by the narrator. (See Lutrell, 2003, Cain, 1991.)
The Context of the Narrative
Being social constructions, narratives cannot be independent of their contexts. Storylines and genres arise out of, are associated with, and locate narratives within, specific cultural and social milieu. Anthropologists, narrativists, and others have suggested that there are a relatively limited number of narrative forms. These forms have distinctive patterns, types and structures and they tend to serve particular social, often educative and frequently cohesive, functions (see Plummer, 2001: 188). Thus there are, variously, tragic, romantic, moral, comic, ironic, mythical, liberation narratives: stories of journeys, of coming home, of enduring suffering, of triumphing over adversity and so on. These are forms that, as members of particular social and cultural groups, we come to recognize and recognizing them, are also aware of the particular meanings they carry. Indeed, the form itself can make a major contribution to the story, not least because it colours readers’/hearers’ reception and interpretation of the story as well as setting up expectations about outcomes which can then either be challenged or confirmed. Thus, someone reading an explicitly narrative account may well note the form and assume that its writer has an explicit social justice agenda. In very many instances they will probably be right!
Within the social sciences, John Van Maanen (1988) has described ‘fieldwork genres’, to which, he suggests, much ethnographic writing approximates. Thus there are, amongst others, ‘realist’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘critical’, ‘formal’, ‘literary’, analytic’, and ‘confessional’ tales in which the researcher ‘tells it as it was’ rather than following traditional, formulaic and ‘objective’ structures that tell of neat, tidy, unproblematic research projects. Of course, use of a particular genre tells a great deal about the ontological, epistemological and value position of the researcher! (See Kemp, 2001.)
Then there are storylines. In terms of their substantive content, storylines can provide people with templates or scripts for shaping or making sense of their lives in that they show how others have dealt with particular events, problems and experiences. See, for instance, Goodson and Sikes, (2001: 77 - 86) who discuss scholarship storylines and scripts which charted a route for working class children gaining entry into further and higher education; and Plummer (1995) on gay and lesbian coming out stories. With particular relevance to consumers of this component, Laurel Richardson’s (1997) Fields of Play can be seen as offering a sort of storyline for academics who want to use narrative approaches but who may be apprehensive, fearful for the consequences on their careers and status! Ken Plummer has written about how it becomes possible to tell particular types of stories, using particular narrative forms and genres at particular historical times (1995). Plummer was talking specifically about ‘sexual’ stories but the same applies to research stories. The narrative turn means that work like Richardson’s is increasingly being published, and, in fact there is a growing number of academic journals which devote much of their space to narrative, for instance: Qualitative Inquiry, Narrative, Qualitative Research, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies; Qualitative Studies in Education. This seems to be an approach whose time has come because people do seem, once again, to be prepared to listen to and learn from stories! Stories, which connect the private with the public, are, perhaps, particularly acceptable, and narrative accounts of lives, or more usually aspects of lives, are increasingly used in a vast range of educational research projects. We will now move on to consider questions around this field, noting that we take a broad view of what constitutes the auto/biographical. Thus, investigating experiences of a particular change in, for example, school policy, new curriculum content or pedagogical approaches means asking questions about auto/biographical experience as much as does enquiring into the overall educational career of a specific individual.
Researchers who use auto/biographical approaches collect and work from narrative accounts.
|The slash (/) between auto and biography is there to remind readers that any biographical writing is always mediated through the biography of the writer. Thus it is always auto/biographical (see Stanley, 1992). We suggest that you read the attached paper on Auto/Biographies and Life Histories and complete the reflections at the end.|
Auto/biographical approaches deal in stories of lives with an aim to furthering understanding about aspects of the social world, and yet most would probably agree with Jerome Bruner’s view that:
an autobiography is not and cannot be a way of simply signifying or referring to a ‘life as lived’. I take the view that there is no such thing as a ‘life as lived’ to be referred to. On this view, a life is created or constructed by the act of autobiography. It is a way of construing experience – and of reconstructing and reconstructing it until our breath and our pen fails us. Construal and reconstrual are interpretive…. Obviously, then, there is no such thing as a ‘uniquely’ true, correct or even faithful autobiography. (Bruner, 1993: 38 – 39)
No story of a life or an aspect of a life, can be any thing other than an interpretation, a re-presentation. However, as Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly so succinctly put it:
stories are the closest we can come to experience as we and others tell our experience. A story has a sense of being full, a sense of coming out of a personal and social history…. Experience …. is the stories people live. People live stories and in the telling of them reaffirm them, modify them, and create new ones. (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994: 415)
Questions about the relationship between life as lived and life as presented in research are, fundamentally, questions about the relationships between subjectivities, epistemologies and methodologies, between what knowledge is considered to be and the means by which that knowledge is obtained, recognized and considered to relate to ‘truth’ (see Griffiths, 1998: 35).
