Taking a narrative approach

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The more recent resurgence of interest in biographical, or self-narrative

and narrative approaches, in qualitative research mirrors other changes in

late modern society. In contexts where individuals are faced with greater

uncertainty and more choice, reflexivity can become an important aspect

of making sense of experiences. A focus on narrative helps the social

scientist better to understand the social world of such lives. A quick leaf

through the abstract list of any social science conference in the Western

world will confirm the interest now being paid to narrative. ‘Narrative

methodologies have become a significant part of the repertoire of the

soci al scienc es’ (Lieblich et al ., 1998 :1) an d their app lications have

ranged from exploring individual, subjective experiences to group and

organisational dynamics. Yet claims to be taking a narrative approach

often appear based on widely varying understandings of the philosophical

and/or theoretical roots from which the tradition emanates. An understanding

of these as outlined above is important in adopting an appropriate

methodological approach. Whilst most qualitative research may be

seen to produce narrative accounts in some form, for example transcribed

texts generated from the interview encounter, such studies do not all

frame themselves in terms of a narrative approach. Even when a narrative

approach is claimed, the work may actually only be regarded as narrative

in that it emanates from a biographical account given by a respondent.

In this way most, if no t all, quali tative researc h has some narrative

element s. Yet the use of narrative as a method through whic h to expl ore

how ind ividuals acc ount for, and make sense of, their actions requ ires

more rigoro us app lication : its wide use and vari able int erpret ation has

‘som etimes le d to a lack of cl arity and precision’ (Polk inghorn e, 1995 :5).

Cruci ally, a na rrative app roach shoul d enca psulate and emphas ise the

‘temp oral orderi ng of eve nts that are assoc iated with chang e of some

kind’ (Hyden , 1997 :50). This facilit ates a way of unders tanding the

meani ngs individu als give to acti ons and ide ntities, or indeed the la ck of

these. T h e w a y s i n w h i c h n a r r a t i v e s a r e c o n s t r u c t e d , c o n f i g u r e d a n d

conte x tualised (through ‘emplo tment’, see Ric oeur ( 1981) for further

d isc us si on of ‘emplo tmen t’ ) t hen b eco me ke y d efin in g f eat ures o f n arra -

ti ve in qu iry. So too are the ( apparent) omissi ons, in coherent or chaotic

dimensions of narrati ves.

This na rrower def inition of a narrative approach attends to how people

make sense of pote ntially disrupt ive life events whic h can lead to biographica

l disruptio n, for exampl e the onset of chron ic illne ss or divo rce

(Bury, 1982 ; Williams , 1984 ; Reissman, 1989; Frank , 1995 ). In such

an app roach, ‘plo t is the na rrative stru cture through wh ich peopl e unde rstand

and describe the relationship among the events and choices of their

lives’ (Polk inghorn e, 1995 :7). Such an app roach is facilitat ed by a longi -

tudinal component. In their work on cancer narratives, Mathieson and

Stam ( 1995 ) dra w a dis tinction between conversa tions an d narra tives

that goes some way to explain how a focus on narrative construction

differs from some other qualitative approaches. They argue that conversations

become narratives when they are used to construct a personal

identity, so that ‘of the many stories we tell it is those which are ours, not

only about us but by us, that have the most meaning to who we are, where

we have been and where we inten d to go’ (199 5:284). Narrati ve

approaches, then, look at how individuals actively construct and reconstruct

narratives in the process of making sense of their experiences and

presenting their self/selves. As such, it may indeed be the case that

narratives are much more available to the middle classes as a means of

talking about their lives and selves: or that some groups in society are

more rehearsed and practised as ‘storytellers’. But importantly, whoever

the narrator is, ‘stories, as dialogue, do not present a self formed before

the story is told’; rather it is through the constructing, linking and telling

of a series of events, a story, that ‘the process of becoming for the first

time’ is revealed in the res earch encoun ter (Fr ank, 2002 :15). The search,

then, for the researcher is not for any objective, measurable ‘truth’.

