Sunday, July 4, 2010

ISER Paper Lubbe-De Beer

The possibility of utilising narrative research in educational leadership

Carien Lubbe, PhD

Department of Educational Psychology

University of Pretoria


Working with narratives enable us to see different and sometimes contradictory layers of meaning, in order to bring them into useful dialogue with each other and to understand more about individual and social change. In this paper I discuss and explain the paradigmatic thinking, the unique nature, different approaches and critical methodological issues underlying narrative research. Narrative research attempts to understand and represent experiences through the stories that individuals live and tell. The purpose of the paper is to come to an understanding of narrative research, in order to provide a platform to explore th possibility of utilising this research design in educational leadership. AS we explore the possibility of effective schools in effective systems, what can be learnt from success stories, and from the stories we fail to tell, and what stories can we reinvent.


When asked to describe either themselves or others, to describe one’s school as a principal, or to describe a classroom or the life of a teacher, most people will launch into a series of stories which they feel are somehow relevant (Andrews 2000:77). Sarbin (1986) identifies this as the ‘narratory principle’, that human beings think, perceive, imagine and make moral choices according to narrative structures (in Andrews 2000:77). We are ‘storied selves’ and the activity of being human is intricately tied to the activity of telling and listening to stories. Although not the only way, it is one of the primary means through which we constitute our very selves. Through this activity of storytelling or narration we create meaning in our lives, as it is a fundamental way of communicating with another being – we tell and listen to stories, we learn about others and they learn about us. It also becomes a cornerstone of our identity, as we make sense of our lives through stories. Through our stories, and within the context of educational leadership, let’s focus on the life of a school, we indicate who we have been, who we are and who wish to become.

Narrative research is a multilevel, interdisciplinary field resulting in range of diversity that sometimes creates conflict and unresolved theoretical issues, but overall provide a richness of understanding. In this paper I discuss and explain the paradigmatic thinking, the unique nature, different approaches and critical methodological issues underlying narrative research.

The role of paradigms

Narrative research cannot be isolated from the paradigmatic perspective on the world of research. Mason (2002:59) indicates that when one defines ones paradigmatic perspective as a researcher, the interplay between ontological and epistemological assumptions, metatheoretical underpinnings, the research question and methodology becomes of crucial importance. How we think the social world is constituted, or what we think it is (our ontology), shapes how we think what we can know about it. Conversely, how we look (our epistemology and the methods we use) shapes what we can see. Our thought process about epistemological and ontological concerns has to be combined with a grounded, strategic and practical consideration of the methods we choose and use. The researcher cannot be removed from the research process, and therefore everything we write and research are coloured by our personal epistemology and ontology, and this in turn influences the methodology.

In experience-centred research, the interpretivist paradigm is useful, as experiences are explored and understood. From an interpretive view one can present and represent the narratives in such a way that the reader can obtain some slight degree of insight into the lives of the participants. It is almost a quest not to touch the stories, to let the raw details (as the participants reveal themselves in the words that they report their experiences) to stand alone so that any reader would be in a position to make his or her own interpretations and sense of what he or she read.

Furthermore, the social constructionist view also provides valuable insights because interpretations cannot be disentangled from the social context in which they arise. Constructionists assume that individuals actively construe their own social realities and that the researcher is able to understand these by interacting with the interviewee. I believe that the experiences of people reveal their interpretation of a social reality that (in turn) is socially constructed and situated within and against the backdrop of a social and political context (Bevan & Bevan, 1999; Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999).

Postmodern, feminist and poststructuralist domains are usually also relevant, as one (as the researcher) needs to be aware of one’s own power, voice and the voices of the participants, one’s commitment about how to represent the stories of the participants, to ownership and ones role as a researcher (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000; Evans, 2002; Lather & Smithies, 1997; Olesen, 2000).

On a personal note, in my research endeavours I became interested in what one needs - in terms of competencies, attitudes, skills - if one wishes to be in a position to be able to narrate the lives of others, and I thought long and hard about how to present the voices of others in a more or less unmediated way (Lather & Smithies, 1997:126,127). I wanted it to be plainly evident that I respected the people involved by finding a less intrusive way of doing research. I wanted to find a method that would make me aware of how I would interpret, select and narrate. I considered the role of the researcher and authorship, and how I look at the evaluations, thoughts and feelings that I have as a researcher. I realised that research is a cautious and slow process of working with inclusions and exclusions of representations and readings, of being aware of whose voices are privileged and whose are silenced (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000:168, 185,189), of working with pluralism and polyvocality (Gergen & Davis, 2003:247). I want to provide a space in which to emerge as a palpable presence who encourages dialogue with the reader by indicating pertinent problems and imperfections in the text, thereby creating an open text.

