On Narrative Inquiry: A Reading Review

[I wrote this reading review for a doctoral seminar on Methods for Observing and Interpreting Culture.]

What understandings of human narrativity underlie narrative inquiry in the social sciences? This is, broadly, the question with which I began this directed reading. In the following reading review, I will expand on the research context of this question and then review each of the four volumes I read.

Research Context

A theological agenda guides these readings. In particular, I have ventured into the missiological engagement with social sciences in order to broaden a conception of human narrativity already informed by research in theological and philosophical anthropology. I am developing this conception of narrativity in service of a biblical hermeneutic that takes seriously the role of the reader and, therefore, the anthropological description of the reader. While narrative theology and theological hermeneutics contribute significantly to the characterization of the reader’s narrativity, and those conversations engage routinely with philosophers who have pioneered anthropological notions of narrativity, I find myself drawn to a robustly missiological exploration of the topic for a few related reasons.

First, I am developing a specifically missional hermeneutic. This means, on the one hand, that a missional theology informs my theological hermeneutic. On the other hand, intercultural missiology stands to contribute significantly to missional hermeneutics—a contribution ironically underappreciated in the mostly US American context of the conversation. In my view, missional hermeneutics should be rooted in both the ecclesial practices of mission and the studied reflection on those practices that missiology uniquely entails.

Second, among the theological curricula, the discipline of missiology critically engages the social sciences in a way that is vital for missional hermeneutics. Biblical hermeneutics has remained at least tenuously connected to the social sciences through philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose engagement with Wilhelm Dilthey identifies hermeneutics as a social-scientific concern, as well as through linguistics and, more tangentially, through archaeology and history. Missiology’s focus on intercultural studies, however, has placed it in far more substantive dialogue with the social sciences. Biblical hermeneutics should benefit from an intercultural understanding of interpretation. More specifically, a readerly approach like mine, which finds theological anthropology to be hermeneutically essential, can gain as much from the social sciences as from its more traditional interlocutor, philosophical anthropology.

Third, the study of worldview in particular is a hermeneutical concern to which missiology has given consideration. My attention was first drawn to narrative studies through the work of Paul Hiebert, whose diachronic analysis of worldviews focuses on narratives “at the core of worldviews.”1 The relationship between worldview and hermeneutics is complex, and its explanation is beyond the scope of these introductory remarks, but, in short, worldview functions as an analytic paradigm for the anthropological characterization of readers. Taking narrative as the “core” of worldview, therefore, puts the narrativity of readers at center stage and calls for specific methods of narrative analysis.

Such an assumption, however, raises significant questions. Various leading philosophers have discussed the importance of human narrativity in recent years (and narrative theology has relied on these), but how do social-scientific conceptions of narrative’s role in human life relate or compare? Undoubtedly, the “narrative turn” in both fields have similar roots, and the booming social-scientific subdiscipline of narrative research obviously assumes the importance of narrative for understanding humans. Yet, how is the function of narrative conceived and, more importantly, operationalized in the methods of narrative analysis? Is narrativity an ontological reality of human nature that narrative analysis seeks to understand, or is narrative analysis a primarily utilitarian approach, given that human minds organize experience narratively, making narratives and narration the most useful units of analysis? Is narrative merely a metaphor for the sequential, teleological configuration of human experience, or do narratives per se truly exercise power over human culture and individual people? In other words, how do social-scientific methods of narrative analysis help us understand the narrativity of readers? With these questions in mind, I turn to my reading review.

Reading Review

  1. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). 232 pp.

Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly write as experts in the field of teacher education. Their experience and the examples they bring to bear are centered in the research of educational environments and educators. This does not make the book uninteresting to researchers in other fields, however, and it serves well as an exemplar of narrative inquiry in qualitative research more broadly. Theirs is a somewhat unique perspective, nonetheless. I will overview their approach to narrative inquiry, highlighting its uniqueness, and then return to the book’s relevance to my particular concerns.

The authors begin, in the first three chapters, with an apology for narrative inquiry and establish a rough theoretical framework for the endeavor. In the process, they contrast the concerns and assumptions of “thinking narratively” with “technical rationalism” (36), engaging thereby in the broader debate between more and less positivistic methods in qualitative research. In sum, they reject various kinds of formalism and reductionism that override the experiences of people (participants and researchers alike) with techniques, theories, and universal models. “The answer to the question, Why narrative? is, Because experience” (50).

