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Thanks to fellow researcher V. for her writings on Narrative Inquiry

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007 @ 2:53 am
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I have been discussing with another PhD student about research methodology, research proposals etc. She is also doing an exploratory study where she wishes to capture the richness of her participants’ stories, so she is also looking at Narrative Inquiry as methodological paradigm. she has shared with me by email some of her writngs about it, which i wish to record here, to inform my thinking. Thanks to V. Here they are:

 20 January 2007:

“How do we become hearers/speakers of narratives?
– My exploration of narrative generation

In my doctoral research on Chinese postgraduate students’ academic
acculturation experiences, I scheduled one academic year for gathering
narrative data mainly through face-to-face meetings with my participants. My
decision of using a narrative research approach is based on my initial
understanding of this approach: the researcher gathers naturally told stories
from participants to study human experience. A narrative research approach
seems very appropriate for my research in that it is good for exploring human
experience, which accords with my research purpose. I am also
fascinated by the
idea “gathering naturally told stories”, which I believe is useful for
exploring constructed realities, as I explore the subject “(academic)
acculturation” at a psychological/affective level.

However, practical and complicated issues followed when I started a few pilot
narrative studies as well as in the narrative inquiry meetings I am conducting
in my ongoing doctoral research. In this process, I find my understanding of
narrative inquiry being enriched and becoming more sophisticated. My
exploration of “narrative inquiry” generally consists of two strands of
thinking: 1) What is narrative?; 2) How to gather narratives in a research
I came upon different understandings about these issues at different
stages of my research. In the following I will describe how my understanding
has been developing so far, and my discussion of “narrative” and
“narrative inquiry” is confined to my own research design, e.g. oral data
generated from formal face-to-face meetings.

I. What is narrative?
In my exploration of what “narrative” is, I am not seeking a finished
definition of the term. Instead, I am exploring the characteristics of
“narrative” which enable me to further think about a number of questions:
   – Why and how are narratives useful for research purposes?
   – What kind of data will I expect in narrative inquiry?
   – How will I behave as a researcher to gather narratives in a research

Now I will describe my current understanding of four characteristics or
of narrative.

1. They talk, we listen?
In one of my conversations with my colleague, who is also exploring narrative
inquiry, I got an important idea that a key element in a narrative inquiry
meeting lies in the researcher and participant’s expectations and

Researcher intervention in narrative inquiry meetings is a tricky question. I
believe that it is the researcher himself/herself who, considering his/her own
research design, decides how to monitor the degree of his/her intervention
during the meeting and explains why he/she monitors it that way. In my
research, the aim of narrative inquiry meetings is to gather “naturally told
stories”. By “naturally told”, I mean the following:
   – The researcher is a humble listener, and the participant is a
     storyteller who dominates the meeting.
   – In other words, to a very big extent, the researcher respects the content
     the participant tells and the way he/she tells it.
   – The researcher does not pre-schedule a list of questions that serve as
     boxes to which the participant simply needs to add content.
   – The participant understands his/her dominating role in the meeting. He/she
     may need a topic or a guiding question so that he/she knows what he/she is
     supposed to tell. However, he/she does not expect a framework in which
     his/her role is reduced to answer-givers, although his/her answers can be
     very rich and lengthy.

In my pilot studies, I did not prepare anything like an interview schedule.
However, influenced by my previous experience of conducting interviews,
I found
it so easy to forget the aim of generating narratives from participants when
they talked. For example, as a doctoral student studying in the UK education
system myself, I would expect a doctoral student participant to refer
to topics
such as research training, relationship with the supervisor, literature
and annual progress report when narrating his/her experience. However, the
participant referred to just a few of these topics or talk about completely
different things. At this time, my initial purpose of eliciting a naturally
told story, which is process-oriented (I will explain it later), was
and even distracted by my unconscious desire for fulfilling my expectations,
which are topic-oriented. Driven by this desire, I increased my intervention
and made the meeting more topic-centred. The more topic-centred the meeting,
the less narrative it is likely to be.

I found it very important to recognize my expectations before I step into the
field, remind myself to be wary of them, and develop a genuine interest in
things emerging from the participant’s narrative. Until I achieved this, I
was not a competent hearer of narratives, and my claim that “I want to hear
about your experience on X”, which was supposed to be an initial prompt for a
narrative, was no more than a self-deceptive strategy.