When someone is asked to tell their life story or to talk about particular personal experiences and perceptions – whether as an informant to a research project or in any other social setting – they are being given an opportunity to create an identity, a particular self which they may go on to develop and further live out (see Ricoeur, 1980). In social life generally we constantly story our lives in different ways, linking different events, experiences and perceptions, leaving different gaps and using different words and metaphors, in order to fit specific contexts, purposes and audiences.
Not only might our own stories alter depending on the context and what we judge to be appropriate, politic or useful (to us or the hearer), they differ from other people’s stories as a result of the unique combination of experiences we have had and the knowledge we have amassed as we go through life. This also means that as we gain more knowledge and develop new perspectives, forget or remember different details, our own interpretations and hence our stories may also change.
That the same person may tell different stories about the same thing, and that other people might also have their own various versions doesn’t necessarily mean that deliberate deception is being practised – although sometimes, probably rarely, it is (see Sikes, 2000). What it does mean is that there are multiple realities, multiple selves, and that users of narrative approaches should acknowledge this in their research accounts. It also calls into question the applicability to such work of the traditional research concepts and criteria of ‘reliability’ and ‘validity’. (See the previous discussion about criteria and visit The Research Methods Knowledge Base for alternative views of validity and reliability.)
It is our view that that the essence of narratives is to make connections, to link events, feelings, experiences into a neat, tidy, logical and consequential sequence. Sometimes this is how things have worked out, but not always. Many of the things that happen to us result from complex inter-relationships and chance occurrences – being in the right place at the right time, for example. Yet, many people, in talking about their lives, perceptions, experiences, beliefs, values and so on, will try to impose some structure and order, however contrived and spurious, because it helps them to make sense of what has happened to them and can give some feeling of control (Goodson & Sikes, 2001: 46 – 47). Being aware of this and acknowledging it, may be, in these post-modern and post-structural days less of a problem for researchers than it was when the pressure was on to wrap all things up in an over-arching explanation!
The language that people use to tell their stories is significant and researchers using narrative accounts as data should be mindful that, whilst some people are simply better at storying than others, the vocabularies, discourses and metaphors we have access to depend upon experience and social positioning. As Usher notes:
(people) can only represent themselves in language by creating a ‘literary’ rather than a ‘literal’ figure that dis-figures or de-faces as much as it figures…. Discourses and positioning shape what and how we experience the world… we are constituted in language and positioned differently depending on the discursive practices of gender, race, class, ethnicity and other marks of difference (1998: 19 – 20)
In using narrative accounts as data, rather than making claims to represent reality, researchers should, perhaps, simply acknowledge a) the creativity that goes into any account or interpretation or re-presentation of it, and b) how it is socially located and shaped, and should seek, through their work, to explore and present the various influences that have coloured both their informants’ stories and their interpretations of these. This is real social scholarship that exploits and builds on the richness of social experience and sense making and, in so doing, engages the sociological imagination in a way that incorporates and recognises the importance of the emotional dimension in peoples’ lives (Ellis & Flaherty, 1992).