Furthermore, a narrative researcher will be drawing on the poststructuralist paradigm by focusing on multiple voices and pluralism, by contemplating multiple realities and by engaging with the ambiguity of research, recognising the effects of the ambiguities of research and taking them into account as the research are written up (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000:171). Poststructuralism asks questions about language, power and meaning (Lather & Smithies, 1997:126). While one does not have not focused primarily on language as the central activity of any study, being aware of the responsibility in creating text and realise that even transcriptions of interviews are already interpretations, that “we can speak only what we have language for” (Lye, 1997:¶2), and that “text structures our interpretation of the world” (Jones, 2005:¶2). A careful consideration of the local, fragmented and ambivalent as opposed to “grand narratives” (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000:196), and the deconstruction thereof will affirm the affiliation to certain poststructuralist themes. An attempt to deal with power issues by collaborating with participants, by seeing them as “partners”, by building up good and lasting relationships with them, by establishing and maintaining trust in those relationships, and by treating the interviews as “interactive conversations” (Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Fontana & Frey, 2000; Olesen, 2000).

The existence of a multiplicity of “truths” (Daiute & Fine, 2003:64) implies that a narrative researcher makes no claim that the text represents some privileged truth that is beyond critical scrutiny. I do suggest that there are no authoritative discourse to which all other knowledge must be subordinated exists, that because all perceptions are provisional, all texts are therefore provisional. In my view, the knowledge and meaning that we derive from what we engage is more like construction than finding or discovering (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000; Schwandt, 2000).

From an ontological point of view, there are multiple realities, and this multiplicity makes each individual’s perceptions of reality valid. Because human reality is mutually and socially constructed and presented, we always encounter a diversity of interpretations in the world. Because each human being processes reality from a constellation of different viewpoints, it is inevitable that no two people will experience the world in the same way (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999:124). A relativist ontology denies that the world “out there” is fixed in terms of human experience, although it may assume a complexity of causality of a world made up of structures and objects that have a causal relationship with one another (Willig, 2001:13). For practical purposes, we assume the existence of a “fixed” empirical or physical universe and reality, even though such a stance has long since been undermined in the field of quantum physics. But since we need to make assumptions that will allow us to function in the “real” world, we give our consent to various ad hoc assumptions about the macro-physical world in which we experience our outer reality. We do this because we need to understand timetables, catch trains, flick switches, and perform that multitude of tasks that comprise our consensual “outer” reality.

But the social and inner personal worlds that human beings create for themselves do not function quite so simplistically and smoothly precisely because human beings do create multiple realities which they experience as perfectly “real” and valid. This is what makes human beings so interesting and so complex, because we all generate our own reality, we live in a “world” that is constantly changing and in which meanings are always being negotiated. Our social world and our inner personal reality is always being interpreted and re-interpreted. It cannot be otherwise because our social and personal reality is constructed by us (whether consciously or unconsciously) by the multiplicity of shifting meanings that make up our different realities (Mason, 2002; Schwandt, 2000).

My epistemological view is that knowledge (in the sense of an understanding of one’s reality) is relative, plural and subjective and that the researcher and the participants co-create this understanding. This does not imply that the researcher is the one who “knows”. I see quite clearly that the individual who has permitted me the privilege of conducting research into her or his private reality is the “knower” and (quite obviously) the expert on her or his life. It is possible to obtain knowledge of another person’s inner reality by carefully and systematically examining the views, meanings, experiences, accounts, actions and events that occur in that person’s life. Such understandings are co-created by both the researcher and the participant. Both their voices will be discernible in the conclusions because there is no single interpretive truth that is entirely valid (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000:23). As I said above, the “truth” is always subjective and personal. What is crucial therefore is to find one’s voice because one can be blinded by one’s advocacy. The converse of this is that one should not be so self-conscious or critical of oneself and others that there is no space for other voices to be heard and incorporated.

A narrative researcher needs to attempt to be reflexive[1] about the research process, as well as views about the data and interpretation, because everything that we communicate is an interpreted representation of a perceived world. These notions of the presence of multiple voices, the plural nature of reality and the multiplicity of human views, are also informed and influenced by postmodern thought.

The guiding methodological strategies that correlate with the above ontological and epistemological frameworks are interactional, interpretive and qualitative in nature. The ontology of constructionism supports this point of view in that it regards people’s subjective experiences as being real, valid and therefore unconditionally important. A narrative researcher believes that people’s experiences can best be understood by interacting with them and by listening to them. These activities comprise the nucleus of the methodological assumptions in answering research questions.

