Category Archives: narrative inquiry

How to use a novel as a guidebook OR what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

A story in the NYT, which uses great graphics (another post, another important topic), describes how the author used Oliver Twist as a walking tour guide to London.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.

~ CHARLES DICKENS

The inference here is that literature, fiction that is, can be a guide to what we might think of as the “real world.” And in this short discourse, the author illustrates what he sees as the substantial over lap between the contemporary streets of London and the days when and where Dicken’s Oliver Twist descended into gang life.

There are plenty of instances of people looking for places and things described in literature… Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station, for example.

Umberto Eco also takes up this idea in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, but comes to a slightly different conclusion… with the descriptions of the streets of Paris in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Eco takes his reader along as he shadows D’Artagnan through the streets of seventeenth-century Paris, but Dumas fools us and we cannot quite follow the trail, not because the streets are not there but because the trail doesn’t make physical, logical sense.

In both instances, whether the mapping is “accurate” or not, the idea or possibility of mapping reveals the uncertain boundary between story and history, between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is dependent on reality (even fiction that seems most unreal); but reality, too, depends on fiction. What connects fiction and nonfiction is the underlying idea of story. Whether we are writing/reading the stories created by others for us or we are telling/listening to stories of friends, family, research participants’ lives we are making sense of the world through narrative, through story.

narrative inquiry ~ what does it look like?

imgresIf you are searching for understanding about what narrative inquiry is, here are some starting points.

There are a number of journals that focus exclusively on narrative analysis/inquiry and so you might want to browse the tables of contents of various issues. There are many more journals (qualitative research focused and topical) that publish narrative analyses, but these will give you a quick entry into the methodology.

  • Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice
  • Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research
  • Narrative Inquiry
  • Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations & Interventions

Here also is a short list of published narrative analysis studies… these are not necessarily exemplary, but they are in different fields, use different kinds of data, and different kinds of analysis. Look at a few (not necessarily for a close reading) to get a better sense of what narrative inquiry looks like.

the-storyteller

A SAMPLE OF NARRATIVE STUDIES

Bareiss, W. (2015). Adolescent Daughters and Ritual Abjection: Narrative Analysis of Self-Injury in Four US Films. Journal of Medical Humanities.

Boje, D.M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly 36:106-126.

Brewer, T. J. & deMarrais, K. (2015). Teacher for America counter-narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. Peter Lang.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1999). Shaping a professional identity: Stories of educational practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dean, R.G. (1995). Stories of AIDS: The Use of Narrative as an Approach to Understanding in an AIDS Support Group. Clinical Social Work Journal 23(3), 287-304.

Elliott, H., Squire, C., &  O’Connell, R. (2017). Narratives of normativity and permissible transgression: Mothers’ blogs about mothering, family and food in resource-constrained times. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(1).

Frank, A. K. (2016). What is the story with sustainability? A narrative analysis of diverse and contested understandings. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 1 – 14.

Hamilton, H. (2008). Narrative as Snapshot: Glimpses into the Past in Alzheimer’s Discourse. Narrative Inquiry 18(1), 53-82.

Hoecker, R. (2014). Visual narrative and trauma recovery. Narrative Inquiry, 24(2), 259-280.

Langellier, K. (2001). ‘You’re Marked’: Breast Cancer, Tattoo and the Narrative Performance of Identity. In Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self, and Culture, edited by J. Brockmeier and D. Carbaugh. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Minde, J. (2015). Exploring the Nature of Narrative Analysis in Maps: the Case Study of the Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict. Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 2(1), 19-33.

Mumby, D.K. 1993. Narrative and Social Control: Critical Perspectives. Newbury Park: Sage.

Ochs, E., R. Smith, and C. Taylor. (1989). Dinner Narratives as Detective Stories. Cultural Dynamics 2:238-257.

Page, R., Harper, R. & Frobenius, M. (2013). From small stories to networked narrative: The evolution of personal narratives in Facebook status updates. Narrative Inquiry, 23(1), 192-213).

Riessman, C.K. (2000). Stigma and Everyday Resistance Practices: Childless Women in South India. Gender & Society 14(1):111-135.

Sparkes, A. (1996). The fatal flaw: A narrative of the fragile body-self. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(4), 463-494.

Winkel, G. (2014). When the pendulum doesn’t find its center: Environmental narratives, strategies, and forest policy change in the US Pacific Northwest. Global Environmental Change, 27, 84-95.

people and stuff ~ a few more thoughts on material culture

Consider this strategy suggested by Ali McCannell, a UBC graduate student ~ if you want to know what matters to people in a particular community, city, country visit a convenience or corner store and see what’s for sale. Her example was from her time spent teaching in Korea where she noted the following commonly available items in pretty much any small shop: “grooming items, booze, double eyelid tape, a huge selection of yogurt drinks, kimchi and worm larvae.” I won’t speculate on what that list might mean, but at first glance it speaks volumes. What’s in your corner store?

People’s stuff can be interesting and useful in a range of research methodologies. For example, in narrative research one might collect and analyze stories but look also to people embedded in their environment, including how they talk about it. Although not social science per se, a new book Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers: Portraits of Fifty Famous Folks & All Their Weird Stuff illustrates such connections. While this book is more a novelty, it does illustrate the interconnections between people and the things they use, surround themselves with and value. It gives us an idea of how to think about objects in relation to social meaning of lives and equally important it illustrates how those connections might be represented beyond text based descriptions.