2. Story?
Being exposed repeatedly to a few related terms (e.g. narrative, story,
story-telling) in narrative inquiry through reading literature and discussing
with other researchers, I found it unhelpful to take any of the terms for
granted, although they may appear easy to understand. I noted that the term
“narrative” is often loosely used in academic works. For example, it can be
used to refer to either a short narration of an event the participant
experienced or his/her lengthy reflections over something, which is often

Accepting the interchangeability between “narrative” and “story” in
narrative inquiry, I think that attention should be paid more to the
composition of a narrative or story than simply to the length/richness of the
participant’s one-off talk. However, “story” and “story-telling” or
“tell a story” are such daily language that people may not need to surface
what a story is and what elements constitute a story. My initial response to
the latter question is that a narrative or story is made up of three parts,
which are beginning, process, and end. I did not find it essentially different
from Labov’s proposition, which divides a fully developed natural narrative
into six components: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation,
result or resolution, and coda. I consider my initial response to be a
simplified or rough version of Labov’s proposition in lay language. When
working with research participants in the field, I find it important to
monitor the structure of the participants’ words in order to make sure that
they are working narratively with me. I think that my rough structure of
narrative is very useful in this regard.”
3. Chronology – a story or stories?
In my pilot studies, I often found myself overwhelmed by the richness of the
data I obtained but still confused about its “narrative” quality. My
supervisor gave me a very useful conceptual tool in this regard: Can I create a
chronology from the data?

Consistent with the previous point I have made, I understand chronology as a
story with a beginning, a process, and an end. Time sequence is the key point
here. Whatever strategies I use (I will discuss this in detail in Section II),
I have the same purpose that I want the participant to start from somewhere,
recount what follows, and arrive at an end along a timeline. Although this may
sound a bit of common sense, as a story almost necessarily consists of a
beginning, a process, and an end, I experienced a really hard time struggling
to remember this purpose throughout narrative inquiry meetings. Non-narrative
but fluent and lengthy monologues given by the participant were so tempting
that I often forgot my initial purpose. Sometimes, when my participants were
happy doing a monologue, they were very likely to talk about their pains and
gains in their studies and give examples to illustrate them. Such examples were
often self-contained stories, which distracted me further. For quite a few
times, I started a meeting with an optimistic desire for gathering a story, but
ended with a frustrating question about what narrative meant on earth.

What I have learnt from such experiences is that before, during, and after a
narrative inquiry meeting, it is useful to always bear these words in mind:
chronology; time sequence; beginning, process, and end. These simple words
helped me confirm my purpose for the meeting, monitor the participant’s words
while he/she talked, and check the narrative quality of the data after the

4. Details?
Another characteristic of narrative is the richness of the data. Although I have
argued that lengthy data can be tempting and distractive, I believe that
richness is to some extent dependent on the length of the story. In the few
narrative inquiry meetings I had with my participants for my doctoral research,
I find very different story-telling styles among them in terms of length of the
story. Being given the same instructions or prompts by me, some participants
would tell a story for half an hour, which consists of a very good plot with
their personal reflections or evaluations embedded in it. Some others would
tell a story as short as five minutes, which is more like a brief report of
what has happened and what they have done. Both kinds of stories meet the
criterion of “chronology”. However, I need to make a decision about when I
should bring the meetings to an end, underlying which is another question: How
rich do I want the story to be?

Again, I think the decision is to be made by the researcher himself/herself by
taking into account various aspects of the research design. The purpose of my
research is to understand how the participants make sense of their academic
acculturation experiences. I will use a categorical content approach (Lieblich
et al., 1998) to analyze the narrative data I gather.
That means I want to
obtain as much “content” as possible. The “content” I expect is a
detailed account of what happened through the participants’ sense-making
operations. If I felt the raw story was too fact-based and too brief, then I
would increase my intervention to help craft a more detailed story (see Section

The above are the four characteristics of narrative that I find useful in my
research. In summary, the narrative data I expect:
   – are a story organized by the participant with considerable freedom;
   – have a beginning, a process, and an end;
   – make the creation of a chronology possible.
   – are a story unique to the participant in terms of the way he/she tells it
     and the rich meanings he/she embeds in it.
The kind of data that I view less desirable in my research:
   – are a story framed by me and stuffed by the participant;
   – are lengthy reflections over the past;
   – are organized on the basis of independent topics;
   – are brief reports of what happened in the past.

