Cul-de-sacs and Narrative Data Analysis – A Less Than Straightforward Journey
James, G. (
ul-de-sacs and Narrative D ata A nalysis - A Less
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Cul-de-sacs and Narrative Data Analysis – A Less Than
University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
This article focuses on the methodological journey I took as a novice narrative
inquirer, particularly regarding data analysis, for my doctoral data; a journey
characterised by floundering, meandering, wrong turns and cul-de-sacs. It
explains the initially overwhelming process of moving from collecting “data”
to constructing the narratives of five postgraduate international students,
challenges faced as well as lessons learned. Despite its complexities, narrative
data analysis enables colour and emotion to be added to research. This article
continues to add to a somewhat meagre research literature about how to move
from collecting “data” to constructing narratives. Keywords: Narrative Data
Analysis, Narrative Inquiry
As opportunities have arisen in conferences, classes and conversations, I have enthused
about the wonders of using narrative inquiry for research. It is an approach which is both “a
method of investigation and a mode of representation”
(Craig, 2012, p. 91)
and which I
employed for my doctoral research, where I was aiming to understand in depth the lived
experiences of five female postgraduates, all international students, whom I had been teaching
over a period of one academic year. Narrative inquiry has been described as a “fluid form of
(Craig, 2012, p. 91)
as it unfolds in response to what is encountered during the
research process rather than “being driven by predetermined research principles” (ibid.). So,
it is individuals’ experiences which are foregrounded, not at the expense of theory, as some
conversations I have had have intimated, but instead recognising that “people and their stories
do not always ‘fit’ the theory”
(Trahar, 2013, p. xiv)
My research was influenced by constructionist and poststructuralist philosophers,
psychologists, sociologists and narrative inquirers
(Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Lawler, 2002;
Polkinghorne, 1995; Riessman, 2008)
with the philosophical basis of narrative inquiry for me
underpinned by a Deweyan view of experience. In this view experience is seen as relational,
continuous and social (see Clandinin, 2013, for a more in-depth discussion). Individuals cannot
be understood in isolation as they are, arguably, always in relationships. Dewey’s notion of
continuity is one which particularly resonates with me (i.e., that all our experiences develop
from and lead to further experiences). In that vein, neither my research participants nor myself
are “blank sheets”
(Sawir, 2005, p. 270)
; they arrived in the UK from various countries in Latin
America with a past, with considerable educational experiences and with professional
experiences and their lives are now continuing after graduating. In turn, I was born in the UK
but was brought up bilingual and according to my mother, only started speaking English when
I went to kindergarten at the age of three. I have also had considerable educational experiences
here having done my BA and MA in England and Northern Ireland respectively; my doctorate
was also done in England. Professionally my experience has encompassed both jobs here in
the UK and in Southeast Asia, so as Clandinin and Connelly (2000, p. 64) astutely observe:
“their lives do not begin the day we arrive nor do they end as we leave. Their lives continue.”
The same is, of course, true of my life.
In the course of my exhortation of narrative inquiry, what inevitably surfaces at some
point is the question of how I analysed my data, particularly considering narrative inquiry is
such a different form of qualitative research
(e.g., Riessman, 2010)
. Even now, post doctorate
where I researched and wrote a narrative inquiry
(see James 2014)
I find that this is not a
question to which a simple answer can be given. My own frustration with exactly how to
analyse my data is still prevalent because of the diversity and complexity of narrative inquiry
and of this approach. But encouragingly I have discovered that I am not alone. In discussion
with other narrative inquirers it has become clear that more detailed accounts are needed of
how data were narratively analysed in published research using narrative inquiry, as it currently
seems to be severely lacking. In 2004 McCormack wrote of her paper “… [it] fills a gap in a
research literature that is largely silent about what to do after researchers have transcribed their
interview conversations” (p. 319) and today, there is still not much more that has filled that
In this article, therefore, I try and respond to the seemingly straightforward question of
how I analysed my data by describing both the cul-de-sacs I ended up in as well as the steps
and stages I went through in the hope of presenting a process which other researchers may wish
to ponder on as they answer the frequently overwhelming post data collection question of “so,
what next?” My own process of analysis is not reproduced here as a blueprint to be strictly
adhered to; rather it is intended to give ideas and perhaps function as a springboard for other
research which requires a narrative analysis of data. The way in which I have written it is also
an attempt to show that although my journey was less than straightforward this did not mean I
was doing anything “wrong”; perhaps it was just that I needed to discover for myself the twists
and turns and messiness that seem to accompany (novice) narrative inquirers on their journey.