Qualitative methods aim to discover and understand how people construct meaning out of the way in which they perceive their lives. Qualitative methods are sensitive to the diversity that forms of expression take because they incorporate ways of listening to and considering “exceptions”. Qualitative methods allow meanings to be heard without interference or coercion. Because they are also open-ended and flexible, they facilitate the emergence of new and unanticipated categories of meaning and experience. A narrative research design allows the discovery of the perceptions and complexity of participants’ understandings. The “answers” to intellectual questions are therefore framed both in terms of the perspectives and experiences of the participants and narrators, and in terms of the researcher’s own understanding and willingness to be open to the private world of participants.

What is narrative research?

A large number of definitions of narrative research and narrative methodologies exist. After studying all these definitions, I realised that there was no single correct way of doing narrative inquiry.

To a large extent, people make sense of their experience and communicate their experience to others in the form of stories (McLeod, 2001:104). Narrative is the human activity of making our varied experiences meaningful and coherent to ourselves or another in terms of our personal assumptions and beliefs by relating our perceptions to ourselves or to another person (Polkinghorne, 1988:1). Whether this other “person” is an actual person, a diary, an audio tape, or some other object or being (seen or unseen), narration - on whatever level - helps us to objectify our experiences which, until we articulate or narrate them, remain purely personal or interiorised. Narration helps to give definition and clarity to thoughts that - until they are articulated - often remain inchoate, vague or nebulous. This is especially true of thoughts that unduly disturb or excite us or thoughts that remain partially defined (but emotionally charged) on the periphery of our consciousness. Narrative inquiry thus attempts to understand and represent experiences through the stories that individuals live and tell (Creswell, 2002:525). The narrative inquirer tells and retells, lives and relives, presents and re-presents the stories that make up people’s lives, individually and socially, in order to answer questions of meaning, experience and social significance (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000:71,187).

The narrative approach implies an acceptance of pluralism, relativism, and the validity of individual subjectivity (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach & Zilber, 1998:2). All these factors are themes and motifs in postmodern and poststructuralist thought. Lieblich and Josselson (1994:xii) also maintain that the subjective-reflective nature of the narrative coincides with the feminist ideology that advocates a compassionate and non-authoritarian understanding of “the other”, although they contest the simplistic notion that narrative is a purely feminist domain. Feminist interpretation has shown how the “stories women tell about their lives may be constrained by the narrative forms – and the forms of living – that our culture currently legitimates” (Ochberg, 1994:116). Narratives always and inevitably exist within a circumscribed discursive space, constituted by the social world. The way we understand, talk and write about the world is socially constructed (Freeman, 1993:198). One can therefore use this mode of understanding to inform ones selection of participants, the data creation process, and the processes through which a relationship is established with the participants. It can also help to act in a way that enables one to build trust in the participants as a safe and containing space is created in which the participants can share their day-to-day stories and experiences. Cortazzi remarks:

“it is not the unmediated world of the others but the world between ourselves and the others. Our results are deeply marked by this betweenness and there is no way, epistemologically, to overcome its implications (Cortazzi, 1993:21).

The goals of narrative inquiry, according to Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach and Zilber (1998:72), are: (1) to assist us to understand the inner or subjective world of people and how they think about their own experience, situation, problems and life in general, (2) to provide “insight” into the individual that clarifies what has previously been meaningless or incomprehensible and that suggests previously unseen connections, (3) to convey to a reader the feeling of what it must be like to meet the person concerned, (4) to effectively portray the social and historical world in which the person is living, and (5) to illuminate the causes and meanings of the events, experiences and conditions of the person’s life.

Another reason why I usually select a narrative research design is that it captures the kind of everyday, ordinary data that is familiar to the narrator (Riessman, 1993:2). One of the “clearest channels” for learning about the inner world of individuals is through verbal accounts and stories that individuals narrate about their lives and their experienced reality (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach & Zilber, 1998:8). The reported experiences include first-person accounts, interpretations, memories, thoughts, ideas, opinions, understandings, emotions, feelings, perceptions, behaviour, practices, actions, activities, conversations, interactions, secrets, inner-self monologues, and so on (Mason, 2002:53). I use these narratives to reveal their everyday interpretations to present a reflexive and interpretive understanding of their experiences. While I focus on their personal experiences, I borne in mind that people’s narratives reflect not only their own meaning-making, but also the themes of the society or culture in which they live (Josselson, Lieblich and McAdams, 2003:8).

Narrative research is full of loose ends and seeming contradictions (Riessman, 2002a:697). It also lacks the relatively fixed and traditional interpretative framework that a researcher uses to analyse and interpret findings. Another compromise that one has to make in choosing a narrative design is that one has to accept the process of working in an emergent design. Unlike research methodologies that begin with well-defined hypotheses and are then tested by fairly rigid research designs, qualitative narrative research is always leading one in new directions as it continually changes and unfolds. In qualitative research, one cannot reason one’s way towards a causal hypothesis that will serve the experimental design. Instead, one aims to come to arrive at a provisional interpretation through exploration and description. It is also open-ended in the sense that traditional notions of distance and objectivity become distorted. I continuously remind myself that I should strive for coherence, consistency, comprehensiveness and simplicity (Rosenwald, 2003:140,141).

