Category Archives: narrative inquiry

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Six word stories have been around for many years now, instigated by Hemingway’s six word story, the title of this post. (Caution: there is dispute about this authorial  attribution, but I’ll take the story at face value here.) Hemingway’s story contains three elements, a 2-2-2 form. (Another common form is 3 -3 and these forms contribute to the aesthetics of the story.) The first “for sale” calls to mind a recognizable trope, followed by “baby shoes” a recognizable object, but it is the third element that turns this into a story. “Never worn” can invoke many possible meanings, but perhaps most common is the tragedy of child loss. Those baby shoes were never worn, because the baby wasn’t there to wear them.

These examples from reddit show the continued appeal of this genre, and the claim is this is a new genre. A collection of six word stories can be found at Six Word Stories sorted by category. An off-shoot of six word stories is Six Word Memoirs. Most six word stories are published on the internet, rather than in books or journals.

In The Poetics of Six-Word Stories, David Fishelov provides a cogent analysis of six word stories as a genre. He identifies seven (alas not six) features of six word stories:

  1. a chain of events
  2. something implied
  3. punch line structure
  4. poetic/rhythmic structure
  5. realism
  6. contagiousness of the form (you will want to write one too)
  7. predominately a genre in English

Six word stories have only one explicit rule… that they be six words. But looking more analytically at these stories they also seem typically to require something implied, something not explicitly stated in the story… the possible death of the baby in Hemingway’s story. This very short story form has a contemporary appeal in an age of texts, memes, and tweets.

Many six word stories are primarily about the aesthetics, but as the reddit examples illustrate they are also stories filled with meaning and the telling is heart-felt. There are plenty of pedagogical uses of six word stories, but they may be useful in research, especially narrative research. From a research perspective, whether six word stories are literature is less important than whether they provoke reflection, illustrate human experience and meaning, and perhaps whether they are a window through which we can see other stories.

While six word stories stand alone, they might also be prompts for more discussion of experience and meaning… a beginning to a more elaborated story.

Six words, only six words, alas.


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
  • Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations & Interventions
  • Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies
  • Journal of Narrative Politics

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. Note that most of these articles are not published in the journals listed above, there are many many journals that publish 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).

Freeman, M., Mathison, S. & Wilcox, K. (2006) “I hear when. I don’t hear what:” Performing parental dialogues on high stakes testing. Cultural Studies « Critical Methodologies. 6(4).

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.

Gautreaux M. & Delgado, S. (2016). Portrait of a Teach for All (TFA) teacher: Media narratives of the universal TFA teacher in 12 countries. EEPA, 24, 110.

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.

story versus narrative: a definitional note

Stories have a clear beginning, middle and end and solve a problem, sometimes a dramatic peripeteia and sometimes a small conundrum. Stories are explicit, told and retold.

Narratives are a story made up of many stories and may not have a clear end, and may not have a clear problem or may indeed have many problems within. Narratives are often unseen, unnoticed, unanalyzed, and powerful shapers of human experience.

Take, for example, the American Dream… this is a narrative, one that is manifest in many different contexts… the media, folklore, social institutions.  It is made up of many stories, some of them also possibly narratives. Stories within the American Dream are about work and effort and the relationship between the two; about opportunity, fairness and equality; about rights and responsibilities; about meritocracy and privilege; about democracy. It is a complex narrative which contributes to its power.


narrative and social change

There is the telling of a story and the hearing of a story. Researchers often focus on telling the story, whether it is an individual, organizational or cultural story. If narrative is a fundamental as Jerome Bruner and others say it is, then both parts… the telling and the hearing… are equally important. Story telling (narrative) that embraces the goal of social change requires both.

Narrative 4 is an initiative that:

harnesses the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, communities, and the world.

In workshops, young adults often with very different perspectives and life experiences are paired. Each tells their story and listens to the other’s story, and then each retells the other’s story… in the first person. This role reversal, taking the other’s perspective, is key to the transformative possibility of this approach, which is meant to capitalize on story telling to foster empathy and in school contexts also to:

  • Develop active listening skills
  • Engage in peer-to-peer learning
  • Practice public speaking skills
  • Improve self-reflection and self-awareness
  • Experience an overall increase in positive emotions

Narrative 4 projects focus on the environment, identity, immigration, faith, and violence, and capitalize on polar opposite life experiences and values. They have organized story exchanges with Jewish and Arab teenagers; survivors of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Katrina; victims of gun violence and gun advocatesstudents from poor and elite schools; intergenerational experiences; students and police. 