The First Stage: Collecting Field Texts
Clandinin and Connelly (e.g., 2000, p. 82) refer to data as “field texts” and I will use
the two terms interchangeably throughout. My field texts were collected over an academic
year and comprised three research conversations with each student averaging an hour each,
emails which we exchanged throughout the year, conversations that “just happen”
2006, p. 122)
– with both my participants and with colleagues when discussing narrative
inquiry – as well as my extensive readings around what narrative inquiry is and “how to do it”
and reflections on those readings.
Once I had this vast amount of rich information, how was I to go about constructing
and co-constructing (the latter with the participants’ input) and analysing it as narratives? Were
the construction and analysis separate stages, even? How on earth was I going to make the
move from raw data to co-constructed narrative? What would this process look like? Where
could I go for help? What should I add? What should I omit? In previous research I had done
for my MA I had followed a highly structured, linear (step-by-step) approach to analysing my
applied linguistics interview and focus group data. But for this doctoral research I was looking
for actual narrative examples, narrative frameworks which would guide me safely through what
I was beginning to see was a minefield of alternatives. I struggled to locate these clear accounts
of “how to do narrative analysis” in order to approach this daunting task and initially what I
found was others who empathised with me in the maze of approaches to take
(e.g., Squire et
. This is not what I had been expecting and so my journey through the maze
continued. At some point of course I had to take a deep breath and simply take the plunge,
stop getting tied up in knots and going round in circles and approach this huge task squarely in
I write about my insecurities here in this way because I do not wish to give the
impression that the narratives were constructed with ease. A comment made to me by someone
who had both read them and heard me talk about how I had written them was that I had
portrayed them like the image of “a swan on a lake”: what is seen in the written narratives (i.e.,
above the surface) is serene, calm and ordered but what was heard/inferred as I spoke about
writing them exhibited furious, frenetic and frustrating activity below that surface. I had
inadvertently portrayed them as having been effortlessly written, that is, that their construction
and analysis was simple and straightforward as I tried to find the most appropriate way to share
with my readers the depth and richness of the data I had been given. I was disappointed that I
had not made this clear, as it was unintentional on my part (or perhaps I hadn’t wished to show
the messiness of the process in a formal piece of writing?) Hence what follows is a response
to try and rectify that by being (more) transparent in the struggle I had.
Before I continue outlining my somewhat tortuous journey of discovery in this regard,
let me briefly explain how I understand narrative data analysis, again doing so to illustrate the
complexities and challenges I came across during this circuitous route of moving from raw data
to constructed narratives and how analysis fitted in.
A Slight Detour: What is Narrative Data Analysis?
Kim (2016, p. 190) suggests that along with interpretation, narrative data analysis is
“an act of finding narrative meaning” (emphasis in original). In this sense, she defines
narrative meaning as “a meaning-finding act through which we attempt to elicit implications
for a better understanding of human existence” (ibid.) So narrative data analysis is
fundamentally about searching for the meaning(s) and making sense of an experience or
experiences which we – and in a narrative inquiry that includes the researcher – have had. And
yet, as Kim (ibid.) goes on to say, “meaning is not tangible, nor static, thus it is not easily
grasped” and neither do we have direct access to the meaning which someone else gives to
their experience. This of course leads to various issues vital for consideration in a narrative
inquiry, such as those of narrative interviewing, re-presentation, trustworthiness, time and
(for further discussion of these see James, 2014)
Polkinghorne’s (1995) distinction between two types of narrative inquiry has been
really useful to me and many others in beginning to tease out the different approaches and
understandings of analysing data narratively. He talks about “analysis of narratives” and
“narrative analysis”. As a crude definition, the former is research which uses stories as data
and the latter is the use of storytelling to analyse data and present findings. So narrative
analysis here is “...how the stories are produced and what we can learn from them”
et al., 2014, p. 3, emphasis added)
The analysis of narratives relies on one of
) two ways of knowing (i.e.,
paradigmatic, with the other way being narrative). Simply put, paradigmatic knowing is “more
recent and associated with development of rational thinking”
(Barkhuizen et al., 2014, p. 1)
whereas narrative is “both older and more deeply rooted in everyday thinking” (ibid.). So
paradigmatic thinking prefers certainty, whereas narrative accepts ambiguity
which goes back to the point made earlier about it being a fluid form of research. It is arguably
the latter type of knowing which can help us navigate our way through life and understand how
ambiguous and complex our lives are, and this can only ever be partial, situated and temporal.
The analysis of narratives, then, attends to the general, looking for common themes across
stories. Its goal therefore is to identify “general themes and patterns... [thereby minimising]
(Kim, 2016, p. 196)
In contrast, narrative analysis as understood here is attending to the particular and is
done by looking at the data as a coherent whole. The narratives are created and co-constructed
by integrating certain events into a temporally organised whole with a thematic thread (plot).