Discontinuous and fragmentary texts are a typical feature of narrative research. These texts need to be read and reread as one strives towards coherent and consistent interpretation. Even after one has captured the participants’ stories in writing, the texts one is left with are never comprehensive enough to represent the research partner’s whole life. Throughout the process of refining, creating and co-creating these texts, one has to give careful consideration to questions of power and authority as one accepts one’s own contribution towards the construction (i.e. the co-creation) of the narratives (Daiute & Fine, 2003:68). I have to constantly guard against falling into what Diaute and Fine (2003), and Silverman (1993:6), call the trap of “romanticism”. ”Romanticism” is where the researcher sets out faithfully to record the “experiences” of (usually) a disadvantaged group. This record may become distorted if it is not contextualised with a cultural sensitivity that reveals how such experiences can be shaped by given forms of representation. The relativity, subjectivity and multiple levels of meaning that qualitative research texts contain also present one with challenges that are unique to qualitative research.

To emphasise but one aspect of qualitative research: participants’ stories do not mirror a world “out there”. They do not aspire the empirical certainties of quantitative research. Instead they are constructed, provisional, creatively authored, often frankly rhetorical, and replete with assumptions and interpretations. Just as quantitative research has its own characteristic advantages and disadvantages, the advantages of qualitative research reside precisely in its subjectivity – its rootedness in time, place and personal experience – that stories are both encouraged and valued for their descriptive and interpretative potential (Riessman, 1993:5). Narrative construction uses experience as data and its utility and effectiveness is dependent on the quality of the interactions between the research participants and the researcher. Robinson and Hawpe (1986:111) claim that “it is in reflecting on experience that we construct stories; experience does not automatically assume narrative form”. Creswell (2002:528) points out that since we cannot directly convey experiences, no matter how well they are narrated, the researcher has to interpret the constructions wherewith participants make sense of their world.

The researcher as author also assumes the power of the researcher as the constructor. In the end, it is the researcher who decides what to tell and how to tell it, and what stories to relate about the participants, about the researcher, and as a methodologist writing for other researchers. Narrative research is inevitably therefore a highly selective constructive act on the researcher’s part. This does not imply that the researcher deny the value of people’s accounts of their everyday experiences around a certain topic, accounts through which they make sense of themselves and the social world in which they are thus revealed. For Blumer (in Plummer, 1983:237), individual experience reveals the individual’s actions as a human agent and as a participant in social life. And this is precisely what I mean by framing experience as a cultural construction: the individual’s experience should be framed or located within a historically specific social and cultural context. Because participants’ stories are situated not only in particular interactions but also in social, cultural and institutional discourses, they need to be taken into account when we interpret them and unravel the multiple meanings that are facilitated by narrative analysis. Some institutional and cultural narratives are so powerful and dominant that they cannot be side-stepped.

A sociological approach would imply that narratives are constructed to illuminate the dynamic interaction between an individual agency and the social structure (Reddy, 2000:52). The personal story that is set in a social matrix is regarded as plausible and valid by Clandinin and Connelly’s who cite the work of Dewey (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). They adduce Dewey’s notion of interaction which suggests that to experience an experience is to experience it simultaneously in four ways: inward and outward, and backward and forward. The first mode (inward) implies the internal conditions of feelings, hopes, aesthetic reactions, moral dispositions and so forth, while the existential conditions and the environment indicate the outward mode.

The interpretive function of narratives is used in the construction of individual stories. These individual stories can simultaneously be subjected to a social constructionist process and this will help us to appreciate the social role that stories perform. The interpretive function of a narrative (Josselson & Lieblich, 2003:260) entails a focus on the meaning that people attribute to their day-to-day lives. It is by means of this meaning-making process that people make sense of their personal and social worlds - and (in the case of qualitative research) the particular experiences, events and states that are of interest to the researcher. The researcher utilises this interpretive function intensively to make sense of another person’s world. This results in a double hermeneutic as “the participants are trying to make sense of their world; ... and the researcher is trying to make sense of the participants trying to make sense of their world” (Smith & Osborn, 2003:51).