A deep and totally unnoticed trope used by social researchers is the reporting of interview material in prose. In writing this chapter, I myself am using the prose trope and will for the next several pages. Its conventions allow me to stage my arguments in ways that are familiar to the reader, which is my goal here. The reader is not distracted by a different genre, and I am aided in my argument by the invisible power inherent in the adoption of conventional writing. (Richardson, 2003: 188)
Traditionally, academic writing in the social sciences has been expected to follow a particular basic format, with certain variations being acceptable according to specific genre conventions (see Van Maanen, 1988 on conventions used in traditional ethnographies). Writing which does not conform to the pattern has been unlikely to be published in peer-reviewed journals or be considered appropriate to be submitted for academic qualifications. Essentially, the required form, the acceptable narrative structure (see Bell, 1999 and the RESINED component Writing Up Research), consists of:
- an abstract,
- an introduction,
- a literature review,
- a justification for the methodology and methods,
- a description of the research setting/context /population,
- the presentation of findings,
- discussion of those findings,
- a conclusion,
- appendices where relevant (copies of questionnaires, interview schedules, transcripts etc), and
- a list of references presented in a specific manner, usually according to the Harvard system.
Within the text itself, references to relevant literatures is seen as important because they are believed to locate the research and show how it builds on, challenges, or advances existing knowledge. By and large, footnotes are not encouraged.
The hegemony enjoyed by this format was made plain to us when we set out to write this RESINED component. At first we struggled, trying and failing, to order what we wanted to say whilst conforming to an ‘academic’ type of structure, i.e. the sort of structure employed in the other components. It was only when we finally ‘saw the light’ and decided that it was particularly inappropriate to use forms which didn’t feel comfortable because they stilted and channelled our message in directions which we didn’t want to take, that we were able to proceed. We have, therefore, used narrative structure which we believe enable us to tell our story about narrative research in the way we want to tell it.
Of course, no style of writing can be independent of the socio-historical contexts in which it has developed and, whilst what has just been described continues to be the dominant form, the influence of postmodernism has opened up the possibilities for academic writing (see Richardson, 2000: 925 – 926, for a history of social science writing). MacLure in the introduction to her book Discourse in Educational and Social Research (2003) provides a telling exposition of, what she refers to as, ‘the unavoidably discursive nature of educational realities’ when she says:
We are in a very different world, then, from that proposed by common sense or scientific reason, where language merely reflects, or corresponds to, a pre-existing reality. This new(ish) world, which is not one but many, is the product of a ‘linguistic turn’ that has spread like a virus through the disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities … (insisting) that truths are textual; that the way we see the world is ‘always already’ infected by language. (2003:4)
Writing forms reflect understandings about the nature of knowledge. For instance, the traditional form requires that social scientific writing be ‘objective’ and that, therefore the writer/researcher should not be personally present in the text, contaminating it with their subjectivity. Those who take the view that writers and researchers are embodied in their work and that is impossible to extract them are likely to feel constrained and frustrated by this format, as are those influenced by postmodernist and poststructuralist thinking. For these, and for other people, different narrative structures seem more appropriate for communicating their understandings and accounts of their research because they better match their epistemological, ontological, ethical and value positioning.
Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century there does seem to have been a progressive blurring of the boundaries between scientific and literary writing, between fact and fiction, true and imagined. Journalists and sociologists have borrowed from each other writing about, reporting and analysing aspects of social life in forms that have been called faction, creative non-fiction, ethnographic fiction, true fiction and the non-fiction novel (see Roorbach, 2001). Even given this blurring we would contend that researchers should always be unequivocally explicit to their readers about what it is they are doing and how they are presenting their work. Whilst we acknowledge Lather’s comment: ‘Whatever “the real” is, it is discursive’, (in MacLure, 2003: 4) it would be, in our view, unethical to give any sort of fictional or imaginative account without spelling out that this is what they have done and, in most instances, justifying their approach. As Richardson notes:
claiming to write ‘fiction’ is different from claiming to write ‘science’ in terms of the audience one seeks, the impact one might have on different publics, and how one expects ‘truth claims’ to be evaluated. These differences should not be overlooked or minimized. (2000: 926)
Since the mid-1980s in particular, within the social sciences there has been a massive proliferation of types of what Laurel Richardson calls ‘creative analytic practices' (2000: 929 – 936). These approaches to writing and otherwise presenting social science research, thinking and theorising are produced as academic scholarship and have extended the boundaries of understanding primarily by acknowledging and, where appropriate, privileging subjectivities and the place of the affect and emotion in all aspects of social life. Narrative forms that evoke identification and or empathy and hence promote understanding do seem to be highly appropriate in social, and particularly educational research. Not surprisingly, narrative forms can be seen as having and can indeed have transformative and hence transgressive potential (St.Pierre, 1997). Stories can change the world.