Rather it is to understand how individuals make sense of, and ascribe

meanings to, periods of biographical disruption or transition: how they

nar rate the ir expe riences ‘in the context of passi onate beliefs and par tisan

stand s’ (The Per sonal Narrati ves Group, 1989 :263). As Frank has no ted,

‘aut henticity is crea ted in the process of storyte lling’ ( 2002:1). The value,

the n, of narrative is tha t it provi des the res earcher wi th ‘a vehic le for

confron tin g the cont radicti ons bet ween an individu al’s expe rience’ and

cons tructio ns of se lf, ‘and expec tations based on share d cultural m odels’

(Matt ingly and Garro, 1994 :771).

Yet such an app roach has not gone unc riticised. A research app roach

that focus es on ind ividual experience s and p ays cl ose attention to

ind ividua l cons tructions of eve nts and context s alw ays runs the risk of

being accused of relativism. Further, the privileging of ‘certain ways of

experiencing over others’ is, according to Paul Atkinson, a potentially

dangerous endeavour. This is because such an approach can be seen to

emphasise the ‘therapeutic rather than analytic’, leading to a new variant

of social actor, ‘the isolated actor who experiences and narrates as a

mat ter of private and priviled ged expe rience’ (19 97:335). Inde ed, as

researchers we should be ever vigilant about how and where the boundaries

are drawn in our research, and the potential impact of different

approaches. For example, Ribbens-McCarthy and Edwards (2000)

have argued that in-depth interviews may require people to produce

reflexive narratives that they otherwise would not do. Others have

commented on the relationship between doing social science research

and do ing the rapy work (Birch and Miller, 2000 ). Howe ver, the fear that

the outcomes of such an approach will necessarily or even probably lead

to ‘a new variant of social actor’, is pessimistic and, I think, misplaced.

This is because whilst narratives may be collected as individual accounts

and analysed as such, this does not preclude a search for meaningful

subsets of experience. This can be undertaken across and between

accounts and lead to the building of theory based on shared (or different)

experiences. As Frank has recently noted, ‘rather than bemoan the low

condition of storytelling in the ‘‘interview Society’’, researchers can lead

the process of storytelling toward something better. People are not going

to stop telling stories; moral life, for better or worse, takes place in storytelling.

Narrative analysis can be a significant model for a society that will

cont inue to work ou t its moral dilemma s in story form ’ (2002 :17).

Clearly, then, the narrative enterprise sits in stark contrast to universalistic

notions of instrumental rationality, although at some level a characteristic

of narratives is that they are produced as rational responses to

particular circumstances. The increasing recognition of the complexity

and diversity of human experience, and the shift away from universal

notions of agency, has led us to consider other ways of knowing and

experiencing the social world. Doing narrative research does not have to

entail adopting a totally relativist stance. But itdoesdemandhigh levels of

researcher reflexivity, whilst avoiding the trap of falling into auto-therapy.

Indeed, in describing how they go about the analysis and interpretation of

narra tives, L ieblich ( 1998 ) and colleagu es simu ltaneous ly allud e to the

complexity of human lives and the research enterprise. They state ‘we do

not advocate total relativism that treats all narratives as texts of fiction.

Onthe other hand, we do not take narratives at face value, as complete and

accurate representations of reality. We believe that stories are usually

constructed around a core of facts or life events, yet allow a wide periphery

for the freedom of individuality and creativity in selection, addition to,

emphasis on, and interpretation of these ‘‘remembered facts’’ ’ (Lieblich

et al ., 1998 :8). Coll ecting an d anal ysing narrative s of priva te expe rience

and placing them in a public arena can, then, provide a means of making

‘visible a different, alternative social and cultural order within which to

define our identity and subjectivity’ (Edwards and Ribbens, 1998:13).

A narrative approach is, then, one of a subset of qualitative research

methods in which, just as in other types of qualitative research, different

approaches to analysis are utilised. Methods of analysis will vary according

to the type of narrative inquiry undertaken. Different approaches have

involved different strategies, from intensive analysis of linguistic codes to

the identification of ‘meaning units’ (Mishler, 1986), and ‘narrative

genres’ (Reissman, 1990) to ‘frameworks’ that can help to ‘disentangle

types of narrative’ (Frank, 1995). In her work, Reissman has drawn a

distinction between the analysis more commonly undertaken in traditional,

code-based qualitative research and that of narrative analysis.

