Narrative in Research

I have started my pilot study about Brighton queer activists and, although this will only run for a few more weeks, the data collection will go on later. I thought it’s been a while since i updated the blog, so I will do a few short note-style posts around the themes I read and think this past month. I have been reading some methodological scholarship, especially about ethnography and life history interviewing.

I am interested in narrative and try to incorporate this in my study.  ‘Using Narrative in Social Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches’, by Elliott, J. (2005), identifies three key features that make up a narrative: it is chronological (so it is interested in the temporal nature of experiences and the change in time), it is meaningful (research that uses narrative as a method tries to empower participants) and it is social (it has and audience and understands the researcher as a narrator producing a story for specific audiences).

Elliott notes that even though causality is not the essential aspect of narratives, temporality is. Past events cause future events even if they do not follow the ‘because’ rule. So a narrative is different from a causal explanation in that it is interested in the specific circumstances that led from one event to the other. Another aspect that is important for Elliott is closure, because they provide meaning to actions within the narrative (Ricoeur 1984).

Narrative is not thick description either. For Labov and Waletzky (1997) a fully formed narrative has 6 elements (typical structure):

  • abstract (summary of subject of narrative)
  • orientation (time place situation participants)
  • complicating action (what actually happened, temporal component)
  • evaluation (meaning and significance of action- crucial)- this may be the product of negotiation. Has the intended meaning come through? This process further legitimates the act of narration as a social act.
  • resolution (what finally happened)
  • coda (returns to the present)

Narratives may also be what individuals tell about themselves, (‘ontological’ because they constitute individual identities for Somers and Gibson 1994, or ‘first-order’ for Carr 1997), or they may be the accounts researchers create in order to make sense of the stories, individual or collective, they have come across (‘representational’ or ‘second-order’). The latter constitute a methodological shift because they not only function as a method, but they aknowledge that cultures use narrative structures to make meaning of their lives- so reflective attention is needed to signpost these structures within the empirical data and their presentation.


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