The constructed nature of narratives actively entails constructing the world through narratives and through being open, sensitive and receptive to the stories told by others and by ourselves. Narratives are social constructions developed in everyday social interactions; they are shared meanings that make sense in the world as we experience it. Narratives allow us to construct meaningful connections between our actions. We create narratives which then become central to our personal understanding of ourselves (Murray, 2003:112). This ties up with Plummer’s suggestions about the social conditions that facilitate the emergence of new stories. He suggests that stories “can be told when they can be heard” (Plummer, 1995:119, 120). Plummer is concerned with the social (and political) role that stories play, and he has investigated the kind of stories that are told, how they are told, and why they are told. This is also echoed by the Personal Narratives Group (Riessman, 2002b:235), which investigated power relations in the production of personal narratives. They investigate the reasons why a narrative has been written and told, and they assert that the context in which the story is told is always multi-layered because it represents the historical moment of the telling. Individual stories may thus influence collective understanding. Stories provide a means of bringing other voices to the centre stage of the public discourse, a process that can imbue narratives with political meanings. Stories provide us with an effective (alternative) way of making connections between the lives and stories of individuals and a wider understanding of human and social phenomena (Reddy, 2000:51).

Collaboration is central to narrative research because of the emphasis that is placed on listening and attending to the participant’s point of view. For Kelly (1999:398) experience can only be understood within the context of the social, linguistic and historical features that give it shape. On the other hand, we have a great deal to learn from other people’s subjective interpretations or accounts. What I want to emphasise is that the personal and social cannot be divided. Donawa (1998:¶5) remarks that narrative is always a process that connects the individual to the environment that he or she shapes and by which he or she is shaped. In the words of Mills (in Plummer, 2001:6): “A life is lived in a particular time, place and under particular circumstances, an individual live within a context.”

In analysing the relatedness of personal stories embedded in social stories, the work of Kenyon and Randall (1997:15-17;28-30) are of importance. They state that we not only have a life story, but that we are stories. Experience may thus be mediated by means of stories. Stories are cognitive because they contain ideas. They are affective because they involve emotions. And they are volitional because they involve activity or behaviour. Our thoughts, feelings and actions, and even our personal identity, can be understood as a story. And because these elements are fundamental basic to whom we are as human beings, a story may be viewed as an ontological metaphor.

Kenyon and Randall (1997) distinguish among four interrelated dimensions of life stories. In the first place, a structural story incorporates social policy and power relations in society. These cultural constraints can effectively silence personal stories or voices. In the second place, there is the social story which incorporates the social meanings that are associated with storytelling. In the third place, we have the interpersonal story. This deals with relationships of intimacy, family and love. Lastly, there is the dimension of personal meaning that generates the personal story. I define the personal story as what happens in the daily lives of people.

Stories ultimately deal with what is personal and what is meaningful. But what is meant by “personal” and “meaningful”? Kenyon and Randall adduce the existentialist axiom that human beings live in situations or contexts - and that human beings are always going beyond themselves by attempting to attribute significance to those situations. From this point of view, the challenge for ourselves, both personally, as researchers and as practitioners, is to guide people to find their own direction. Personal storytelling can make it possible for people to make sense of their experience and therefore to accept and own their lives at a very fundamental level. We become the stories that we tell ourselves (Kenyon & Randall, 1997:17).

What I have come to realise is that there exists a distinctive relationship between experience and narrative. “Experience is the stories people live” sums up this position in a few eloquent words (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994:414). These two authors have explored the possibility of studying - and not only using - experience only as a contextual given. They assume that experience is both temporal and storied, that people convey something of their experience, either to themselves or to others, in storied form. Stories therefore are the vehicles that allow us to come closest to the experience of others as they relate their experiences. We should not forget that stories arise out of a matrix of personal and social history. People live their stories. It is in the telling of them that they reaffirm them, modify them, and create new ones. Rapmund and Moore (2002:22,23) also hold the view that human beings are interpreting beings who make sense of experiences through narrative or stories that are socially constructed by means of language. The function of narratives is to order experience, to give coherence and meaning to events, and to provide a sense of history and of the future. They explain people to themselves and to others, and they create identities and influence how people manage their lives.

Different dimensions of narrative research

Rather than identifying a set of distinctive features that always characterise narrative, I prefer to talk about dimensions because these are always relevant to a narrative and because many such dimensions are listed in the literature (Cortazzi, 1993; Mishler, 1986; Ochs & Capps, 2001; Plummer, 2001; Riessman, 1993; Roberts, 2002; Robinson & Hawpe, 1986). These different elements or dimensions of narrative are best evaluated and described by analysing the different styles or approaches to narrative, even though there are considerable variations in how researchers use the concept personal narrative and therefore in the methodological assumptions that are present in the analysis. Despite these differences, there are interchangeable and overlapping features in all approaches that evoke the role of the researcher as a bricoleur. Authors such as Cortazzi (1993), Riessman (1993), Roberts (2002) and Smith (2003), broadly distinguish narrative styles in terms of a linguistic/sociolinguistic/structural tradition, a psychological, a literary, and an anthropological tradition.

