What’s the story? Narrative inquiry 101

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The appeal of using personal story as a focus for research is, I think, an inevitable step given my interest in looking at how people experience the world. I acknowledge the need for quantitative inquiry and have a deep respect for evidence – randomised trials have helped us refine and improve radiation therapy from a fairly scattergun approach when I qualified thirty years ago to the pinpoint accuracy with which we visualise and treat tumours today. But I also think that to treat people, we need to know who they are (to coin a phrase from advocacy for LGBTQ health) and we can do that by eliciting and paying attention to their stories or narratives. It’s often been said that humans are storytelling animals, it’s how we sort out what we’re feeling, how we make sense of the world.  There’s a growing interest in narrative inquiry (NI) in medicine – where currently the story that is usually prioritized is that told by the physician.  We tend to marginalise the patient’s own stories to an afterthought – interrupting, speaking over and jumping to fix problems rather than listening. For people who are ill “stories are a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations” from the “narrative wreckage” of the illness experience (Frank).

Inquiring with narrative – narratology – also pops up in history, literary theory, drama, art, film, philosophy, anthropology, education and more. The narrative inquiry researcher is not neutral and apart – treating the “subjects” like, well, objects in an attempt to somehow extract the truth without external contamination. Thus this way of inquiry can have a feminist bent, with a firm standpoint in the camp of giving voice to those who were traditionally without.  Research in real life is messy, our canonical view of unbiased investigation is flawed and very much founded in the masculine, the heteronormative, the White and able-bodied – because those are the voices of privilege who don’t/can’t/won’t know that their way of seeing the world is not always our way/the only way. Narrative inquiry stands against this often false neutrality and the approach can be “a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act” (Ellis). In one type of narrative inquiry, autoethnography, the researcher weaves her story into that of her participants – also using herself (auto) to reflect on a particular issue/social environment (ethnography).  In other words it is back to “as I write and theorize the lives of my participants, I theorize my own”.

Good NI can tell a compelling story with aesthetic merit, provide a substantive contribution to a research area and help us understand more about the world and ourselves. It is also risky – writing stories that incorporate our vulnerable selves can open up a Pandora’s Box and feels transgressive to those of us immersed in the norms of scientific writing. Ethical issues abound – personal narratives often involve loved ones or others close to us, how far do we go in storying and restorying their lives? It is not an easy, or straightforward, option. Bear with me as I try it out over the next few months!

My NI academic crush for October is Carolyn Ellis – whose book “The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography” was a surprisingly gripping read for a research methods text! Ellis considers blogging to be online autoethnography, which means I am hopefully on the right track.  She comments that those of us writing from from the margins “are people who seek connections, who have lived on the borders and who now wish to use whatever resources are available to make the world and their loves better”. What better reasons are there to do research?

Influenced by:

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14.

Ellis, C. (2004). The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography. New York: AltaMira Press.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., &  Bochner, A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: An Overview. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 36(4), 273-290.

Frank, A. W. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness, and ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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