Note my use of the word “certain” which itself constitutes an analysis or interpretation of sorts
and which I will come back to. The purpose of this way of analysing data is “to help the reader
understand why and how things happened in the way they did, and why and how our
participants acted in the way they did”
(Kim, 2016, p. 197)
Barone (2007, p. 456) calls this a “narrative construction”; it is a “recasting of data into
a storied form [which] is more accurately described as an act of textual arrangement than of
analysis” (ibid.). While I agree in part, this construction was for me also an in-depth analysis
of the data as I had to interact with it on a deeper level to begin the meaning-making process
for each participant. The collection of narrative data is inextricably linked with its analysis; it
was a less than linear process as I was constantly discovering key related issues (e.g., that of
time), and I did not wait until I had all my data before starting analysis. It was more an iterative
process, one which is “interpretive at every stage”
(Josselson, 2006, p. 4)
. In creating a narrative
construction, then, I am also necessarily analysing by making the decision as to what to include
as I cannot possibly include everything. But an end point has to be reached amidst all the
intricacies and complexities and so let me now return to my journey. I had my field texts so
how did I now construct the narratives?
The Second Stage: From Raw Data (Field Texts) to Narrative Construction – Or: “Forays into Narrative Analysis”
In what follows, I explain my initial forays into narrative analysis and then focus on
how I decided to create the five narratives in my doctoral research to then “analyse” them in
the more traditional sense of extrapolating and discussing certain issues emerging from the five
narratives with what I found in the literature. It is worth bearing in mind that in using the term
narrative analysis below I am intertwining both the construction and the analysis of the
narratives, recognising that while I was constructing I was analysing and vice versa.
My very first attempt at a narrative analysis was an assignment for the taught part of
my doctorate written the year before I started collecting data for my actual doctoral research.
It was an exploratory attempt at doing a narrative analysis of an extract from my
Frenchspeaking postgraduate student’s (Lucie, a pseudonym) personal oral narrative, dealing with her
transition from leaving a prestigious professional career in Canada to coming to the UK to
undertake a postgraduate degree and her reasons for doing so. My analysis was based on
, 2008) as a model for structural analysis of the extract. This type of analysis
is fundamentally looking at how narratives are organised and while it is interested in content,
form is paramount
. Structural analysis is based on a sociolinguistic approach
to oral narratives using clauses and was originally developed by
Labov and Waletzky (1967)
further developed by
Labov in 1972
, where each clause is given a function depending on which
elements of a narrative it is portraying (see Table 1).
Summary of the story
Time, place, characters
Sequence of events
Narrator comments on meaning and communicates emotions
Ending the story and returning it to the present
This appealed to my applied linguistics background and former research in sociolinguistics.
To begin the analysis, I followed Riessman’s (2008, p. 89) exemplar by asking: (1) how
is this story put together? and (2) how are the structural elements arranged? I listened many
times to the 10-minute extract of Lucie answering my question, “Can you tell me a bit more
about your transitions in any particular area or every area of your life?” and following
) example, I divided the narrative into clauses and then further subdivided it
into four shorter transcripts, primarily when Lucie used a conjunction (e.g., and, so) to return
to the main point of her narrative. It was an interesting approach to take in analysing part of
an oral narrative, but felt rather clinical to me and not particularly creative. Considering I like
structure and “how to…” guidelines and frameworks, my reaction surprised me.
Part of my feedback on the assignment echoed much of my own thoughts as I reflected
on what I had learned from the exercise: “You take on a narrative inquiry approach for the first
time and what arises is a valuable reflective piece on some of the problems that beset the
application of an ‘off-the-shelf’ model of analysis…” I also realised that employing Labov and
Waletzky’s model for oral story was not transferable to the interview discourse which I had
conducted with Lucie, ending up with my applying the model beyond its original purpose.
Such a closed, structural rendition of a two-way interview based on Conversation Analysis
(which I had used to great effect in my MA) did not here sufficiently capture the meaning
making I was interested in.