The sociological and sociolinguistic (structural) approach to narrative focuses in essence on the sequence of events and always identifies a beginning, middle and end. Stemming from conversational analysis, proponents of this school have proposed that human beings possess an intuitive awareness of certain rules that govern participation in any conversation. Although literary analysis has focused primarily on novels and short stories, the dynamic and sequential element of “plot” are central to this narrative tradition, but are these days basic to most narrative styles. The psychological tradition emphasises the constructive nature of memory processes and argues that most tellers are largely unaware of the crucial role that their own interpretation plays in their narratives. The anthropological tradition studies narratives in terms of the cultural patterning that customs, beliefs, values, performance and social contexts exert on narration.

Critical methodological issues

Another crucial dimension of working in a narrative design is to consider how critical methodological issues influence how the narrative is constructed, written, read, interpreted and understood. Therefore, critical issues that need to be considered and reflected on are:



representation and voice

the research relationship and

being a reflective researcher.

Narrative research aims to understand how individuals experience their social circumstances, and does not aim to present “the facts” or to provide explanations or “the truth”. Riessman (2002b:235) quotes the Personal Narratives Group:

When talking about their lives, people sometimes forget a lot, exaggerate, become confused, and get things wrong. Yet they are revealing truths. These truths don’t reveal the past “as it actually was”, aspiring to a standard of objectivity. They give us instead the truths of our experiences… Unlike the Truth of the scientific ideal, the truths of personal narratives are neither open to proof nor self-evident. We come to understand them only through interpretation, paying careful attention to the contexts that shape their creation and the world views that inform them.

A personal narrative is not meant to be read as an exact and quantitatively precise record of what happened, nor is it a mirror of any world “out there”. The reading itself is located in discourses because narratives are “laced with social discourses and power relations” (Riessman, 1993:65). People interpret the past in stories rather than produce the past at it was (Riessman, 2002b:256,257). A rethinking of the relationship between past and present is therefore necessary: past events are constantly being selectively edited and re-focused in terms of the current world view of the narrator. This implies that the chronological, linear and sequential modes of narrative time can be challenged in a way that results in a pluralistic unity of future, past and present. This conclusions are similar to those of those post-structuralists who regard time as a cultural and social construction, and who believe that “human time exists only though narrative expression” (Valdés, 1991:19), In their view, the kind of exact and precise recall that reveals a neutral, fixed and absolutely truthful (“objectively scientific”) past simply does not exist.

People’s narratives and their efforts to make sense of their experiences are inextricably implicated in time because everyone states their views, perceptions, thoughts and feelings in terms of particular moments of time and in terms of representations of space. This obviously raises the question of how accurately we, as human beings, are able to represent our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences - given the highly subjective nature of time and space perceptions. We might thus ask whether such experiences are actually “true” in the traditional logical-positivistic sense of the word, or whether they approximate in some way to “truth” in terms of an evaluator’s paradigms - bearing in mind that there are many different philosophical understandings of what “truth” is.

Polkinghorn (1988:158) makes it clear that a narrative approach assumes a particular understanding of what knowledge and truth mean. The narrative approach does not aim to arrive at the kind of truth or certainty that would be the goal of (say) the chemist or the botanist. Instead it seeks to create narratives that manifest all the signs and appearance of being true, real, authentic, convincing and coherent in the context in which they exist. Unlike the laws of the hard macro sciences or the axiomatically derived truths of mathematics, a story is open-ended and subject to interpretation, and the reader can take from (or “read into it”) whatever strikes her or him at the moment(s) of engagement with the story. Thus the same story can be used differently in various situations because different elements from it can be applied and emphasised in different contexts. Narratives do not produce the kind of knowledge that can serve to predict future outcomes (as do some kinds of knowledge in the sciences). Neither can they be used to control human experience because they are never normative in intention. Instead, they produce knowledge that deepens, enlarges, enriches and illuminates our understanding of human existence. A narrative is a subjective account from a perspective that is influenced by the passage of time and the flux of human emotions and intentions (Polkinghorne, 1988:159). Narratives create knowledge as a consequence of the interactions that take place between researcher and participants. Such knowledge is also exploratory and tentative because it describes the lives of individuals and leads to a thorough understanding of the experiences and the meanings that people ascribe to these experiences.

If we question the basis upon which we decide that some of our perceptions are real and others are not, we come to realise that we regard “facts” as those perceptions that we can verify by a process of consensual validation. This is reflected in the different kinds of truth that Samuel (2003:3) lists. Thus, for example, factual or forensic truth is observable and can be corroborated through reliable, objective, impartial and replicable processes. A healing or restorative truth (such as that of the narratives that were heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) acknowledges the context and experience of human beings and their contribution to their cause by means of narrative, and it aims to restore the dignity of the victims concerned. Or one can focus on a personal or narrative truth by means of which meaning is given to multi-layered life experiences. Such truth gives us insights into the past and present through the filter of the participants’ and researcher’s perceptions. Reddy (2000:43) asserts that one needs to consider the conditions in which a narrative were created and the relationships that produced it in order to understand what is communicates. The researcher should identify biases, silences and exaggerations and suggest ways of understanding what these may mean. In addition, a dialogue or social truth can also be explored by means of which one arrives at “truth” through interaction and discussion with the participants in the data analysis phase of this research.