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:
Autoethnographies (see Bochner, 2000 and Ellis and Bochner, 2000) 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. In some cases autoethnographies focus on aspects of the research process, for instance, reflecting on the writing process or on the researcher’s experiences in the field. In most cases, autoethnographers will employ literary devices in order to evoke identification and emotion. The paper, ‘Storying schools: issues around attempts to create a sense of feel and place in narrative research writing' is an example.
Ethnographic fiction (see Banks & Banks, 1998; Clough, 2002) is a narrative form in which fictional stories, which could be true, are told within an accurate cultural/social framework. In many respects this is much like what novels do, with the difference lying in the intention. Novels are written to entertain and maybe to educate: ethnographic fictions are written as scholarship and are intended to further understanding of aspects of social life. They frequently, but not always, come with some form of analytic introduction, commentary or discussion that relates the story to theory. Some writers have used fictional forms in order to protect and preserve the anonymity of their informants and research settings, in other cases elements of different ‘real’ characters and/or contexts have been combined to create a composite.
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. Poems rarely stand alone (Richardson, 2003). Mair describes her concern with forms of academic writing which stem:
largely (from) a discipline of prosaic solemnity. Yet we cannot hope to catch and care for the sparkle of moments of beauty, of reverence, of joy, or personal pain in lumbering prosaic form. These times, the essentials of our deeper lives, are only to be reached and shared in a poetic expression. A poetics of experience, perhaps.
A poetics requires that you are deeply attentive to yourself and others, so that you become the meeting place of messages spoken and unspoken, the place of transformation of what is moving between and amongst you. So much of what we are involved within cannot be separated out or pinned down in objective form. The unknown has to remain in active relationship with the known, and the knower has to reside in both the unknown and what he knows. (1989: 63)
Performance ethnography is an attempt to re-present an experience without losing the experience. In some cases there will be a script, in others the actors improvise around themes. Inevitably it raises all sorts of questions about the nature of social science. How it is actually presented varies. Sometimes it will be prefaced or followed by discussion, on occasion it may be undertaken in order to give others the opportunity to ‘experience’ particular situations and emotions.
Performance ethnography can work as a ‘strategic method of inciting culture… (as a means to) stir up feelings and provoke audiences to a critical social realization and possible response’ (Alexander, 2005, pp. 411 - 412); making an explicit connection with lives as lived. Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln talk of how:
in the moment of performance, the co-performed text brings audience and performers into a jointly felt and shared field of experience. Such works unsettle the writer’s place in the text… The performance text is lived experience. (Denzin & Lincoln, 2002: 182).
Performance approaches provoke deconstructive, critical and potentially transformative involvements and responses between researchers/performers and ‘data’; researchers/performers and audience; and researchers/performers, audience and data. Conquergood goes so far as to describe them as a ‘sociopolitical acts’ (1998: 32).) They also raise interesting questions about the process of ‘data’ collection and ‘about what happens when everything, as Du Bois (1926: 134) observes, is already performative, when the dividing line between performativity and performance disappears’ (Denzin, 2003: ix – x). In other words, they explicitly recognize that a performance is actually going on when an ‘informant’ tells their story to a researcher: they mirror and further reflect, the original telling.
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. Mixed genres can make it easier to re-present the multi-faceted nature and the multiple realities there in any area of social life. Research into children’s experiences of their first few weeks in secondary school might, for instance, include poems, pictures, photographs, essays, journal entries, autoethnographic writing by the researcher, the school prospectus and other documents as well as theoretical analysis. Some writers may adopt a mixed genre approach in order to ‘hedge their bets’ and increase the likelihood of their work gaining acceptability and publication. Richardson, in offering a critique of the method of triangulation as a method of ‘testing’, encourages us to envision our theories and our practices, not in some flat two dimensional way but instead through:
…the central imaginary (of) the crystal, which combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach. Crystals grow, change, alter, but are not amorphous. Crystals are prisms that reflect externalities and refract within themselves, creating different colours, patterns, and arrays, casting off in different directions. What we see depends upon our angle of repose. Not triangulation, crystallisation. (2000: 934)
The blurring of genres and the use of an integrated range of methodologies, expressed within the context of appropriate narrative styles, has the potential to offer forms of inquiry that begin to dissolve the traditional binaries of objectivity and subjectivity, quantitative and qualitative, that often serve to hamper the progress of many forms of research into education at the present time.