What follows is based on what I wrote in
My second foray was a year later when I practised analysing the data from my pilot
study (January to March 2012). For this study I had interviewed six of my students, all Latin
American female postgraduates. Additionally they had sent weekly or fortnightly emails
describing in varying degrees how they were progressing both academically and
nonacademically. I also ran two focus groups but with different students to the aforementioned
six. My aim was twofold: firstly to practise both a more narrative style of interviewing, one
where I “follow participants down their trails”
(Riessman, 2008, p. 24, emphasis in original)
and secondly I wanted to practise analysing what they told me, rather than conduct a narrative
inquiry per se because I simply did not have sufficient time at my disposal for this very
. I began by transcribing five of the six interviews
myself. Briefly, and not wishing to gloss over the act of transcription as it is not the focus here,
I do not see transcripts as “providing ‘objective’ accounts of recorded data”
but rather as an act of re-presentation, an “aid” to help in my analysis. For the first three
participants I inserted my own thoughts as speech bubbles into the transcript when what I read
and heard resonated with me, in effect asking questions “after the event.” The emails were not
explicitly used during my reading but only as extra information was required.
By the fourth participant’s analysis I was becoming a little jaded with the format of
inserting comments so I experimented with something different. Based on Alan Bennett’s
Talking Heads I decided to construct the data as a three-act monologue, using the participant’s
own words from both her interview and her emails. She then read this through but did not
suggest any changes to what I had written. In fact, she kindly agreed to record it for me to use
in a workshop I was doing that summer on narrative inquiry.
Although I enjoyed writing the monologue I had to reduce it considerably in length to
a 6-minute monologue, so for the fifth participant I went, unintentionally, to the other extreme
and engaged in what became a thorough but very lengthy analysis using
Gilligan et al.’s (2006
The Listening Guide (LG). In this guide, interview transcripts are listened to four times (and
in my case I also read the emails) so that the researcher can focus on distinct aspects of the
participant’s experience. I also needed to be “present” in the listening, reflecting the key notion
in narrative inquiry of reflexivity. In this analysis the focus is on listening rather than reading,
although I did both as I adapted the method to suit my research purposes
(see also Mauthner &
Doucet, 1998; Woodcock, 2010)
It seemed to “tick all the boxes” and I did find the LG a fascinating way to analyse the
data because not only did it help me make sense of the complexity of what was being said on
the surface but it also gave me the security of a concrete set of guidelines. So why did I not
employ this framework for my actual doctoral study? Ironically, although I could adapt the
LG to suit my research purposes, I felt it was too rigid with too many steps and stages for my
research context. Coming to the end of that one analysis I realised I had written 12,000 words,
which meant that practicality had become an issue. I needed something more manageable for
myself and my readers. By the time I came to the sixth participant I had run out of steam and
out of time, which left me worrying about the ethics of having collected data but not using it.
After all, data collected need to be adequate but not excessive in order to protect the participants
and to ensure that principles of good practice, developed from the Data Protection Act, are
(e.g., Bond, 2009; Wood, 2005)
. A positive consequence of this, however, is that it
did help me in choosing only five participants for my actual study.
Despite my second attempt at constructing and analysing my data, I was still unsure
about how to do it for my actual doctoral study. In analysing part of Lucie’s oral narrative I
felt that the creativity was lacking; in analysing the pilot data I felt that something was missing;
I did not feel that I was really “getting” it (i.e., how to do the analysis). There seemed to be
more rather than fewer gaps in my “how to do narrative analysis...: knowledge. And I had even
more data to contend with than on both previous occasions.
The Third Stage: Decision Time
Admittedly by this point I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of
guidelines and concrete examples available. I had found only a handful of clear models in the
(e.g., Blumenreich, 2004)
but they were not entirely suitable for my own research
context. The gap in my knowledge of “how to analyse” still remained. I kept, if patchily, a
research journal throughout my five years of part-time study, and related to this gap I’d written:
“this is all quite overwhelming” and “how am I going to analyse all this?” If I sound like a
stuck record in repeating this point that is intentional as it aptly illustrates my frustration that
this was not a straightforward process of data analysis; remember the image of the swan?
Although I felt like I was returning to the drawing board I started searching for anything that
had been written and published on how to analyse narrative data, even at one point simply
googling “narrative analysis”. This just led me down more maze-like paths, so I decided to
start with what I had read right at the beginning, namely revisiting Riessman’s (2008) four
forms of analysis. I began by combining two of those: thematic and dialogic/performance.
The former focuses on the content (i.e., what is said) while the latter focuses on
storytelling as an activity and is interested in the “who, when and why”
(Riessman, 2008, p.