Truth is also arrived at by means of memory. Epistemological claims are based solely on how situations were experienced or remembered by the participants and in the manner in which things and events presented themselves to those who experienced them. Memory entails the primary experience of the world out there, or pathic sensing, and not the rational and empirical realities are the goal of the “hard” sciences. Kruger calls this “gnostic sensing” (Kruger, 1988:33). Because each human life comprises a unique and forever unrepeatable series of experiences, events can never repeat themselves in exactly the very same way - either to oneself or to anyone else. No matter how precious or important a situation, once it has happened, it has utterly gone. While some form of abstract representation may remain, and some sequence or random memory of details of the experience, the concreteness of the situation in all its continuity and its actual presence is lost forever (Ochs & Capps, 2001:41). People can construct events by engaging in a dialogue in which they relive the past and reconstruct it in the present. Sometimes people may selectively cover up personal failures and embarrassments in their telling of the narrative. The teller in a conversation takes a listener into a past time or “world” and recapitulates what happened to her or him in order to make a point. We may therefore conclude that m.. emory is constructed, and that part of the aim of qualitative research is to understand how people view their lives and how researchers engage with people’s perceptions of particular moments in time and space.

Other critical issues that narrative researchers need to consider are the relationship between themselves and their participants, and the elements of representation and voice. These elements are vital to an understanding of what being a reflective researcher means and they are related to the tentativeness of epistemological issues that have already been discussed (Ely, Vinz, Downing & Anzul, 1997; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Kong, Mahoney & Plummer, 2002; Lather & Smithies, 1997; Mason, 2002; Riessman, 2002a & b; Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999).. Riessman (2002b:220) proclaims that “we cannot give voice, but we hear voices that we record and interpret”

The researcher is in a position of power and privilege because of the researcher’s role to record, document and interpret. Knowledge grounded in experience, in dialogue, is always relative to a specific standpoint or perspective that causes the knowledge to be invested with power (Donawa, 1998:¶4). One therefore has to continuously consider one’s own positional stance and role in the production of the narrative in a careful and reflective manner because an unconscious or deliberate personal agenda can negatively influence the research. Clandinin and Connelly (2000:149) remind us that we need to imagine ourselves in conversation with an audience as we create research texts. Writing is inescapably bound up with the self, with power and with values. In qualitative research, writing displays a certain kind of “reality” at the same time that it constructs reality. Questions such as “Whose voice is represented in the final product?”, “How open is the text to other readings?”, “How are we situated in the personal narratives we collect and analyse?” and “What multiple interpretations would it be open to?” are essential if we are to clarify these interpretive issues for readers (Kong, Mahoney & Plummer, 2002; Riessman, 1993, 2002). Real lives are reconciled with representation. A life as told, as opposed to a life that is lived, may be different at different times for different audiences or when it is told with a different purpose.

As one writes the research text, one needs to “consider the voice that is heard and the voice that is not heard” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994:424). Poststructuralist theory and feminist theories are also concerned with the issue of voice and author, as this brings authority and subject into a text (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000; Lincoln & Denzin, 2000; Olesen, 2000; Tierney, 2002). The problems of authors, voices and selves are complex. Plummer (2001:182) indicates the possibility of creating relatively open and democratic texts provided that they contain a degree of fluidity between participants, researchers and selves. He urges researchers to recognise different voices and to reject the temptation to present the text as a smooth, seamless flow, as a product of a unified, consistent, single voice, since this is impossible. Voices are deliberately chosen to be different at different places in the text. Clandinin and Connelly (1994:423-424) comment that the presence of voice is an acknowledgement that one has something to say. Clandinin and Connelly (1994:423) comment that the struggle for a research voice is the struggle to express one’s own voice “in the midst of an inquiry designed to capture the participants’ experience and represent their voices, while simultaneously attempting to create a research text that will speak to, and reflect upon the audience’s voices”. For them voice and signature are closely connected. A research signature is the special mode that indicates our presence as writers being in the text (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000:148). The signature and its expression in discourse create an author identity. Voice and signature together make conversations among participants, researchers and audiences possible in the texts.