Writing as a Method of Inquiry
Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries. I have not yet found the words to truly convey the intensity of this remembered rapture – that moment of exquisite joy when necessary words come together and the work is complete, finished ready to be read. (hooks, 1999: xvi)
In citing her work on numerous occasions throughout this component we have already expressed our respect for the contribution that Laurel Richardson’s work has made in the field of narrative research in educational and social research. Within this field of theory and practice her ground breaking contention that writing itself is a method of inquiry has provided narrative approaches to research with a whole new methodological approach. For Richardson writing becomes methodology. Famously she asserts that writing is not to tell but to show; the evocative force of the narrative becomes its raison d’être rather than its ability to descriptively expose or critically analyse. So, for example, when talking of poetic representation in the context of narrative research she says:
When the goal of poetic representation is to re-present significant moments in lived experiences, such as something epiphanous, the short poem and especially a sequence of short poems with an implied narrative works well. More than the long narrative poem, short poems focus and concretize the emotions, feelings, and moods – the most private kinds of feelings – in order to re-create moments of experience. The poem “shows” another person how it is to feel something. (2003: 190)
Writing 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:
… philosophy is not the simple art of forming, inventing and fabricating concepts, because concepts are not necessarily forms, discoveries, or products. More rigorously, philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts . . . the object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new … Concepts are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 5)
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 (1993) 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:
In my teaching I feel that I am growing in confidence about the way in which I am beginning to encourage my students to engage in conceptualisation and contextualisation as processes which involve creating concepts and then locating them within contexts in a fluidity of praxis. I encourage them to do this so that they can become actively involved in nomadic processes of meaning making in the classroom, in the workplace and in their lives generally. I am drawn to the work of Richardson (2000) and see the performance dimensions of their writing and their talking as methods of inquiry. By paying close attention to the Deleuzian notions of lines of flight and to the creating of concepts that emerge from the conversations and writings of my students, I now find myself engaged in (teaching and learning) performances in which my roles, more and more, are shared with my students and in which the nature of my subjectivity of teacher becomes increasingly troubled, blurred and unstable.
It is interesting that the narrator refers to writing and talking as ‘performance’; this is very close to what Richardson refers to when she talks of the narrative as ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. Pelias talks of ‘performance as a way of knowing’ (1999: ix) suggesting to all kinds of liminalities and potentialities of expression, content and personal agency. Writing as a method of inquiry is, therefore, largely nomadic, involving the researcher in the creation of lines of flight that have the potential to lead into all kinds of uncharted territory. Richardson alerts us to the habitual and traditional use of ‘prefabricated narratives’ such as the prose trope within educational and social research; Adrienne Rich incisively comment that ‘…this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to speak to you’ (Rich 1975, quoted in Lather 1995: 302). However, we also need to be aware of the following apprehension expressed by Rosenblatt as we open up and attempt to destabilise these established territories:
As I have moved further into trying to write fiction, I have experienced most powerfully the realisation that in creating fiction I have been freed to tell readers far more than I could while working within the constraints of conventional social science writing. At the same time I worry a great deal about how to persuade myself and the reader that what I have to offer has some kind of validity and truth to it. (2003: 235)
Narrative interviewing is a research methodology, like so many others cited here, that Gubrium and Holstein (2003) 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 (1997) 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’ (2000: 647). 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 (2000) ‘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. So, the structure of the interview, in terms of the hierarchical relationship between interviewer and interviewee, the derivation of a pre-determined set of questions that are ‘given’ to the interviewee and the conceptual grounding of the interviewee as ‘respondent’ to the interviewer and the interview process, are all problematised by the proponents of narrative interviewing. Thus the narrative interview becomes much less structured around the cultural antecedents that have preceded it and also, in the words of Tuhiwai Smith (1999), ‘colonised’ it. In employing a form of narrative interviewing to explore differences between writing styles, Gale and Wyatt (2006; 2007 forthcoming) found in the research process, not only points of significance to do with different writing styles, but also how the process of writing both reflects and creates ‘selves’ and destabilises the boundaries between interviewer and interviewee. It is interesting to note that some theorists have argued for the therapeutic effects of such practices. (White, 1995)
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. (1998: 68)
is courageous. However it is important that narrative research, whatever form it takes be able to demonstrate both its scholarliness and its honesty.