This conceptual work helps me distinguish narrative data from the kind of
qualitative data I used to obtain from more traditional interviews. By focusing
on the characteristics of narrative data, I am not denying the value, richness,
and usefulness of other qualitative data. In my pilot studies, I often found
that I generated very rich data. However, if I used them as the base for my
research, I would have to use a different approach instead of a narrative
inquiry approach.

The following are two examples which I consider to be undesirable yet rich data
and desirable narrative data. The examples are excerpts from the data generated
in two of my pilot studies. The first example is a brief presentation of the
full data, and the second one is the initial part of the data. In both
examples, I gave the participant an initial prompt in the hope of obtaining a
story about his/her experience on the master’s course he/she studied. Then
the participant dominated the meeting by doing most of the talking. (I gave
different initial prompts in these two meetings, which I will discuss in
Section II.) The structures of the two meetings turned out to be essentially
different. As these data were generated in my pilot studies, I can still see
places for improvement every time when I review them. I am not defining these
two pieces of data as 100% “desirable” and “undesirable” for narrative
inquiry, but rather, I mean that one is more desirable than the other.
Undesirable yet rich data:

(After my initial prompt)
“Participant: I think first of all, during this year of study, although the
progress I’ve made is not as obvious as I imagined, yet I did make some
progress. I’m pretty certain about it. I have made progress in the subject I
study and my personal development as well. As far as my studies are concerned,
on the one hand, … On the other hand … (talked about 16 minutes) I can’t
think of anything else. You can give me some reminder …

Me: At the beginning, you said you have made “some progress” during your
study on this course. You pointed to two kinds of progress: progress in the
subject you study, and progress in your personal development. These two kinds
of progress may overlap to some extent, but I think you may want to say a bit
more about the progress you have made in your personal development.

Participant: OK. Talking about my personal ability, I’d like to start from my
specialty. Regarding the progress I’ve made regarding my specialty, the first
thing is to … (Talked about 7 minutes.)

Me: At the beginning, you summarized your experience of this year’s study as
“the progress I’ve made is not as obvious as I expected, but there is still
some progress there.” And then you talked about the progress you have made so
far in different aspects. So can you say more about the part “the progress
I’ve made is not as obvious as I expected”? You haven’t said much about
this bit yet.

Participant: About this … I said this perhaps because, on the one hand, there
is a difference from what I had expected before I came. There are perhaps two

The structure of the meeting can be probably presented in the diagram below:
(see attachment)

In this meeting, the participant understood that I wanted her to dominate the
meeting. She was very cooperative, as I could see how hard she tried to keep on
talking rather than often turned to me for help. But this is not enough for the
construction of a narrative. What we can see from the diagram is an
evaluation followed by elaboration rather than a story based on a time
sequence. It is worth noting that in elaborating on the several points (i.e.
progress in Area A, progress in Area B, disappointment), the participant gave
some examples, which were self-contained stories. However, I would not consider
it a narrative if it is structured in a “stories-embedded-in-evaluation”
mode. From the data above, I can also see how my intervention helped shape the
data into a non-narrative.

Desirable narrative data:

(After my initial prompt)
“Participant: I just arrived, firstly my language was not so good…So when I
just arrived, I had a fear for English. And then listening to lectures
…actually on the first day, including the first three days, what I understood
was more than what I had imagined. And …on the very first day of our studies
on this programme, the courses were fully scheduled – extremely busy. Then …
but during the whole first phase, I felt things were better than I had
imagined. And I was excited, but – excited and self-confident – but this
phase was very, very short. And then a week later … I was gradually used to
the context, and then I began to find that the courses were not as easy as I
had imagined. Language difficulty was not as little as I had imagined –
actually I had big language problems. And then … when I began to attend
classes regularly, I felt very, very big pressure. And then with the exams and
assignments – there were so many of these things, and they made you feel
extreme tension and you had to hasten…”

The structure of the above data can be probably presented in the diagram below:
(see attachment)

The linearity of the diagram reflects the time sequence based on which the
participant’s words were organized. In many cases, due to various reasons,
people may jump back and forth along the timeline. In this sense, the rough
narrative itself may not be given in a linear way. However, as long as it is a
narrative, the reader is able to create a linear chronology from the rough
narrative. The more difficult it is to create a chronology from the raw data,
the less narrative the data is likely to be. When people tell stories about
their experience, it is only too natural for them to attach meanings to the
things that they experience, which can be in the form of feelings, evaluations,
and so on. However, I would not worry about such feelings or evaluations, and I
accept a meeting in an “evaluations-embedded-in-story” mode as a narrative
inquiry meeting.
After reflecting over my experiences of doing narrative inquiry meetings, I come
to realize how hugely my intervention can influence the narrative quality of
the data.
In Section II, I will tell a story about how I tried six
strategies with participants to gather stories. I consider each strategy,
except the first one, an improvement of the previous one.