Participants are co-constructers of the research because they are creating their own history in the text. Narrative inquiry brings about a fundamental reconstruction of the relationship between the researcher and the participants (Casey, 1994:231). Clandinin and Connelly (2000:63-65) also elaborate on the necessity to establish a collaborative relationship between researcher and participant because narrative inquiry implies the sharing and interpenetration of two or more person’s spheres of experience. Narrative research has brought the individual back into the social sciences so that she or he can provide the world of research with insights into how people make meaning (Becker, 1999:73).

I myself experienced Plummer’s observation (2001:171) that I would become more and more self-conscious and reflective in the writing process. There is no longer any one straightforward description of reality “out there”. I find that the personal merges with the academic in writing as I write simply as a human being “making sense of the daily ebb and flow” (Plummer, 2001:198). The emotional and ethical relationship to the participants and the inquiry makes a difference to how my research text is shaped (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994:423). They emphasise that the ethical dimensions of researcher-participant relationships are extremely important in personal experience methods. The ethical care that we demonstrate towards our participants goes beyond the relationships that we form and establish with them because it also enters into the shaping of the research text:

When we enter into a research relationship with participants and ask them to share their stories with us, there is the potential to shape their lived, told, relived and retold stories as well as our own. These intensive relationships require serious consideration of who we are as researchers in the stories of participants, for when we become characters in their stories, we change their stories… We owe our care, our responsibility, to the participants and how our research texts shape their lives…issues of ethical responsibility are always foregrounded as we construct research texts… We all can find ourselves in the eventually constructed research texts… (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994:422).

Ely et al. (1997:376) state that “writing can affect the writer and the readers in personal and professional ways”. Tellers have their own purpose in telling the story and receivers have their own agendas and priorities in leading them to unconsciously or consciously select events to observe, record and report. Therefore researchers need to monitor and acknowledge participation in the construction of the storied lives of the participants (Reddy, 2000:35,36).

Donawa (2003:¶5-6) draws attention to attentiveness, experience, understanding and reflection. She states that a prolonged, mindful attentiveness to experience is productive of understanding and insight. The practice of empathy and trust assists us to make recursive explorations to the experience itself so that the nature and significance of our reflections and the knowledge forms that we use can be better understood. For Donawa, to attend is to be present, to court, to serve, to accompany and to pay heed. She quotes Mary C. Bateson as saying that there is a “spiritual basis to attention, a humility in waiting upon the emergence of patterns from experience” (Donawa, 2003:¶5).

When I insert myself into my participants’ narratives as a way of coming to understand their stories, Donawa (2003:¶3-5) reminds me that I am still in the midst of my own story, and that we both remain embedded in our own respective cultural contextual narratives. For her, these “small” stories of the relation between our (singular and shared) experience and its social and ideological landscape has the potential to “write back against the Grand Narrative of the dominant culture” (Donawa, 2003:¶5). In reflecting on my own inquiry as narrative text, framed as it is by feminist, postmodern, social constructionist and post-structuralist perspectives, I became to understand how my academic interests enhanced my ability to understand the processes of my own life. I therefore continuously analysed my own feelings, thoughts and experiences in my research diaries as a presentation or representation of my research journey. The participant’s accounts are a result of their interaction with me: I am part of the research. Rather than attempt to ignore my presence, I use it to understand a necessary part of the research process. “We work within the space (narrative inquiry) not only with our participants but also with ourselves” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000:61).

Relationships are therefore at the heart of this kind of research, and it is during the research process that we begin to experience those flashes of subtle and intuitive awareness and sudden (or gradual) realisations that constitute the raw data for both participants and researcher. Over a period of time we also begin to experience confidence in the authenticity and benignity of the research process. There is a kind of solidity that develops in relationships because we construct our research from the very beginning on sound ethical foundations and because we remain loyal to a higher morality than that which is reflected in the slick clichés and platitudes of conventional morality and religion. It is never easy to achieve this or maintain this. Sometimes our research calls us to confront, defy and transcend the instincts that control the mass of humanity or the well-established prejudices of our society. Our experience of moral reality should be deepened by the power and demands of the relationships that we form, and these cannot but influence the course of our research. As researchers we have a certain responsibility, and a need to cultivate response-ability in what we do. As researchers, “we leave footprints” (Cox, 2003). As Jean Clandinin said (2003), we become friends with our participants, and, when it’s all over, we cannot simply say “It’s done, I’m leaving.” We must face the fact that our engagement with others (and their kindness and generosity to us in permitting us to interact with them) continually creates the possibility of long-term relationships that require an ethics of care, of ongoing negotiation and, above all, a need and sincere desire to honour the lives of the participants.


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[1] It is through reflexivity that the researcher’s construction of what is explored becomes more visible (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000:2,4,150). Being reflexive is a specific part of reflective research. It indicates reflection on different levels, and the consideration of more than one theme simultaneously. I am using the two concepts of reflective/reflexive together whilst Alvesson and Sköldberg (2000:4-7) distinguish between the two.

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