It seems, as Silverman (1998) and others have pointed out, that narratives are everywhere. The so called ‘linguistic turn’ in so many areas of educational and social research has given increased prominence to the role of narrative in helping us to understand and interpret the worlds in which we live. We hope that this component has begun to illustrate the role of narrative in the reflexive examination of representations of meaning, knowledge, identity and practice within a wide range of educational settings. We also hope that engagement with the component has begun to equip with the means to carry some narrative approaches to education research within your own institutional or research based practices. The nature of the linguistic turn has encouraged us to focus our attention upon the way in which language can be seen to play such a significant role in the construction of knowledge. Therefore, narrative approaches to education research practice, of the kind introduced here, can be extremely useful in helping us to critically engage with the discursively established, sedimented strata of educational theory and practice that continue to be highly influential in a great many institutional and policy driven contexts today. Narrative approaches of this kind place value and significance upon subjectivity, agency and voice, offering substantial opportunities for engagement with education theory, research and practice at all levels within the context of a positive spirit of problematisation, improvement and change.
(NB: only for those University of Plymouth students undertaking the Research in Education module as part of the preparation for the submission of a MA dissertation proposal)
Tasks, once completed, should be sent to email@example.com, making clear:
It will then be passed on to the component leader (and copied to your supervisor). The component leader will get back to you with comments and advice which we hope will be educative and which will help you in preparing your dissertation proposal once you are ready. (Remember that these tasks are formative and that it is the proposal which forms the summative assessment for the MERS501 (resined) module.) This email address is checked daily so please use it for all correspondence about RESINED other than that directed to particular individuals for specific reasons.
Before undertaking either Task B or C below you might like to consider the more general question here (and perhaps include it in your response to B or C).
Consider arguments for and against taking a narrative approach to education research. How might it be used to provide insights of value in your own professional context? (See Suggested Further Reading below and be careful to reference your sources correctly.)
TASK B (DATA COLLECTION)
When he thinks he is telling the truth, he tells the most terrible falsehoods. But when he thinks he is making a story from his imagination then, sometimes, he catches the truth.
(Chatwin, 1990: 84)
Autoethnographic practices involve us in collecting data from ourselves and others in different settings and in different ways.
a) a brief narrative account of an aspect of your experiences of being a student
b) a brief narrative account of an aspect of your learning experiences as an employee
In order to immerse yourself in your data, consider and write down your answers to the following questions about the actual process of data collection that you carried out.
How did you prepare for the writing? Did you have any notes? Did you consult your diary? Did you talk to others before you compiled your narrative?
Did you choose to be in a particular place when you wrote? Did you write it all at the same time or did you have a break?
What does the account tell us about your perceptions of these experiences or how you felt at the time they took place?
Do you think that the points that you make are in any way generalisable?
How do you think others might feel or think about what you have written?
Is there a sense in which the data that you collected form part of a critical account?
Do you think that you were being imaginative as a writer? In what ways were you aware of the evaluative, aesthetic and reflexive dimensions of your writing process?
Did the data collection process encourage you to use techniques of expression and to consider if the text of the narrative might be evocative?
Are there any issues to do with confidentiality in terms of yourself or others mentioned in the narrative that you need to consider?
When you read the narrative over again did you make any changes? If so, briefly explain why?
Do you think what you have written is credible?
TASK C (DATA ANALYSIS)
Read 'Meaning, identity and ‘motivation’: expanding what matters in understanding learning in higher education?' by Tamsin Haggis in Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 29, No. 3, 336-352, June 2004 (click here ... but remember you will need to sign into the library system for full access). Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the approach she takes to the analysis of narrative accounts and its applicability to the kind of data that you might gather.
Alexander, B. (2005) Performance Ethnography: The Reenacting and Inciting of Culture, in: Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds), The Handbook of Qualitative Research: Third Edition (Thousand Oaks, Sage) 411– 441.