28 February 2007

Section II. How to gather narratives in a research setting?

In an NI meeting, the importance of effective initial prompts cannot be
overemphasized. There is an interesting expression (at least) in Chinese that
is often used when one invites another to dinner: “Bring nothing but
yourself”. It is never the case that participants meet the researcher with
nothing even if they are told not to prepare anything in advance. They bring
their cooperative willingness, which is usually explicit and encouraging, and
sets of assumptions about what the meeting is going to or, more strongly,
should be like, which is usually implicit and frustrating. One of my tasks as a
story gatherer is to negotiate with participants from the very beginning how
our meeting is going to be like. To achieve this, I tried six strategies. I
consider each strategy, except the first one, an improvement of the previous

Initial prompts:

1. Talk about your experience.
My first strategy was to invite participants to a “narrative interview” and
directly employ my research question as an initial prompt for a story in the
interview: tell me about your experience of X. Although it did not appear to be
a problematic prompt, as it seemed to perfectly match my research purpose, I
came across great difficulty in gathering stories. The reason is that
“experience” is a concept that needs a negotiated definition. The following
example, taken from my pilot study, illustrates how people may conceptualize
“experience” differently and how I managed the problem in this particular
   Me: Can you tell me about your experience of studying in the UK after you
       arrived here? We have known each other for a long time, but we always
       about non-academic things. I know very little about your experience of
       studying here. Can you tell me something about it now?
   Pariticipant: What do you mean by experience? Gan shou? (Gan shou in Chinese
       usually refers to feelings, impressions, conclusions, etc.)
   Me: No, but what happened during that period.

In this case, I made a choice between understanding “experience” as
reflective feelings and viewing it as an account of happenings. My direction
was clear: NOT feelings, BUT happenings. The way I defined “experience” in
this meeting may be questionable, as the complexity involved in conceptualizing
related concepts such as “story” and “narrative” is already evidenced
in Section I above (e.g. experience/story/narrative = feelings? / happenings? /
feelings + happenings?). However, I insist that it is always necessary to
decide upon a definition of the key concepts from the start and make sure to
communicate it well to the participant.

I also realized that “interview” is a term that needs to be avoided in
narrative inquiry. The term is not problematic on its own right, and
researchers have the freedom to define the term in their research according to
their understandings of it. However, it becomes very troubling when researchers
use the term with participants in the field, In the modern world,
“interview” is not an unfamiliar activity to people. People see or
experience interviews conducted by researchers, journalists, employers, and so
on. Many of such interviews are in a question-and-answer mode, which then
becomes an assumption that participants usually bring to NI meetings.
2. Talk about your experience as if you were telling a story.
   Later I found that a short instruction such as “tell me about your
experience of X” was far from effective for eliciting a fluent narrative
about an experience. Such an instruction can easily evoke the concept
“interview” in participants’ minds, even if I avoid using the term in the
meeting. Further, such an instruction may lead participants into an overviewing
mode, thus sacrificing chronologicality and detailedness. At this stage,
“story” was a most frequently used concept in my thinking and discussions
with colleagues who were also interested in narrative inquiry. Then I added a
behavioral element to my instructions: tell me your experience of X as if you
were telling a story. I wanted to communicate two messages to the participant:

1.      What do I want to hear? (i.e. your experience of X)
2.      How do I want you to tell it? (i.e. like telling a story)

   This strategy is better that the first one in that it gives participants
richer information about what I expect from them in the NI meeting by relating
“experience” to “story”. Underlying this strategy is my assumption that
we understand “story” in similar ways. However, I found that
“experience” and “story” can be equally ambiguous. Clarifying the
meaning of neither, my introduction of the second concept “story” in my
instructions did not prove to be very helpful. An exemplary response from the
participant is that “my experience of this postgraduate course is not
interesting at all – I don’t have any story to tell”. While I merely
expected a detailed chronology of a section of their lived life, they were more
concerned about whether that section of their life was an interesting,
exciting, or worth telling experience. Even when participants were willing to
enter a story-telling mode, they might tell stories in terms of non-sequential
episodes instead of a story (see Section I).