Narrative Analysis Tools

TV Tropes is a rich wiki repository of resources described as tricks of the trade for writing fiction, but as social scientists we borrow as needed in trying to understand and explain the social world. The emphasis is on tropes, which are described as:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them… Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, do their best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

Narrative analysis can be facilitated by looking at the tropes at the centre of the stories we are investigating, and in the section on narrative devices one can investigate a range of possibilities. Tropes are named (such as “always need what you gave up,” “dead end job,” “dramatic irony,” “fighting for survival,” “human shield,” “I just want to be normal,” “shapeshifting,” “with due respect”), a short explanation is provided and links to many examples are given.

Other sections focus on characters, plot, setting and so on.

The wiki is a rich resource, every changing, including such gems as the Periodic Table of Storytelling.

 

 

Stories We Tell ~ an introduction to narrative inquiry

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ~ Joan Didion

Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell is about her mother Diane Polley, or so it seems initially. It is much more than that though. It is an artful alternately weaving and unravelling of narratives of those who share experiences, but, of course, tell their own stories of those experiences. The story unfolds at one level as the story of Diane Polley, a notable Canadian actor (with a daughter who is now both notable actor and director), although the story is more about her personal than professional life. Polley asks each storyteller to “tell the story from the beginning” and she privileges each in the unfolding story that ultimately revolves around the family “joke” that Sarah does not look like anyone else in the family. Individual stories layer and turn back on themselves as that family story becomes a story of its own when Sarah finds out that the man she thought was her biological father is not.

Interviews of siblings, friends, spouses, lovers, and children in Stories We Tell are amazingly intimate and artful illustrations of poignant in-depth interviewing based on difficult questions. The movie is family talking to each other. Everyone misses Diane, and each suffers her loss deeply since she died of cancer when Sarah Polley was 11. The answers offered aren’t simple, and Polley’s own movie narrative reveals the twists and turns in her own story, which is more what the film is about. Some reviewers have called it a love letter to her parents. There are fleeting senses from time to time that the story is told, but then it isn’t and by the time the film ends it is clear there is no end to the story. Ever.

If one were interested in exploring narrative inquiry as a research methodology, this film is about as good a place as any to begin. It illustrates the tensions of  truth-telling versus storytelling. It illustrates that all stories have gaps, omissions, and contradictions and within each of those, another story is being told. It illustrates the complexity of whose story is being told. It illustrates the connections and disjunctures between subjective and inter-subjective experiences. It illustrates the role of memory and reenactment in storying life. It illustrates the role stories play in making sense of experience. It illustrates the deeply emotional meaning of stories. It illustrates the human desire to explore what might well be unknowable

Meet The Somalis ~ illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe

You might have just seen Captain Phillips, the movie starring Tom Hanks as the real life Captain Phillips, commander of a Maerck shipping freighter hijacked by Somali pirates. The movie gives a wee glimpse into the life of Somali pirates, and the circumstances in their home country related to piracy. But, of course, to be Somali is something quite a bit larger.
Meet the Somalis tells the stories of 14 Somalis living the refugee or immigrant life in seven European cities. Based on interviews, “the illustrated stories focus on challenges faced by Somalis in their respective cities in Europe and issues raised in the Somalis in European Cities research, including education, housing, the media, employment, political participation, and identity. Meet the Somalis depicts experiences many of us will never know, like fleeing a warzone with your children or, worse, leaving your loved ones behind.”

Like most ethnographic research, the stories are not just windows to the experiences of others, but also mirrors reflecting our own values and the deep interconnections among all people, like the importance of family, well-being, and identity. The cartoon illustrations combined with interview excerpts build the narrative of experience as an immigrant and/or refugee connected to a war-torn homeland.

Language matters

For an ongoing discussion of the way language matters, check out The Little Blue Blog, a compilation of brief analyses of how issues about public policy are framed, especially as undergirded by particular conceptions of democracy. Bloggers George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling describe the blog:

The Little Blue Blog is a continuation of The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. The book addressed a problem that progressives face everywhere: conservatives have framed just about every issue in conservative moral terms. Progressives all too often find themselves stuck with using conservative language and ideas, which reinforces those ideas even in arguing against them. The Little Blue Book tells how to get out of the trap. Use the progressive moral system you believe in. This is about much more than words. Words mean things. You need to say what you believe and what is true. Progressive communication is democratic communication. It requires that you be transparent, authentic, honest, and strong if your fellow citizens are to trust you. This is advice for all citizens, not just our leaders.

In a description called ‘framing the issues’ Lakoff & Wehling give a short lesson in frames… the ways in which ideas are clumped together so that things make sense to us. In particular, “Frames are structured in a hierarchy. To understand a kitchen, you have to understand food preparation and eating. In politics, the highest frames are moral frames. The reason is that all politics is moral: political leaders propose policies because they are right — not because they are wrong or don’t matter. All policies, therefore, have a moral basis.” As such, ‘facts’ and ‘logic’ have significantly less purchase then we think in determining what and how we believe and think.

This blog is a continuation of The Little Blue Book, and both are meant to school Democrats and progressives on how to use language and frames more effectively within public discourse about policy issues. Lakoff & Wehling follow their own advice in this discourse by making their own moral frames the basis for their discussion.