. Dialogic/performance analysis looks specifically at the dialogue between speakers, how
stories are performed within both their given contexts and their broader historical and cultural
contexts. Stories do not “fall from the sky...they are composed and received within contexts –
interactional, historical, institutional, and discursive...[and so are] social artifacts, telling us as
much about society and culture as they do about a person or group”
(Riessman, 2008, p. 105)
During the telling different roles are taken on by participants which leads to shifts in positioning
of the “performer.” Hence, storytelling includes what occurred both before and after the
. Dialogic/performance analysis also allows the researcher’s
own role and voice to be heard, so becoming “an active [and reflexive] presence in the text”
(Riessman, 2008, p. 105)
While this gave me a clear framework it still did not give me my much sought after and
increasingly elusive “how to analyse” guidelines. Since then I have read
clearly warns against giving “how to” methods, because these methods would end up being
pigeonholed, “causing you to search for where and how you can fit your data analysis into one
particular method” (p. 195). Instead, she advocates “exploiting the idea of surprise and
curiosity, creating a space where aims can be worked out, allowing room for less-familiar
possibilities and playing with new ideas” (ibid.). Of course this now makes sense, but at the
time I felt I was going one step forward and then two steps back. Eventually, and with deadlines
looming, I discovered Hunter’s (2010) article which focused on those challenges she faced in
narratively analysing her PhD data. What was particularly “comforting” as well as helpful was
her detail in outlining what she did to prepare and then write up her data for analysis. At last
– some answers. And yet as I started along her lines I quickly realised, as
that I couldn’t fit my data into her method, so I adapted the latter.
Preparing the Ground
In total over the academic year I had had three conversations with each of the five
participants at the end of each term. Initially I decided to transcribe the first set of conversations
myself and although I did, I found it a complex process because of my previous, extensive
experience transcribing using Conversation Analysis. How much detail should I put into the
transcriptions? After all, as a narrative inquiry and not a sociolinguistic approach did I need to
transcribe the “how” as well as the “what” which is so integral to a CA approach? What about
fillers (e.g., hmm...) and pause lengths, even approximate ones? Should laughter be added?
What about tone and intonation? Should stress on certain words and phrases be highlighted?
Transcription is both labour intensive and time consuming, and although I know it helps me
familiarise myself with the data, although I know it is necessarily an interpretive practice
(Mishler, 1991; Green et al., 1997)
, I not only wanted to avoid “reifying” transcripts (Riessman,
2008, p. 26) but was also teaching full-time so I had the remaining two sets of conversations
transcribed professionally which released me from many of these questions. Admittedly I did
not brief the transcriber but left any decisions to her as a professional academic transcriber.
Prior to the first conversation I had also emailed each participant a “background
questionnaire” with biographical questions amongst others which I could use in my first
interview (e.g., “why did you come to the UK to study?” and “thinking of your first term, how
would you describe your experiences using adjectives?”) and this information was included in
my notes on my first listening. To illustrate the remaining steps I have used extracts from field
texts in constructing Lucile’s narrative
(for Lucile’s whole1 narrative please see James, 2014)
Step 1: First Listening
My construction/analysis process was iterative in that I did not wait until the year was
over before beginning it but rather started after each conversation had been transcribed.
Additionally I was working full-time and studying part-time and needed therefore to utilise my
time judiciously, the first time listening to the transcription and making notes on what struck
me in the content. As well as writing my own questions and responses in note form to what
was said (which were then emailed to the participant or used as the starting point for the next
1 Although this sounds like a contradiction in terms as narratives are never complete, I am using the term “whole”
here simply to mean the narrative in its entirety from the academic year.
conversation) I also attempted to use the participant’s own language to “code” the data into
themes and sub-themes and noted “quotable quotes”
(Hunter, 2010, p. 50)
. This was not coding
as per the more traditional understanding but rather an attempt to impose some sense of order
on the data collected. I did not use the same “codes” for each participant as they are simply
what emerged organically from each. The result of Step 1 was a “spidergram” of notes (see
blue paper in Figure 1).
Step 2: Second Listening
An example to illustrate this stage is taken from Lucile’s first conversation with me in
December 2012, which lasted 40 minutes. While listening this time, 2-3 months later, I read
my notes from the first listening (on the blue paper – see Figure 1) and added to those, this time
ending up with a handwritten set of notes for each participant (see Figure 1). These included
the notes from the background questionnaire responses (on the left) and notes from the emails
sent in the second term (top right) for me to try and get a more holistic picture of the participant
before the second conversation. I also included follow-up questions for the next conversation
on post-it notes. The result of Step 2 was a large set of handwritten notes (see Figure 1).
Step 3: Third Listening
My third listening of Lucile’s first conversation came a few months later still. Below
is an extract from my notes, made on the computer this time. These six pages of notes were
now focused along “thematic” lines and for the sake of some sense of organisation were
structured around the questions I had asked during our conversation. This extract is based on
what she said after my question which asked her to elaborate on the adjectives she chose to
describe her first term:
Lucile’s first term was really positive, which was not what I expected to hear. She describes it as:
Why wasn’t I expecting to hear this? I guess I just assumed, based on what I’d heard generally from
students in previous years and some of the literature, that the first term in particular would always
be hard. But I am starting at the beginning of my time getting to know her, and of course her past
goes back way before London...