Atkinson P (1990) The Ethnographic Imagination London Routledge
Atkinson. P and Silverman. D (1997) Kundera’s Immortality: The Interview Society and the Invention of Self Qualitative Inquiry, 3, 304-325
Banks, A. & Banks, S. (1998) Fiction and Social Research: By Ice or Fire Walnut creek, CA, AltaMira
Bakhtin M (1981) The Dialogic Imagination Austin University of Texas Press
Bakhtin M and Volosinov V N (1986) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Metnjka L and Titunik I R (trans.) Cambridge MA., and London Harvard University Press
Barthes, R. (1966) ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of the Narrative’ Occasional Paper, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham
Bell, J. (1999) Doing Your Research Project (3rd edition), Buckingham, OUP
Bochner A (2000) Criteria Against Ourselves Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 6 Number 2, pp.266 - 272
Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press
Bruner, J. (1993) ‘The Autobiographical Process’ in Folkenflik, R. (Ed) The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self Representation Stanford CA, Stanford University Press
Bruner. J. (1996) The Culture of Education London, Harvard University Press
Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, literature, life. Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press
Cain C (1991) Personal Stories: Identity Acquisition and Self Understanding in Alcoholics Anonymous Ethos 19: pp. 210-253
Chase, S. (2005) ‘Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research 3rd Edn Thousand Oaks, Sage PAGE NOS
Clandinin, D. & Connelly, F. (1994) ‘Personal Experience Methods’ Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 413–427
Clough, Patricia (1992) The Ends of Ethnography London, Sage
Clough, Peter (2002) Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Open University
Conquergood, D. (1998) Beyond the Text: Toward a Transformative Cultural Politics, in: Dailey, S. (Ed) The Future of Performative Studies: Visions and Revisions (Washington DC, National Communication Association) 25 – 36.
Currie, H. (1998) Postmodern Narrative Theory London, Macmillan
Deleuze G (1993) The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque London Athlone
Deleuze and Guattari (1994) What is Philosophy? London Verso
Deleuze G (2004) The Logic of Sense London Continuum
Deleuze G and Guattari F (1988) A Thousand Plateaus London Athlone
Deleuze G and Parnet C (2002) dialogues II London Continuum
Denzin N (2000) ‘Introduction’ in Andrews. M., Sclater. S. D., Squire. C., and Treacher., A. (Eds) Lines of Narrative: Psychosocial Perspectives London Routledge
Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2002) Editors’ Comments on Performance Ethnography Section, in: Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Qualitative Inquiry Reader (Thousand Oaks, Sage)181 – 183.
Denzin, N. (2003) Performing (Auto)Ethnography: The Politics and Pedagogy of Culture (Thousand Oaks, Sage).
Derrida. J. (1976) Of Grammatology Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press
Derrida. J. (1978) Writing and Differance London, Routledge
Derrida. J. (1982) Margins of Philosophy Chicago, Harvester
Du Bois, W. (1926) ‘Krigwa Player Little Negro Theatre: The Story of a Little Theatre Movement’ Crisis 32, 3, pp. 134 - 136
Ellis C and Bochner A (2000) Auto Ethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher As Subject, In Denzin N and Lincoln Y (eds) (2nd Ed) Handbook of Qualitative Research Sage Thousand Oaks
Ellis, C. & Flaherty, M. (Eds) (1992) Investigating Subjectivity Research on Lived Experience Thousand Oaks, Sage
Fontana. A. and Frey. J. (2000) The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text In Denzin N and Lincoln Y (eds) (2nd Ed) Handbook of Qualitative Research Sage Thousand Oaks
Foucault M (1977) The Archaeology of Knowledge London, Tavistock
Foucault M (1991) The Foucault Reader. P. Rabinow (ed.). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin
Gale. K. (2007) Teacher education in the University:
working with policy,
practice and Deleuze Teaching in Higher Education Volume 12, Number 4
Gale. K. (2007) A Conversation about Labov Qualitative Inquiry 13:8
Gale. K. and Wyatt. J (2006) Inquiring into Writing: An Interactive Interview, Qualitative Inquiry
Vol. 12, No.6, pp. 1117-11345
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Gubrium. J. and Holstein. (2003) J. Postmodern Interviewing London, Sage, pp.187-201)
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Pelias, R (1999) Writing Performance: Poeticizing the Researcher’s Body, Carbondale and Edwardsville Southern Illinois University Press.
