Chapter 17






Definition and purpose

Narrative research is the study how different human experience the world around them, and it uses a methodology that allows people to tell the stories of their “storied lives.” Narrative researches collect data about people’s lives and collaboratively construct a narrative (written account) about the individual’s experiences and the meaning they attribute to the experiences.

       Narrative research has a long history in such diverse disciplines as literature, history, art, film, theology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics, and education, and a such does not fit neatly into any single scholarly field. Within the field of education, a number of recent trends have influenced the development of narrative research:


§  The increased emphasis in the past 15 years on teacher reflection, teacher research, action research, and self-study.

§  The increased emphasis on teacher knowledge—for example, what teachers know, how they think, how they develop professionally, and how they make decisions in the classroom.

§  The increased emphasis on empowering teacher voices in the educational research process through collaborative educational research efforts.


These trends in education have resulted in a changing landscape of educational research and the promotion of “scientifically based research” practices to address social, cultural, and economic issues.

       We live (and perhaps teach or work in schools in some other capacity) in a time when we are being challenged by educational issues such as adolescent drug use, cultural differences in diverse urban school settings, and the achievement gap that separates children raised in poverty from children who are less economically disadvantaged. By using narrative research in education, we attempt to increase understanding of central issues related to teaching and learning through the telling, and retelling, of teachers’ stories. Narrative research provides educational researchers with an opportunity to validate the practitioner’s voice in these important political and educational debates.

       Having a hard time visualizing what “narrative” and “research” in the same sentence really mean? Let’s look at an example:


Hilda, a teacher at High High School, has students coming to her class who appear “distracted” (which is perhaps teacher code for under the influence of drugs). As an educational researcher, you decide that it would be helpful to know more about hoe Hilda deals with this significant educational issue and what she does in order to work with the distracted, drug using adolescents in her classroom. You think of this research question: “What have been Hilda’s experiences in confronting and dealing with a student who has a drug problem?” To study this question, you plan to interview Hilda and listen to stories about her experiences working with one particular distracted student. You will talk to the student, the student’s parents, other teachers, administrators, and counselors, all of whom are stakeholders in the student’s educational experience. You also want to know about Hilda’s life and any significant events that have impacted her ability to work effectively with adolescent drug users. Perhaps Hilda holds economic, social, cultural, or religious beliefs and values that affect her ability to deal with the drug culture in her school.

Form the information you collect in interview, you will slowly construct a story of Hilda’ work with the troubled student. You will then share (retell) the story and, with Hilda’s help, shape the final report of the narrative research. This final report will be Hilda’s story of working with a student who is troubled by drug use, and it will contribute to our understanding of what it takes, on the part of a teacher, to work with adolescent drug users in our school.


       Starting to make sense yet? Narrative research allows the researcher to share the storied lives of teachers in the hope of providing insights and understandings about challenging educational issues as well as enriching the lives of those teachers. Narrative research can contribute to our understanding of the complex world of the classroom and the nuances of the educational enterprise that exist between teachers and students. It simply is not always possible, nor desirable, to reduce our understanding of teaching and learning to numbers.




The first thing that a researcher interested in a narrative study must do is to decide if he has the time, access, experience, personal style, and commitment to undertake this particular style if on-site research. To illustrate how the steps work, we will  build on the example of our teacher, Hilda.


1.      Identify the purpose of the research study, and identify a phenomenon to explore.

The purpose of the study at High High School is ti describe Hilda’s experiences in confronting and dealing with a student who has a drug problem. The specific phenomenon that will be explored is that of adolescent drug use in high school.

2.      Select an individual to learn about the phenomenon.

Hilda, a teacher at High High School, has volunteered to work collaboratively with the researcher (you) on the research.

3.      Pose initial narrative research questions.

What have been Hilda’s experiences in confronting and dealing with a student who has a drug problem? What life experiences influenced the way Hilda approached the problem?

4.      Describe the researcher’s role (entry to the research site, reciprocity, and ethics)

The researcher will collaboratively obtain permission to conduct the research in Hilda’s school. In addition to permission from an Institutional Review Board (IRB), the researcher and Hilda will likely need to complete a signed informed consent form and nay other permission required by the school or school district.

5.      Describe data  collection methods, paying particular attention to interviewing .

The researcher will utilize a variety of narrative research data collection techniques, including interviewing and examining written and nonwritten sources of data.