At the end of the notes I wrote:
Lucile’s key phrases (verbatim):
Everything is like a great experience; I’m really enjoying everything
I like to attend the lectures; I really enjoy coming and discussing and
I’m really exhausted
A big change
I have incredible role models
The result of Step 3 was the beginning of emergent themes.
Step 4: Summary
Once I had done the above for all three conversations I wrote a lengthy summary for
each interview from my notes, referring back to the transcript when necessary. I then wrote a
summary of all three interviews, using the key themes which had emerged from the above
listenings to guide me. In Lucile’s case the summary focused around three areas: her home
country (i.e., family, education, role models); the UK university she was studying at (i.e.,
reason for choosing the UK, a memorable experience, essays, grades); outside the university
(i.e., living in London, English culture, relaxing/free time, summing up her year) and finally
her home country again (i.e., future career and her forthcoming marriage).
I followed these four steps for each participant which explains why there were gaps
between listenings. I tried to listen to each recording three times, but what I am compelled to
admit here is that I did not adhere rigidly to this process; at times I only listened twice, choosing
instead to read the transcript a third time.
I realise that writing a summary could be construed as being reductionist, perhaps also
untrue to narrative inquiry’s ethos as well as the complexity of who we are as human beings
but this was not my intention; rather it was an attempt not only to make the data more
manageable but to try and create a coherent and holistic picture, at each stage, of each
participant. Throughout, I read and listened to the data, understanding all the while that
“analysis and writing up are interwoven processes”
(Hunter, 2010, p. 50)
Step 5: From Summary to Narrative
Once I had the summaries I could then construct a rough draft of each narrative in a
more discursive and arguably more creative form than the summaries, namely the “narrative
construction” I mentioned earlier. Here I needed to remember the three “commonplaces [of]
temporality, sociality, and place”
(Clandinin, Pushor, & Or, 2007, p. 23)
Temporality means looking towards the past, present and future of both Lucile and the
events she experienced. In her case, I chose to present her narrative as a blog and, while the
dates are fictional, the events/experiences portrayed are chronological in terms of following
her academic year. However, this linearity was not apparent during the data collection, partly
because Lucile needed a considerable amount of guiding to elicit lengthier responses, and
partly because we flitted back and forth across certain topics during each interview and the
three interviews as a whole and so they were at times repetitive (albeit from a varying
perspective as time influenced the re-telling of certain experiences). Sociality refers to the
social environment in which Lucile’s experiences were occurring: “these social conditions are
understood, in part, in terms of cultural, social, institutional, familial and linguistic narratives”
(Clandinin, 2013, p. 40)
. They emphasise the fact that all her (and indeed our) experiences
took place in specific contexts. Inherent in attending to sociality is the need to attend to inward,
personal conditions, namely Lucile’s emotions and moral responses to her experiences.
Sociality also encompasses the relationship between the researcher and the participant, most
clearly exhibited in Lucile’s narrative as I was commenting directly on what she had said in
her blog. The last commonplace, that of place, is attending to the physical space and boundaries
within which Lucile’s experiences occur, whether that was at the university, in her
accommodation, in London or at home in Uruguay. At this step I also included data from their
background questionnaires along with various email exchanges sent throughout the year.
In constructing the narratives I was aiming for something which would “glow with life”
(Ely, 2007, p. 569)
and in the spirit of a narrative inquiry I wanted to compel the reader to an
emotional response in which “alternative readings and multiple interpretations”
Bochner, 2000, p. 745)
were possible. In the final narratives
(see James, 2014)
I therefore offer
one possible interpretation, but in fact personal narratives
long to be used rather than analysed; to be told and retold rather than theorised
and settled; to offer lessons for further conversation rather than undebatable
conclusions; and to substitute the companionship of intimate detail for the
loneliness of abstracted facts.
(Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 744)
Although “narrative [does not reflect] ‘the’ reality, with the help of the reader, narrative creates
a version of reality”
(Ely, 2007, p. 571)
I presented the narratives through the format of a student magazine, inspired by Ely
(2007, p. 569) who wrote that “people must want to read what we wrote, must want to stay”.
She also emphasised that researchers have a responsibility to honour the stories of those who
provided us with the information and I wanted to do that. So, what would make me stay? I
thought of a student magazine because my participants were students but also because I could
be creative in the way in which I re-presented each narrative (e.g., a blog in Lucile’s case).