3. Memoir?
   One of my colleagues once started an NI meeting with the following question:
If you are asked to make a film about your experience on X and you are now given
a camera, how are you going to make it?
Then I came upon a similar idea, which I used in a pilot NI meeting:
Imagine that you are writing a memoir of your experience of studying MA in TESOL
in School of Education, University of Manchester. I’d like to hear how the
memoir is like.
   Like “story”, the use of the image “memoir” enables participants to
compare their supposed task to a concrete and daily activity. I considered
“memoir” a slightly better strategy than “story” with the assumption
that: if stories are usually understood as created by professional and creative
writers, then normal people are more accessible to memoirs, detailed
chronologies of their life that are comparable to the characteristics of
narratives I expect. However, this strategy still put my narrative gathering
activity in risk. This newly introduced term in my instructions, like
“story”, is not necessarily an unambiguous concept. It can be even foreign
to participants.
4. You talk, I listen?

In the pilot NI meeting above, the participant turned out to have an idea of
what “narrative interview” is like through her training in research
methods. Then I seized the opportunity to negotiate the meaning of narrative
with her. Here is her understanding:

   In traditional interviews, the interviewer prepares a set of questions and
   elicits answers from the interviewee. In narrative interviews, it is the
   interviewee who does most of the talking, and the interviewer’s main job is
   to listen.

I found this initial negotiation helpful, as it helped her surface a possible
assumption about “interview”. Besides, her understanding matched one of the
characteristics of narrative I outlined in Section I. According to a rough word
count, this participant dominated 93% of the meeting. In the remaining 7%, I
played the role of asking for additional information based on what she said
instead of starting new topics. These in a sense are good signs for my goal of
gathering narratives. The participant understood her agency. She was very
tolerant of long pauses, as she knew that it was her job to continue the talk.
However, my immature use of “memoir” brought a problem to the narrative
quality of the meeting. With my prompt for a memoir, the participant actually
structured her talk in an “evaluation + elaboration” mode from the very
beginning (see “undesirable yet rich data” in Section I), which goes
against the other characteristics I consider pertaining to narratives.
5. Star autobiography?

With the experiences gained in my pilot narrative studies, I embarked on my
doctoral research, in which I would conduct four NI meetings with each of my
six participants over an academic year. When I was preparing for the first set
of NI meetings, I happened to hear a friend of mine talk about a footballer’s
newly published autobiography. A super football fan as he is, he did not
believe that the footballer was able to write his autobiography in terms of
time and literacy. His view is that “the footballer told an oral story to a
professional writer, who then helped transform it into a more readable text”.
I thought that was exactly I wanted to do in my research, then I decided to use
this image of “star autobiography” in my first NI meetings with the

In using the “star-autobiography” strategy, I allowed more time than before
for negotiation with the participants rather than giving a simple instruction
such as “talk about X as if you are telling a story / writing a memoir”. I
discussed with them how a star autobiography might be produced. All of my
participants agreed that the autobiography was probably provided in an oral
form by the star and then transformed by a professional writer. Then I compared
our meeting to such a story-gathering process: they were the stars, and I was
the story-gatherer. This strategy proved to be very successful at least in the
initial few minutes of the meetings, as all of the participants appeared to
enter a story-telling mode (see “desirable narrative data” in Section I)
immediately after our negotiation.

However, many of the participants failed to stay in the story-telling mode for a
longer time; instead, they fell into the topic-led or evaluation-led trap. The
reasons may be complex. The first Ni meetings took place in their 6th academic
week, in which I asked them to talk about their academic experience from “the
beginning”. As their academic life just began to unfold, it might be
difficult for them to tell an elaborated story about the first six weeks’
experience. Apart from this, the fact that it was the first time they had been
abroad may have kindled their curiosity about the differences between the host
country and their own country, which then became interesting topics when they
talked to their family, friends, and me. I felt that “star autobiography”
is a very useful strategy, but it is not enough for my narrative inquiry with
these particular participants on this particular topic at this particular time.


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