6.      Describe appropriate strategies for the analysis  and interpretation of data.

The researcher and Hilda will collaboratively participate in restorying the narrative and then validating the final written account. (Restorying—a writing process that involves synthesizing story elements)

7.      Collaborative with the research participant to construct the narrative and to validate the accuracy of the story.

8.      Complete the writing of the narrative account.


       The narrative research is a highly personal, intimate approach to educational research that demands a high degree of caring and sensitivity on the part of the researcher. Although negotiating entry to the research setting is usually considered an ethical matter with assurances of confidentiality and anonymity, in narrative research it is necessary to think about this negotiation in terms of a shared narrative. That is, narrative research it is necessary  necessitates a relationship between the researcher and the participant more akin to a close friendship, where trust is  a critical attribute. However, this friendship quality is not easily attained in an educational research setting (let alone in our lives in general). It is not uncommon for teachers, for example, to be cynical about any educational research, let alone a style of research whose success relies on a friendship between the researcher and participant.




How a particular narrative research approach is categorized depends on five characteristics: who authorized the account (the researcher or the participant, which is the same person in an autobiography), the scope of narrative (an entire life or an episode in a life), who provides the “story” (for example, teachers or students), the kind of theoretical/conceptual framework that has influenced the study (for example, critical or feminist theory), and finally, whether or not all of these elements are included in the one narrative.




Narrative research can be characterized by the following elements:

§  Narrative research focuses on the experiences of individuals.

§  Narrative research is concerned with the chronology of individuals’ experiences;

§  Narrative research focuses on the construction of life stories based on data collected through interviews.

§  Narrative research uses restorying as a technique for constructing the narrative account.

§  Narrative research incorporates context and place in the story.

§  Narrative research is a collaborative approach that involves the researcher and the participants in the negotiation of the final text.

§  The construction of a narrative always involves responding to the question, “And then what happened?”


       In narrative research, data are collected primarily through interviews and written exchanges. The narrative research process is similar to the construction of a biography in that the educational researcher does not have direct access to observational data but must  rely on primary (the participant’s  recollections) and secondary (oftentimes written documents by the participant) data sources. As mentioned previously, narrative research places considerable emphasis on the collaborative  construction of the written account—the narrative text. Although researchers using other styles of on-site research may share accounts with research participants as a way to test the trustworthiness of those accounts, they place little emphasis on the restoring process that is quite unique to narrative research.




Empirical data is central to narrative research in spite of the inevitable interpretation that occurs during the data collection process (for example, during the telling and restorying activities). As in any form of interpretative research, the interpretation alone does not make for fiction as an outcome of the process. However, like researchers using other on-site research approaches, the narrative researcher must be prepared to use multiple data sources to counter act challenges that narratives could be written without ever leaving home.

       In the following sections, we will focus on some of the data collection techniques somewhat unique to narrative research (story telling, letter writing, autobiographical and biographical writing, and other narrative sources.



A characteristic of narrative research that distinguishes it from other no-site research approaches is the technique of restorying the stories that individuals tell about their life experiences. According to Creswell, restorying is “the process in which the researcher gathers stories, analyses them for key elements of the story (e.g., time, place, plot, and scene),and then rewrites the story to place it in a chronological sequence”. Oftentimes when individuals share with researchers stories about their experiences, they do so without attention to the “real time” order of events.



       There are three stages in the restorying process:

1.      The researcher conducts the interview and transcribes the audiotape in order to obtain the raw data from the interview. This process involves noting not just the spoken words but also the nuances of the interview—for example, humor, laughter, anger, and so on.

2.      The researcher retranscribes the raw data based on the key elements that are identified in the story. For example, in an interview, Hilda would describe how she copes with students who come to class under the influence of drugs. From her comments we might identify certain themes, such as seeking assistance from a school nurse or counselor and  establishing individual educational plans and contracts.

3.      The researcher organizes the story into a chronological sequence with attention to the setting, characters, actions, problems, and resolutions. For example, Hilda’s story would be set in the context of her classroom with the adolescents who use drugs (characters) and would be focused on the actions of the students (their off-task behavior and other relevant classroom behavior), the problems caused by actions (other students distracted, teacher time focused on a few students, etc.), and any resolutions to the problems that Hilda employed )seeking assistance from outside the classroom, establishing learning contracts with students, etc.).


      After these stages are completed, the participant would be asked to collaborate with the researcher to write the final restoried narrative of the individual’s experiences. This collaboration is critical to ensure that there is no gap between the “narrative told and narrative reported.” One of the tests of the trustworthiness of the narrative account is the participant’s validation of the restoried account as being representative of the individual’s lived experiences as relayed in the interviews.