At the beginning of each narrative I briefly explained my rationale for why I chose the format
Lucile’s was the first narrative I constructed, and I decided on a blog as I
wanted to be able to insert my own thoughts and comments throughout, some of
which were spoken aloud at the time and some of which were added
retrospectively while constructing her narrative. Initially I had planned to
incorporate the literature in the narratives, and the “comment” allowed me to
do that. After writing the first draft, however, I decided to allow the narrative
to speak for itself and include the literature in a later chapter. The blog was
structured chronologically according to Lucile’s academic year although the
dates do not accurately correspond to the events described.
The other formats I used were a newspaper article, a series of emails home, a series of
personal journal entries and a semi-fictional story
(see James, 2014, as space does not permit
me to further exemplify this here)
. As far as possible, I used my participants’ words verbatim
because I wanted them to be situated at the centre of my research, not me
. So I
became “off centre,” not removed entirely. Four of the five participants kindly read through
their narratives and emailed me brief reflections. Lucile for example emailed:
I loved to read what you wrote. I think that you understood what I was
experiencing... Thank you for sending me the document, it was great to read my
feelings and to remember my experience told by myself in the past (email
communication, 26 May 2014).
I liked the creativity and variety that these presentational forms afforded, enabling me to
communicate “different meanings and emphases via their different conventions. They help us
to tell the stories of our research. A shower of possibilities”
(Ely, 2007, p. 572.)
Briefly, the final part of this process was the more traditionally understood “analysis
and discussion,” where I used the narratives to locate themes that emerged both within and
across the five narratives. This was not an attempt at reductionism or seeking to draw
generalisations; rather it was an attempt to see what the narratives highlighted both individually
and corporately. I had decided, somewhat unconventionally but to me in keeping with the
creativity which narrative inquiry affords, to combine the more traditional “literature review
and discussion” section regarding these key themes and present them after the narratives as
“Letters to the Editor”, in keeping with the format of the student magazine which I had used to
portray the five narratives. I wanted to use the format of “letters” to give me the freedom to
write each (of five) letters from a differing viewpoint, and I wrote:
Letters to the Editor are those which praise, clarify and refute (among other
things) what has already been written elsewhere. In writing these letters, I am
incorporating what the literature says regarding issues of student transition as
well as reflecting on this. The five letters highlight key themes/issues emerging
primarily from the narratives, some of which converge and some of which
diverge from what already exists in the literature… I have written these five
“letters” from a variety of perspectives so that I can use a different voice and
therefore style in each; in doing so I hope to foreground matters which vary in
according to each writer.
(James, 2014, p. 132)
The first letter, for example, was entitled Educational transitions – an overview and was
written by A Researcher. This allowed me to reflect the style of a more traditional and
impersonal literature review (see James, 2014, for the entire chapter).
Lessons Learned from Each “Foray”
In this paper I have attempted to describe, partly in the form of my own personal
narrative, the struggles and joys, twists and turns of analysing my doctoral data narratively.
This has included specific practical steps I took along the way, whether these were fruitful and
led somewhere or whether they led me down a cul-de-sac, causing me to retrace my steps and
The thematic/dialogic analytical framework I eventually decided on, having come
almost full circle, seemed to suit my aim in focusing both on the content as well as the act of
storytelling. Combining the what, who, when and why more or less mirrored
three commonplaces of temporality, sociality and place. It also allowed me
as the researcher to be a reflexive presence. The concrete steps and stages for this framework,
however, came from
, allowing me to adapt her method and “play with new
(Kim, 2016, p. 195)
to suit my own research context.
In my first foray, structural analysis, while interesting from a linguistic perspective, felt
rather clinical and lacked creativity. It was nevertheless a clear lesson in how taking an
“offthe-shelf” model of analysis was beset with problems when applied to a unique personal
narrative. I also realised that I was using the model for a purpose for which it had never been
intended, namely an oral narrative, but one originating from within the confines of an interview
rather than in spontaneous conversation.