This, according to Reissman, ‘does not fragment the text into discrete

content categories for coding purposes but, instead, identifies longer

stretches of talk that take the form of narrative – a discourse organised

around time and consequential events in a ‘‘world’’ created by the narrator’

(1990:1195) . This is a helpful observat ion but it is also impo rtant to

note the role of both the narrator and the interviewer in the data that is

generated in an interview setting. The interview encounter is influenced

by many factors including, importantly, the questions that are posed by

the researcher. These will help to shape the data generated. As such, the

text that results from an interview is a co-production in which the

researcher ‘becomes a constituent of his or her own object of study’

(Corradi, 1991:108). High standards of reflexivity throughout the

research process, together with openness about the choices that are

made as research unfolds, should be key features of all qualitative

research. It is only through paying close attention to decisions taken as

part of the research process, and making them transparent, that the value

and contribution of any piece of qualitative work can be assessed. The

demands of qualitative research require that we are continually sensitive

to, and able to account for, the intricacies of the process of researching

people’s lives in ways that are not usually asked of those involved in

large-scale questionnaires and randomised control trials.

The data and findings that are generated by adopting a narrative

approach are open to the same questions concerning ‘validity’ or ‘credibility’

as any other qualitative approach. The arguments about how far it

is appropriate or desirable to use positivist terminology to make judgements

about qualitative research – which is grounded in different epistemological

positions – have been widely discussed elsewhere (Lincoln and

Gub a, 1985 ; At kinson, 1998; Cress well, 1999) . The ad option of terminology

which more accurately reflects the naturalistic dimensions of

qualitative research is recommended by Lincoln and Guba (1985;

Guba and Lincoln, 1994). They propose that the ‘trustworthiness’ of a

study can be assessed through consideration of the following: ‘credibility’,

‘transferability’, ‘dependability’ and ‘confirmability’, and recommend

techniques for operationalising these ‘measures’. More recently, growing

recognition by policy-makers and others of the value of findings

generated by qualitative research has led to the production of appraisal

and assess ment tools (Spen cer et al ., 2003 ; Dixo n et al ., 2004) . These are

intended to enable the credibility of research findings to be assessed.

Within the narrative genre there are then different research approaches

and types of analysis. The overarching aim in the ways in which a narrative

approach is employed in this book is to understand and account for

periods of transition and resulting biographical disruption. Such an

approach enables us to understand the ways in which individuals construct

and communicate meaning (Chase, 1995). It has also been

observed that collecting and listening to ‘women’s personal narratives

provide immediate, diverse and rich sources of feminist revisions of

knowledge’ (The Personal Narratives Group, 1989:263). This approach

therefore lends itself to longitudinal research during which changes and

transitions can be observed, interpreted and theorised. Proponents have

emphasised different aspects of narrative research including most

recently a call to ‘rethink the concepts we use by refining further the

notions of narratives of location and positionality’ (Anthias, 2002:493).

Although written in relation to work on identity, which is an implicit or

explicit dimension of most narrative research, this call reinforces the

importance of both situating narratives and paying attention to the ways

in which situations are narrated. It also raises the question of what

happens when people feel that their experiences cannot be accommodated

within available repertoires of socially and culturally shaped narratives.

In her work, which calls for a reframing of narrative, Somers (1994)

argues that when people find their experiences do not fit with existing

narratives they produce ‘counter-narratives’. This then becomes ‘a crucial

strategy when one’s identity is not expressed in the dominant public

ones’ (1994 :631). The constru ction of coun ter-narra tives in respo nse to

experiences of first-time motherhood will be returned to in later chapters.

Clearly, narratives concern experiences that are lived within particular

historical, social, cultural and moral circumstances, which in turn shape

the narratives that can be constructed. Narratives, then, can be used

strategically, not only as sense-making devices in terms of individual

experiences, but importantly as a means of positioning and presenting

oneself as a competent social actor in the social world. Through the

construction of recognisable and culturally acceptable narratives, social

actors place their experiences, their selves, within the context of wider

social groupings and cultural settings. As noted earlier, changing patterns

associated with women’s lives and reproduction have produced new

challenges for those experiencing contemporary motherhood. As a result

of exploring how women experience first-time motherhood in this changing

context, my work has led me to focus on the interconnections

between experiences, narratives and the ways in which selves are constructed,

maintained and narrated in late modern society. The rich

accounts produced by women coming to motherhood provide the core

of this book, underpinned by fieldwork observations and exploratory

research focusing on women’s experiences of motherhood in different

cultural contexts (see chapter 2).