The Narrative Method of Inquiry
Second candidacy essay
Richard Giovannoli, M.A.
The purpose of this essay is to lead the reader to a fuller understanding of the narrative inquiry approach to research—what it is; what unique perspectives it provides; and how it is carried out. This essay will explore some of the controversies surrounding this and other forms of qualitative research methodology—especially in the areas of significance, validity and reliability—and present justification for the use of narrative methodology in specific inquiry situations. My primary interest is in psychotherapy. I came to discover the narrative method out of an interest in how and why we make meaning in our lives. I am interested in personality psychology and in the formation and understanding of the self. I have come to believe that narrative is essentially more than the telling of stories. I believe that narrative is the way we create and recreate our realities and ourselves. I believe that a therapist is a narrative researcher, and I hope to demonstrate in this essay that, because we create ourselves in narrative, narrative methodology is a most appropriate means for the study of human beings. Although a fuller understanding of what is meant by narrative and narrative research will hopefully develop during the course of this
essay, it would be helpful to the reader to have a working definition at the outset. While the terms narrative and narrative research appear often in qualitative studies, it is rare to find these terms defined (Lieblich, 1998; Riessman, 1993). According to Webster’s Dictionary (1966), a narrative is defined as a “discourse, or an example of it, designed to represent a connected succession of happenings” (p. 1503). Perhaps the most concise definition is that proposed by Smith (1981): Narratives are “verbal acts consisting of someone telling someone else that something happened”(Smith, 1981). Polkinghorne (1988), while acknowledging that the term narrative generally can refer to any spoken or written presentation, confines his usage to the kind of organizational scheme that is expressed in story form. He uses the term to describe the process of creating a story, the internal logic of the story (its plot and theme), and also the product—the story, tale, or poem as a unit. Sarbin (1986) also stresses the organizational aspect of narrative. The narrative is a way of organizing episodes, actions, and accounts of actions; it is an achievement that brings together mundane facts and fantastic creations; time and place are incorporated. The narrative allows for the inclusion of actors’ reasons for their acts, as well as the causes of happening. (p. 9)
In Poetics, Aristotle wrote that a narrative has a beginning, middle, and an end. Following his lead, Western thinkers have seen sequence as a necessary, if not sufficient, quality of narrative. The order of a story’s events moves in a linear way through time, and a disruption of that order essentially modifies the original semantic meaning of the story. Young (1987) argued that one event causes another, and it is that causality that is more essential than the mere chronological telling of the story. Still others have argued for sequencing in thematic terms, although studies have shown that white, western, middle-class interviewers have trouble hearing stories that are episodically organized. (Reissman, 1987) Not all narratives found in interviews, letters, or conversations are confined to linguistic forms. Reissman (1987) distinguished several genres in interviews that do not follow the expected (Aristotelian) form of protagonist, inciting conditions, and culminating events. Among these, she includes habitual narratives (events happen over and over, and consequently, there is no peak in the action); hypothetical narratives (which depict events that did not happen); and topic-centered narratives (snapshots of past events that are linked...
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