In chapter four, the book’s unique pivot happens. Titled “What Do Narrative Inquirers Do?,” the bulk of the chapter consists of narratives of researchers’ experiences of inquiry. Surprisingly, there was nothing concretely methodological or procedural in the chapter. The authors even admit, when they come to such matters in chapter eight, that they might have been at home in chapter four given its title, but the move was intentional. The book’s emphasis falls on the researcher’s narrative as much—and sometimes seemingly more—than the narratives ostensibly under investigation: “It is not only the participants’ stories that are retold by a narrative inquirer. In our cases, it is also the inquirers’ (Michael’s and Jean’s) stories that are open for inquiry and retelling” (60). This seems to go beyond typical construals of reflexivity, and the oddity of the proposal in the context of the authors’ discipline is, indeed, part of the story they tell: “We had a file of journal rejections that came about, in part, because reviewers and editors did not see the social significance of the work and tended to see it as only personal. They often labeled the work idiosyncratic and narcissistic” (121). In my view, their difficulty regarding disciplinary justification is largely due to a failure of epistemological explicitness. Throughout chapters five and six, it is clear that “intimate relationships” (88) and even “intimate coparticipation in the intermingling of narratives” (66) is the premise of their extreme reflexivity. In other words, theirs is a relational epistemology—a narrative relational epistemology. One passage is highly representative:

Narrative inquiry is much more than “look for and hear story.” Narrative inquiry in the field is a form of living, a way of life. Of course, there have been well-known, well-publicized narrative inquiries where researcher-driven interviews supported by tape recorders have been the method. These may be appropriate for their purpose but should not be mistaken for the whole of narrative inquiry. Most important, they should not be mistaken for what narrative inquirers do when they are in for the long haul and when they are working toward intimacy of relationship. Narrative inquiry, from this point of view, is one of trying to make sense of life as lived. To begin with, it is trying to figure out the taken-for-grantedness. And when that taken-for-grantedness begins also to be taken for granted by the researcher, then the researcher can begin to participate in and see things that worked in, for example, the hospital ward, the classroom, the organization. (78)

This reflexive, relational intimacy is critical for “thinking narratively,” which contrasts with learning set narrative inquiry methods. Clandinin and Connelly also offer insight into composing field texts, doing analysis, composing research papers, and so forth, but the key to their proposal is role of the researcher’s own narrative experience.

I return briefly to my concerns with the view of narrativity at work in social-scientific research. The authors explicitly begin with their indebtedness to Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the “narrative unity” of life. This they welded onto their theoretical point of departure, John Dewey’s concept of the continuity of experience. “Narrative unity became for us a way to think in a more detailed and informative way about the general construct of continuity in individuals’ lives. Continuity became for us a narrative construction that opened up a floodgate of ideas and possibilities” (3). In other words, narrative is a philosophical notion that does helpful conceptual work. Yet, Clandinin and Connelly also review a handful of diverse social scientists’ uses of narrative and devise an important distinction between two types. Some have a “sense of a methodologist’s opportunism. They seem to say that life and narrative are linked because the link seems to work” (18). For these, narrative is essentially a useful, borrowed metaphor. Others “argue naturalistically along the line that ‘this is the way the world is, and therefore this is how it should be thought about.’ . . . Experience happens narratively” (19). Clandinin and Connelly agree with the second type, concluding that “narrative is both the phenomenon and the method of the social sciences” (18). Thus, while they learned the concept of narrative from MacIntyre, mere opportunism does not motivate their narrative inquiry. Rather, it is a realization that “experience happens narratively” that sets the agenda for the production of social-scientific knowledge.

Catherine Kohler Riessman, Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008). 264 pp.

Catherine Kohler Riessman’s volume is a delightfully clear and concise yet substantive treatment of—just as the title indicates—narrative methods for the human sciences. The first chapter is a very useful introduction to narrative studies in the social sciences, including definitional discussion of narrative and narrative analysis as well as a short historical overview of the “narrative turn.” I will return to the implications of chapter one for my questions after a short review of the rest of the book.

Following the introduction, the subsequent organization of the book is eminently reasonable. The second chapter reflects “consciously and critically about how we as interpreters constitute the narrative texts that we then analyze” (22), first considering “narrative interviewing” and then focusing at length on the interpretive nature of transcription. The next three chapters deal with one methodological locus each: thematic analysis or the “what” of narratives, structural analysis or the “how” of narration, and dialogic/performance analysis or the “who” of narration. Chapter six deals with “visual analysis,” taking visual artifacts as narrative “texts” and, consequently, pushing the boundaries of the author’s definition of narrative. A final chapter treats epistemological and ethical issues in a cursory fashion, though I find the simplicity and forthrightness of Riessman’s advice refreshing: be ethical toward participants, be transparent with methods and epistemology, be persuasive toward readers, and let peers judge the usefulness and trustworthiness of findings in the long term. Each of the four chapters on methods of analysis works through multiple examples and ends with an exceedingly useful comparative summary table. Altogether, these chapters amount to various forms of “close reading” (11–12) that will seem familiar to students of textual hermeneutics.

