NARRATIVE ANALYSIS                             Dr Chris Griffin


(From Lawler chapter in May: ‘Qualitative Research in Action’)


Narrative analysis:


·        focuses on “the ways in which people make and use stories to interpret the world”


·        does NOT treat narratives as stories that transmit a set of facts about the world, and is not primarily interested in whether stories are ‘true’ or not (so is closer to social contructionism than positivist approach)


·        views narratives as social products that are produced by people in the context of specific social, historical and cultural locations


·        views narratives as interpretive devices through which people represent themselves and their worlds to themselves and to others



Narrative theory argues that:


·        people produce accounts of themselves that are ‘storied’ (ie. that are in the form of stories/narratives)


·        the social world is itself ‘storied’ (ie. ‘piblic’ stories circulate in popular culture, providing means people can use to construct personal identities and personal narratives). Ricoeur argues that narrative is a key means through which people produced an identity.


·        Some of most interview accounts are likely to be ‘storied’ (ie. in narrative form)


·        Narratives link the past to the present, but …


·        There is no ‘unbiased account of the past





Narrative can be characterised by:


·        Accounts which contain an element of transformation (ie. change over time)


·        Accounts containing some kind of action and characters


·        That are brought together in a plot line




·        narratives have a temporal dimension


·        characters and actions can be imaginary/fantasy


·        ‘emplotment’ is a process through which narratives are produced: many disparate elements go together to make up one story (eg. digressions, sub-plots etc.)


·        Narratives must have a point (a ‘so what?’ factor), which often takes the form of a moral message



Research Methods and Narrative Analysis


Research that focuses on the role of narrative:


·        Usually involves life story research or oral history


·        Usually adopts a qualitative approach, using semi-structured interviews rather than questionnaires


·        Usually the researcher says very little, acting primarily as an attentive listener, but …


·        All narratives are always co-constructed, even if the audience is oneself or an imaginary other, or if the story is told to oneself in the form of a daydream


Structuralist approaches to narrative:

eg. Propp, 1968 / Labov, 1973


(from Silverman’ 2nd edition, ‘Interpreting Qualitative Data’)


Narratives can take different forms, and Propp (1968) argued that:


·        The Fairytale involves a narrative form that is central to all story-telling


·        The Fairytale is structured not by the nature of the characters but by the function they play in the plot


·        And the number of possible functions is fairly small



Example:                  (Using Propp’s approach)


Most fairytales follow a similar plot line…


‘A dragon kidnaps the king’s daughter’


Element                    Function                   Replacement


Dragon                     Evil force                   Witch


King                            Ruler                           Chief


Daughter                 Loved one                Wife


Kidnap                      Disappearance      Vanish


Now – can you do the same using ‘Star Wars’ as an example?




Narrative Theory: Approaches to the study of narrative

(a partial and incomplete list)


a)                Structural analysis: eg. Labov, 1973

Focus on story grammar


b)                Sociology of stories approach: eg. Plummer, 1996

Focus on cultural, historical and political context in which particular stories are (or can be) told by whom and to whom (eg. ‘coming out stories’)


c)                 Functional approach: eg. Bruner, 1990

Focus on what work particular stories do in people’s lives


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Examples of structural analyses of narrative


Labov, 1973                                                 Stein, 1979


1)         Setting/ orientation                                  1)         Setting

Abstract/ summary of story                   


2)         Initiating event                                          2)         Initiating event


3)         Complicating action                                3)         Internal reaction/

response of protagonist


4)         Resolution/ result of action                     4)         Action by

                                                                                    protagonist to deal

                                                                                    with situation


5)         Evaluation/ point of story                       5)         Consequence of



6)         Coda/ return speaker to                         6)         Reaction to events/

                     present                                                                        moral of tale



Bruner, 1990: ‘Acts of Meaning’


**       Functional analysis of story-telling as a means of conveying meaning


**       Functions of narrative = solving problems

                                                = tension reduction

                                                = resolution of dilemmas


**       Narratives allow us to deal with and explain mismatches between the exceptional and the ordinary.  When events occur that we perceive as ordinary, then explanations are not required.


**       Narratives allow us to re-cast chaotic experiences into causal stories in order to make sense of them, and to render them safe.


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Canonical Narratives


**       Narratives of ‘folk psychology’ (or ‘common sense’) summarise ‘how things are’ and (often implicitly) how they should be.


**       When we perceive that things are ‘as they should be’, the narratives of folk psychology are unnecessary.


**       Narratives are a unique way of managing departures from the canonical


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