Then in my second foray, for my pilot data collection, I transcribed five of the six
interviews and for the first three I inserted speech bubbles representing my own thoughts as I
read and listened to the interview. But this quickly became repetitive and risked turning a
potentially rich source of data into something humdrum because I was simply going through
the motions. Attempting to interject some variety for the fourth interview, therefore, I
constructed a three-act monologue using both the interview and emails, which the participant
then kindly recorded for me. The downside of this method was having to reduce it considerably
to last no longer than six minutes, otherwise I felt I would risk losing the interest of those in
the workshop I had planned to play it to. My final method at this stage was to follow
et al.’s (2006
) Listening Guide, listening four times to the interview, each time focusing on a
different aspect of the experience. Although this was a concrete set of guidelines to follow, the
resulting analysis was too long and the practicality of doing this for five participants then
Summary of My Unique Contribution to the Data Analysis Method
My own unique contribution to the method I finally used focused heavily on both
listening to and reading the interview and other data (see Appendix 1 for a tabular
representation). In some senses I was not methodical in how I approached the analysis of each
interview because sometimes I listened and sometimes I read, sometimes both, making notes
in the margins of the transcriptions. This was somewhat ironic, as I had started my journey
wanting something rigid and methodical and is a clear illustration of how narrative inquirers
do not emerge from their research unchanged. My method represents both a mix of other
methods I tried and tested as well as a subjective approach to this whole process: I embodied
fluidity in not being restricted to one method, using parts of others to suit my own research
context. In the process I devised something which both suits me and reminds me of Pick’n’mix
sweets, but not because I intentionally set out to do this; rather, I have done what Kim (2016,
p. 195) among others advocates, namely "exploiting the idea of surprise and curiosity, creating
a space…allowing room…[and] playing with new ideas” instead of forcing my data and its
analysis to fit one method, bringing to mind the metaphor of trying to fit a square peg into a
round hole. Playing with new ideas was particularly evident in my use of a student magazine
to highlight and utilise a variety of discourse genres for the narratives, a refreshingly creative
way for me of presenting data and re-presenting the five participants’ experiences. A
cautionary note needs to be made here, though, namely that just because I used this method for
this research does not mean that I will follow it rigidly by using it in its current form (see
Appendix 1) for future research. Each narrative inquiry data analysis must suit its own unique
and particular context to itself avoid becoming an “off-the-shelf model.” In this way methods
of narrative data analysis are fluid and organic, each of which should perhaps be presented as
a process for other researchers to ponder on and can be used as guidelines or as springboards
for creativity, not as a blueprint to be replicated exactly.
Re-presenting someone else’s – and my own – experience in such a way is not a simple
or straightforward process. As Hunter (2010, p. 50) writes, it “needs to be done with respect
and humility” and to do justice to my five participants who so generously gave of themselves,
narrative inquiry was the most appropriate methodology through which to approach this
considerable task. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that there is no one way
to analyse data narratively, and to have approached it in such a manner was both naïve and
erroneous. This may seem an obvious realisation but it is also part of developing ‘the maturity
and experience that are required to be a good narrative researcher’
(Kim, 2016, p. 2)
. Kim also
writes that it takes years to develop these characteristics and that she is “still working at it”
(ibid.), as am I. Diversity characterises narrative inquiry and should not be something we shy
away from because of its concomitant complexity; rather it is something to be celebrated.
Appendix 1: “my” method Step 1: first listening/reading
made notes on what struck me in the content/conversation
wrote my own questions and responses in note form to what
was said (used as the starting point for the next conversation
used participant’s own language to “code” data into themes
noted “quotable quotes”
(Hunter, 2010, p. 50)
Result: “spidergram” type notes of the conversation (on blue
Done 2-3 months later (just before the second research
Read my notes from the first listening (on blue paper) and
added to those
+ notes from background questionnaire
+ follow-up questions for the next conversation on post-its
Result: handwritten set of notes (see image)
Again, done 2-3 months later (before the third and final
Notes made on the computer this time focused along
“thematic” lines; structured around the questions asked
during the conversation
Selected key phrases (in Lucile’s own words), for example,
Everything is like a great experience; I’m really exhausted…
Result: beginnings of emerging themes
Repeated the above for all three conversations, then wrote a
lengthy summary for each interview from my notes, referring
back to the transcript when necessary (used the key themes
which had emerged from the above listenings/readings to
Lucile (3 key areas):
- her home country (i.e., family, education, role models)
- the UK university she was studying at (i.e., reason for
choosing the UK, a memorable experience, essays,
- outside the university (i.e., living in London, English
culture, relaxing/free time, summing up her year)
- her home country again (i.e., future career and
5: from summary
(Barone, 2007, p. 456)
, that is, rough
draft of the narrative in a more discursive (and arguably more
creative) form than the summaries
compelling the reader to an emotional response in which
“alternative readings and multiple interpretations”
Bochner, 2000, p. 745)
student magazine (blog, newspaper article, series of emails
home, series of personal journal entries, a semi-fictional
co-constructed narratives (4 of 5 read through and emailed
me back reflections)
Dr. Gwyneth James is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University
of Hertfordshire. Her research interests are using narrative inquiry and autoethnography to
research student experience, teacher resilience and the relationship between language, identity,
culture and music. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to
The author thanks two previous reviewers for their helpful feedback on this article.
Copyright 2017: Gwyneth James and Nova Southeastern University.
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