Plummer, K. (1995) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds London, Routledge
Plummer, K. (2001) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism London, Sage
Polkinghorne, D. (1988) Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences Albany, State University of New York
Polkinghorne, D. (1995) ‘Narrative Configuration In Qualitative Analysis’ in Hatch, J. & Wisniewski, R. (Eds) Life History and Narrative Lewes, Falmer, pp. 5 – 23
Porter Abbott, H. (2002) The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Riessman, C (2002) Narrative Analysis. In: Huberman, AM, Miles, MB, (eds.) The Qualitative Researcher’s Companion London Sage
Richardson, L. (1997) ‘Narrative Knowing and Sociological Telling’ in Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press pp. 26 – 35
Richardson, L. (2000) ‘Writing: A Method of Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research 2nd Edn Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 923 – 948
Richardson, L. (2003) ‘Poetic Representations of Interviews’ in Gubrium. J. and Holstein. J. Postmodern Interviewing London, Sage, pp.187-201)
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Roorbach, B. (2001) Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth Oxford, Oxford University Press
Rosenblatt P (2003) Interviewing at the Border of Fact and Fiction in Gubrium J and Holstein J Post Modern Interviewing London Sage pp. 225 – 241)
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Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography Chicago, University of Chicago Press
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Andrews. M., Squire. C, and Tamboukou, M. (Eds.) (2008) Doing narrative research, 2nd edition, London, Sage.
Banks, A. & Banks, S. (1998) Fiction and Social Research: By Ice or Fire Walnut creek, CA, AltaMira
This edited collection offers examples of fictional narrative writing in social research as well as discussing issues that such forms raise for researchers.
Denzin, N, and Lincoln. Y. (Eds.) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th Edition, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gale, K. (2010) An Inquiry in to the Ethical Nature of a Deleuzian Creative Educational Practice Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 16, No. 5, pp. 303-309.
Hatch, J. & Wisniewski, R. (Eds) Life History and Narrative Lewes, Falmer
The chapters by Donald Polkinghorne , Thomas Barone and Catherine Emihovitch are particularly relevant to people contemplating using narrative forms.
Plummer, K. (2001) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism London, Sage
Chapter 9 is particularly useful on narrative forms in life history work.
Richardson, L. (1997) Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press
Richardson’s excellent book discusses such questions as how the specific circumstances affect what we write and how what we write affects how we become.
Richardson, L. (2000) ‘Writing: A Method of Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research 2nd Edn Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 923 – 948
This chapter provides a history of academic writing and discusses different narrative forms available to social researchers.
Richardson, L. and St. Pierre, E. A. (2005) ‘Writing: A Method of Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd Edition, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Roorbach, B. (2001) Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth Oxford, Oxford University Press
This inclusive collection of creative non-fiction writing presents literary memoirs, personal essays and literary journalism. It is a useful source book for those who wishing to use narrative structures.
Short, P, Turner, L, and Grant, A. (Eds.) (2013) Contemporary British autoethnography, Rotterdam: Sense.
St. Pierre, E. A. (2004) Deleuzian concepts for education: The subject undone, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 3, 283-296.
Wyatt, J., Gale, K., Gannon, S. and Davies, B. (2011) Deleuze and collaborative writing: An immanent plane of composition. New York: Peter Lang.
Wyatt, J., Gale, K., Pelias, R., Spry, T. and Russell. L (2012) How Writing Touches: An Intimate Scholarly Collaboration, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Wyatt, J. and Gale, K. (2013) Assemblage/ethnography: Troubling constructions of the self in the play of materiality and representation. In Short, P, Turner, L, and Grant, A. (Eds.) Contemporary British autoethnography, Rotterdam, Sense, pp. 139-157.
Wyatt, J. and Gale, K. (2013) Getting out of selves: An assemblage/ethnography? The Autoethnography Handbook, Adams. T., Ellis. C, Holman-Jones, S. (Eds.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 300-313.
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