Still, these more textually oriented approaches to analysis can proceed without answering the question: Why narrative? Particularly since “not everything is narrative,” it appears that Riessman’s narrative methods are simply genre-specific interpretive tools. A narrative entails “a sequenced storyline, specific characters, and the particulars of a setting” (5), and narrative methods apply to a specifically narrative text. This is still relatively inclusive: “The term narrative in the human sciences can refer to texts at several levels that overlap: stories told by research participants (which are themselves interpretive), interpretive accounts developed by an investigator based on interviews and fieldwork observation (a story about stories), and even the narrative a reader constructs after engaging with the participant’s and investigator’s narratives” (6). Nonetheless, the form of narrative is what constitutes “narrative data.” In view of such limits, one might conclude that narrative analysis has little to do with any anthropological phenomenon apart from the product of storytelling.

But why do people tell stories in the first place? Riessman calls the practice of storytelling “the narrative impulse—a universal way of knowing and communicating” (6), following Roland Barthes. And although “scholars debate whether there is such a thing as prenarrative experience” (7), still “many investigators are now turning to narrative because the stories reveal truths about human experience” (10). Again, why the epistemic privilege? The answer seems to lie in the narrative constitution of identity. Citing early narrative theorist Jerome Bruner, Riessman states: “Individuals, he argues, become the autobiographical narratives by which they tell about their lives. To be understood, these private constructions of identity must mesh with a community of life stories, or ‘deep structures’ about the nature of life itself in a particular culture” (10). This sounds very similar to the function of narrative in Hiebert’s conception of worldview. In contrast with Clandinin and Connelly, Riessman defers the question of the nature of human experience and links the narrative turn to scholarly interest in the nature of human identity. This is still a concern with “truths about human experience,” but the issue is really that the narrative configuration of human experiences functions (whether necessarily or not) in seemingly universal ways, resulting ultimately in identity formation.

Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Barbara Laslett, Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008). 200 pp.

Telling Stories sustains a single argument throughout the majority of its pages: “analyses of personal narratives, beyond the contributions they make to specific areas of empirical research, can also serve to reorient theories about the relationship between the individual and the social by calling attention to the social and cultural dynamics through which individuals construct themselves as social actors” (2). This focus highlights an important aspect of narrativity to which the previous two volumes gave little attention, namely, the relationship between the personal and the cultural dimensions of narrativity. Worldview is typically discussed as a cultural phenomenon rather than an individual one. “Personal narrative analysis, by contrast, builds from the individual and the personal. It gleans insight not only from subjective perceptions about social phenomena and events as revealed through participants’ stories, but more particularly through narrative forms of experiencing, recalling, and making sense of social action. Subjectivity and narrativity are at the core of the alternative epistemological presumptions associated with personal narrative analysis” (10). At the same time, “personal narrative evidence can never be taken as a transparent description of ‘experience’ or a straightforward expression of identity. . . . Personal narratives are complex forms of evidence that demand sophisticated analytic techniques that build on the recognition of their location at the intersection of the individual and the social” (41). Personal narratives, therefore, mediate neither experience nor identity apart from social context.

Chapters two through four identify three primary social mediations that narrative analysis should take into account: historical context, culturally available forms of narration, and the intersubjectivity of the research encounter. Regarding historical context, the authors’ claim is not merely that context is important but that the personal agency expressed in narratives is always historical agency. Historical context, in other words, sets limits (consciously or unconsciously) on the plot of any given personal narrative. The point regarding available forms of narration is similar. Every culture has a limited store of “plots that circulate” (76). Understanding how a personal narrative uses, ignores, or adapts available narratives is vital. Finally, attention to intersubjectivity relates directly to the previous two points. The production of personal narratives is not only limited by historical context and available forms but also by the researcher’s influence on them—for example, by representing historical context one way or another or by (even passively) eliciting one available narrative form instead of another. One way of putting this is that, through narrative inquiry, researchers access not participants’ narratively configured human experience per se but their narratively configured experience of being researched. The final chapter turns to epistemological issues regarding the validity of arguments based on narrative sources, in relation to the predominance of positivist social science.

For my purposes, the book’s main idea is the valuable take-away. Like Riessman, though even more so, the authors utilize a formal, narrow notion of personal narrative: “a retrospective first-person account of the evolution of an individual life over time and in social context” (4). Nonetheless, even though narratives rather than narrativity are at the fore, experience and identity remain in view, described primarily as “agency.” Moreover, the authors bring out an important new consideration: embodiment. “Personal narrative analysis is an effective method of demonstrating how individual agency is operative in a particular context even while located in an embodied self evolving over time and over the life course” (32). The emplotted self that narrative research investigates is an embodied self. Narrativity has to do with the agency of bodily humans, not the configuration of disembodied experience. Telling Stories, then, implies an understanding of narrativity as embodied historical agency emplotted according to cultural scripts and intersubjective influences.