Narrative Analysis and the Analysis of Narrative

It is important for us to briefly distinguish between narrative analysis and the analysis of narrative . In narrative analysis the researcher collects descriptions of events through interviews and observations and synthesizes them into narratives or stories (similar to the process of restorying). In this type of narrative research, the story is the outcome of the research and an attempt by the researcher to answer how and why a particular outcome came about. The second type of narrative research, analysis of narrative , is a process in which the researcher collects stories as data and analyzes them to produce a description of themes that applies to all of the stories captured in the narratives. Using this approach, the researcher develops a statement of themes as general knowledge about a collection of stories, but in so doing, under emphases the unique aspects of each story.


Oral History

One method for creating field texts is to have participants share an oral history. An oral history may be obtained by the researcher during a structured interview schedule with predetermined questions (and hence with the researcher’s agenda clearly stated) or through an open-ended approach where the researcher asks the participant to tell his own story in his own way. In constructing an oral history, a researcher might asks the participant to create a timeline that is divided into segments of significant events or memories.


Photographs, memory Boxes, and other Artifacts

Teachers have a proclivity for being “pack rats.” The materials they squirrel away, apart from the obvious curriculum materials, often include cards from former students, newspaper clippings, yearbooks, photographs, and audio-and videotapes of student performances. Often times these artifacts adorn a teacher’s desks and bulletin boards as badges of honor. The narrative researcher can use these artifacts as prompts to elicit details about the teacher’s life in school and how they might relate to the specific phenomenon under investigation.



There are many opportunities in narrative research to engage participants in storytelling. Teachers, by nature, are master storytellers, and many will happily share stories about their experiences in school as “competent narrators of their lives.” The manner in which narrative researchers engage participants in storytelling sessions will have a large impact on the nature of the story. That is, making storytelling a routine part of the narrative research process will provide researchers with many opportunities to add to their understanding of a “day in the life” of a teacher who is focused on finding a resolution to a challenging educational problem. Oftentimes these stories will be shared at times when a tape recorder is not handy, and the researcher will have to rely on her ability to accurately record field notes and verbatim accounts as necessary.


Letter Writing

Another way to engage participants in writing about their experiences, and to engage the narrative researcher and participant in a dialogue, is through letter writing. Because of the widespread availability of e-mail, this kind of dialogue can be easily initiated and maintained. By providing the narrative researcher with valuable insights into the evolving, tentative interpretations that the participant may be considering, the dialogue serves as a working chronicle of the participant’s thinking about issues related to the research phenomenon. The commitment of thought to text helps both the researcher and the participant can then reflect on the evolution of the themes by reading the increasing record of the narrative  dialogue.


Autobiographical and Biographical Writing

One of the keys to narrative is the researcher’s ability to engage the research participant in writing activities. Although this skill may also be important in other research endeavors, it is especially useful for a researcher trying to accurately capture the lived experiences of the research participant—through the eyes of that participant. Engaging a participant in constructing, or collaboratively constructing, a life history through autobiographical or biographical writing has the potential to broaden the narrative researcher’s understandings about past events and experiences that have impacted the participant’s experiences with the phenomenon under investigation. Perhaps Hilda, for example, has had other professional or personal experiences with adolescent drug users that would contribute to an understanding of how she operates in her current educational environment. Autobiographical or biographical writing about Hilda’s life could bring these experiences to light. Again, the use of e-mail could provide a wonderful electronic record of the emerging narrative.


Other Narrative Data Resources

There are many other narrative data resources that a research can access that will contribute to the construction of the written narrative. For example, documents such as lesson plans, parent newsletters, and personal philosophy statements are readily available to the narrative researcher. These sources provide a window into a word of classrooms that is not easily accessible to outsiders.





The final step in the narrative research process is the writing of the narrative. Many of the data collection techniques used in narrative research result in products—such as e-mail letters and a participant’s biography—that have the potential of finding their way into the final written account. Given to collaborative nature of narrative research, from beginning until the end, the negotiation of the final narrative account should be relatively easy to achieve. However it is worth remembering that our goal in conducting narrative research has been to “learn about the general from the particular.” As such, we should be modest in the claims we make for the collaboratively constructed written narrative that is the final product of our research efforts.




Thu, 12 May 2011 @13:01




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