Session 4: Tuesday 2nd June 14:00-16:00, room 731        

Narrative Research

Professor Paul Dowling

The work that has been discussed so far—work by Luria, Sanderson, and Johnston—presents what we might refer to as synchronic analysis, that is, analysis of the situation—level of cognitive or sociocultural development, attitudes to dance, pushing strategies that are deployed—over a narrow period of time. Clearly, there is a sense of temporal development in Luria’s research—societies and levels of cognition develop over time—but both are described in terms of snapshots: sociocultural phase now; an individual’s level of cognitive development now. Sanderson identifies current attitudes to dance and although she is interested perhaps in changing these, the research time itself is synchronic. Johnston identifies strategies that are currently in use even though the deployment of the strategies is intended to effect a change in student’s access to desired mathematical education and even though she identifies a sequence in the use of the strategies. In these studies, history is recognized as ongoing, but is not itself the focus of attention. Narrative research, by contrast, is concerned with the diachronic, with movement in time and with changing states. There are different forms of narrative research and a narrative approach to data collection and analysis might usefully be recruited in almost any research interest. Sanderson, for example, might have incorporated a narrative approach by asking individuals who were committed to dance in some way to tell their stories in terms of their experiences and (presumably) changing attitudes to dance. Johnston might have followed through on instances of the deployment of pushing strategies to record their impact and if, how and when the strategies were ramped up to the next stage. Luria’s opportunities would have been more limited perhaps, especially as he had identified an early level of cultural development as non-literate, so that sources relating to cognition in an earlier, non-literature society might not have been available and even a life history approach might not have revealed very much if one can assume that, once an individual attains an advanced level of cognitive development, it is not possible to think, or even recall having thought, in a less developed way. He might, though, have implemented a pedagogic experiment to determine whether it was possible to raise levels of cognitive development by schooling or other forms of social interaction (see, for example, Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont, 1980).


Commonly, narrative research will elicit stories relating to the life histories (over relatively short or relatively long periods) of one or more individuals, the individual or individuals being chosen by virtue of the researcher’s interest in a particular feature of their experiences or identities. Creswell (2012—in this edition, not in the previous one) identifies a good example in Elaine Chan’s study of a first generation Chinese Canadian schoolgirl’s life at in and out of school over a period of two years. In particular, this paper (included as an appendix to Creswell’s book) illustrates the wide range of data collection strategies that might be used in narrative research: not just interviews with the principal subject, but also fieldwork including observation and informal interviews with other subjects and the collection of documentary evidence. Chan presents a thematic rather than a chronological analysis (although it’s possible to do both), but often the results of narrative studies are presented in story form and the production of these narratives may involve restorying by the researcher in much the same way as a novelist might restory a plot, though possibly for different reasons. Creswell’s discussion of narrative research—distributed in his book—gives a good overview of the range of approaches that might be referred to as narrative research. This should be seen as a set of possibilities, of resources, and not as rules that must be obeyed. As in all forms of research, the requirement is to present an argument that establishes one or more claims and it is the responsibility of the researcher to construct this argument, the basis of which should not be delegated to the authors of methodological texts (not even Dowling & Brown).


An approach that is related to narrative research is autoethnography. Here, the researcher constitutes their own life as the research setting, using the same kinds of data collection strategies as other forms of narrative research (although one would probably not interview oneself). Carolyn Ellis is a prominent figure in the field of autoethnography. Ellis (2004) includes elements of autoethnography and is also about autoethnography. The work is in part fictional and Ellis subtitles is ‘a methodological novel about autoethnography’, but it is presented as an academic work. Of particular interest in the book is the use of fiction, including the combination of ‘real’ and fictional (some composite) characters and the play between the fictional and the ‘real’ (in a sense, of course, all research is fiction). Some of the episodes, including the reporting of very intimate observations relating to the author’s mother (who is, of course, identifiable) raise important ethical concerns.
The paper that I have set as preliminary reading for this session is narrative research of a rather different form from that presented by Chan or by Ellis and also different in at least one respect from the approaches outlined by Creswell. Essentially, Douglas and Carless (2001) use the term ‘narrative’ in two different ways. The first use of the term is consistent with much narrative research and it refers to the elicitation of life history stories of two women, in this case as they move in and out of participation of professional golf. The narratives are produced on the basis of interviews conducted in real time over a period of six years. As the authors point out, this diachronic approach to data collection obviates some of the problems that might be associated with retrospective accounts as, inevitably, we tend to restory our own life histories from our location in the present. On the other hand, in this case the approach led to the necessity to suspend data collection from one of the subjects because of distressing and very difficult circumstances that arose in her life at the time.


The other use of ‘narrative’ refers to a psychological theory that proposes that in any given culture there exists a set of stock narratives and that the failure of an individual’s life experience to align with one of these stock narratives can lead to mental health problems. In this case, the life of a professional sportsperson is expected to align with the ‘performance narrative’, which demands success. Events in the lives of these two women led in different ways to what the researchers describe as ‘narrative wreckage’ and the predictable problems. The stories do have a happy ending, however, when, after a period of trial and tribulation, each woman achieves asylum and is able to restory their lives around an alternative stock narrative—the relational narrative. It is perhaps worth noting that the women’s biographies seem to see a development from an alienating and stereotypically masculine, performance narrative to a welcoming and stereotypically feminine, relational narrative, which perhaps grates a little: would the lives of male golfers have been displayed in the same way, I wonder.

Preliminary Reading

DOUGLAS, Kitrina & CARLESS, David. (2001). ‘Abandoning the performance narrative: Two women’s stories of transition from professional sport.’ Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 21(2). 213-230.

Further Reading

BOCHNER, A., P. & Ellis, C. (Eds.) (2002). Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, literature and aesthetics. Walnut Creek. Altamira Press.
CLANDININ, D.J. & CONNELLY F.M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.
CRESWELL, J. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: choosing among five approaches. Third Edition. Thousand Oaks. Sage. Sections on narrative research and Appendix B (the paper by Chan).
DOWLING, P.C. & BROWN, A.J. (2010). Doing Research/Reading Research: re-interrogating education. London. Routledge. c. 3.
ELLIS, C. (2004). The Autoethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek. Altamira Press.
PERRET-CLERMONT, A-N. (1980). Social Interaction and Cognitive Development in Children. New York. Academic Press.
REISSMAN, C.K. (2008). Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Los Angeles. Sage.