James A. Holstein and Jaber F. Gubrium, eds. Varieties of Narrative Analysis (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011). 328 pp.

My final reading, Varieties of Narrative Analysis, is an edited volume that, naturally, encompasses a variety of arguments, some of which are more useful than others in relation to my research agenda. To a significant extent, the organization of Varieties of Narrative Analysis follows Riessman’s three primary modes of analysis (what, how, and who?). Accordingly, the book’s sections are titled “Analyzing Stories,” “Analyzing Storytelling,” and “Analyzing Stories in Society.” This serves the editors’ aim “to adjust the methodological balance by bringing together, under the rubric of narrative analysis, a broad range of approaches that moves beyond, but does not exclude, the content of personal stories” (4). Many of the essays contained in this volume serve well to extend the concerns already voiced in the previous three readings. From Clandinin and Connelly’s radical reflexivity, to Riessman’s multifaceted close reading, to Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett’s embodied contextuality, Varieties of Narrative Analysis offers examples of and reflections on related analytical methods.

Aside from the utterly fascinating studies sprinkled throughout the book, the essays that caught my attention in the context of my research dealt with identity formation, corroborating Riessman’s claim that the narrative turn has been motivated by interest in that phenomenon. For example, the lead essay, by psychologist Dan McAdams, refers straightaway to “what many psychologists today term narrative identity” (16). Likewise, Arthur Frank develops the concept of “holding one’s own” through storytelling, which means “seeking to sustain the value of one’s self or identity in response to whatever threatens to diminish that self or identity” (33). Michael Bamberg’s essay, “Narrative Practice and Identity Navigation,” helpfully locates narrative identity in relation to my research question:

With regard to what is special about narratives, it is commonly held that narratives serve the purpose for passing along and handing down culturally shared values, so that individuals learn to position their own values and actions in relationship to established and shared categories and, in doing so, engage in their own formation process as a person. It was this function that inspired a good deal of the narrative turn in the social sciences and humanities because it highlights the relevance of narrative in the identity formation processes of institutional and personal continuities. Functioning to position a sense of self in relation to culturally shared values and existing normative discourses, narrative discourse claims a special status in the business of identity construction. (103)

This brings me full circle to the question: why is it commonly held that narrative function in this way? As the quotation avers, across the diverse methods of narrative analysis represented in this volume, the theoretical use of narrative identity proceeds on the assumption that both shared and personal narratives do indeed function to form both personal and communal identity. But what is the basis of the assumption? I do not ask the question out of a desire for an archaeology of the concept, as though that would justify its various usages. Rather, it seems to me that highlighting the assumption clarifies the sort of contribution to the conceptualization of narrativity that the social sciences stand to make: it is ultimately a pragmatic testing of a borrowed concept. In general, the argument seems to be not that a well-founded theory of human narrativity (whether experiential or constructivist) justifies narrative inquiry but that the effectiveness of narrative inquiry in providing useful psychological, sociological, and anthropological explanations confirms an assumed theory of narrativity. The assumed theory is typically borrowed in the form of a philosophical assertion. For example, similar to Clandinin and Connelly, Donileen Loseke begins with McIntyre: “Because humans are ‘story telling animals’ (McIntyre, 1984, p. 216) and because storytelling ‘may be the way through which human beings make sense of their own lives and the lives of others’ (McAdams, 1995, p. 297, emphasis original), it is not surprising that we live in a ‘culture of story-telling’ (Weeks, 1998, p. 46)” (252). Therefore, we expect to understand a culture and the human beings it comprises through analysis of their stories. But the assumed theory appears to become implicit in much of the narrative analysis literature—perhaps because it has been sufficiently confirmed—in which cases it appears that narrative analysis is justified because it works, regardless of why it works. No doubt there are some purely utilitarian social scientists in the mix. But I suspect that narrative inquiry is more frequently playing a long epistemological game in which the effectiveness of narrative analysis is not merely a self-justification but an argument for understanding human nature as such. The reason narrative analysis provides such unique insight into human experience is human narrativity; conversely, the unique insights of narrative analysis demonstrate human narrativity. Why can we say that people live storied lives, that individuals have narrative identities, that cultures have master narratives, or that worldviews have narrative cores? In view of these readings, I suggest that narrative inquiry in the social sciences answers: because narrative analysis has consistently tested and proven the narrativity of human beings.

  1. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 66.

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