PhotoVoice is another methodology that has potential to explore narratives that foster awareness and change. Images that tell a story of lived experience are communicated in public presentations to inform and compel attention be paid to social change. Other participatory research approaches can and do incorporate story telling.

Many non-profits offer guidance for using story telling to support social change.

Frameworks Institute

Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference (book)

Hatch for Good

Working Narratives

Story for All


Spark Your Storytelling


a (hegemonic) narrative of old age

Perhaps inadvertently, Joseph Davis provides an excellent example of narrative inquiry in his article, No Country for Old Age. This is a cultural narrative, a story of how life is and ought to be lived… a story of what it means to age, and as Davis points out this is a hegemonic narrative, one that compels us to be a certain way.

In our society, to come directly to my point, old age is understood and framed in ways that lead inevitably to its devaluation. Its status is low and arguably is falling.

Davis highlights the role the burgeoning number of blogs play in defining aging, and how they promote defying age. He zeroes in on, Sixty and Me, a “community of 500,000 women over 60.”

Sixty and Me identifies itself as mainstream (no radical diets and exercise regimes). It is also full of advertisements, parts of posts written by experts, often with a product to sell to achieve the goal of aging as an independent, emancipated, enterprising and strong (youthful) woman. Celebrities, like Jamie Lee Curtis, set examples for aging… “If I can challenge old ideas about aging, I will feel more and more invigorated. I want to represent this new way. I want to be a new version of the 70-year-old woman. Vital, strong, very physical, very agile. I think that the older I get, the more yoga I’m going to do.” Aging requires more, not less work. “To look old is to be old.”

Davis looks also at other sources of this cultural narrative about aging… the pathologizing of aloneness into an epidemic of loneliness and the extreme medicalization of aging.

Loneliness has become a disease, one that will hasten your death and therefore must be warded off by vigilant attention to maintaining a social network as the antidote. This “loneliness” is caused by social conditions like high divorce rates, more single parent families, fewer close family networks.

Contributors to the public discussion frame loneliness itself as a kind of medical condition or disorder: It is something one “suffers from,” that is partly heritable, that has characteristic “symptoms” and “risk factors,” can become “chronic,” and needs to be “treated.”

As loneliness is medicalized, so in general is aging. Rather than a phase in the ebb and flow of life and death, being old is an illness (one to ward off as prescribed in blogs) and one that makes older people ever more medically scrutinized. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Natural Causes analyzes this same narrative. This is a narrative supported by stacks of  self-help books aimed at the aging (including Ehrenreich who is 76) telling them to think in terms  of “active aging”, “productive aging”, “anti-aging”, even “reverse-aging.” A long life is promised to anyone who makes an effort, regardless of factors such as genetics or poverty.

Ehrenreich focuses especially on health checks, not those that are in response to obvious symptoms, but those that search for hidden problems… tests that lead often to false positives and over diagnosis… bone density scans, dental x-rays, mammograms, colonoscopies, CT scans. In part the medicalization of aging is a lucrative business and this is especially true in the US where many older people have health care coverage for the first time in their lives. With a PhD in cellular biology she provides more than a cultural critique.

Davis concludes with this:

Current constructions of old age in individualistic terms of self-reliance, the fit body, productive accomplishments, or an imperative to deny or defeat aging technologically cannot but deepen our predicament and the need to render it invisible.

This narrative of aging is hegemonic, it frames a normative way of being that is difficult to resist and overcome.  But, many experience aging not as a failure and consciously chose a different narrative, one that sees aging as something other than a poor approximation of youth. Aging sets limits, often vulnerability and dependence, or as Ehrenreich says, “an accumulation of disabilities,” all of which might be framed not in terms of youth but rather  the ethic of a well-lived life.

Narratives of stages of life are profound and powerful, they are culturally constructed and often become hegemonic… fortunately, human storytelling abilities opens possibilities to overcome their oppressiveness.

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.


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.

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.