“Tell Me What Happened” & Other Stories

Storytelling is the ultimate goal of all research.  In the end, researchers of all kinds are in the business of understanding how people think, and what better way than to hear their stories.  Storytelling may sound like something only qualitative researchers first finally next after then lastshould care about but survey researchers, knowingly or not, are equally concerned about the stories people have to tell.  The brouhaha over Gallup’s failure to correctly predict the winner of the 2012 presidential election is a case in point.  One of the fundamental weaknesses that contributed to the Gallup polls favoring a Romney win is how Gallup went about determining likely voters, including respondents’ past voting behavior and how much attention they were paying to the election.  Like all pollsters, Gallup simply used the responses to these and other questions to calculate which respondents were most likely to vote in the national election.  One of the problems that Gallup ran into, however, is that “many” of the Obama voters claimed not to be paying much attention to the election which, of course, disqualified them as likely voters.  In essence, Gallup simply wanted to know each respondent’s story pertaining to their likelihood of voting but instead built a model on misguided closed-ended questions.  Who knows?  Maybe the stories from one question – “Tell me how you feel about voting in the presidential election.” – would have allowed Gallup to more accurately isolate likely voters.

“Tell me what happened when you joined the Army.”  “Tell me about your professional life.”  “Tell me how you became a regular coffee drinker.”  These are the inquiries of narrative research.  The narrative researcher is focused on participants’ stories – what they say, how they say it, why they say it, and the context in which they say it.  In narrative research, the story is the data.  The story is not a vehicle by which to convey meaning from in-depth interviews or group discussions (for example), or provide anecdotal accounts of observations.  Rather, the story is the focus, and only by taking in a holistic view of the narrative can the researcher truly interpret the outcomes.  By definition, this holistic approach mandates a story told not just by way of a single method but by a variety of methods that serve to complete the “narrative environment.”  Susan Chase (2011) for instance, writes about her study of diversity issues at “City University” and how her understanding of the narrative environment was informed by way of interviews, observations, and content analyses of college publications, the curriculum, and the website.

Everybody loves a good story.  But a good story is not worth much in the land of research without a plan for analysis.  A good story is just a form of entertainment – something we amuse our clients with to pique their interest in what we do – unless the researcher designs an analytical approach that keeps the story intact while addressing research objectives.  Catherine Riessman talks about thematic analysis (“what” is said), structural analysis (“how” it is said), dialogic/performance analysis (“who” it is said to, “when,” and “why”), and, when visual images are involved, visual analysis (conducted by applying the other analytical schemes).  Whatever the strategy for analysis, what is important is that the narrative be understood in its entirety, with the understanding that “stories don’t fall from the sky” (Riessman, 2008) but rather are ensconced in the contexts, complexities, and circumstances of the narrator.

Narrative research reminds researchers of the pesky inconvenient truth that research data that lies in a vacuum – stripped of its context, supporting evidence, and interpretation – is pretty pointless.  Moderators may engage their group participants with story-telling exercises – “Tell us about the first time you went skydiving.” – that are fun for those on both sides of the mirror, and pollsters may continue to label likely voters by way of a series of closed-ended questions and algorithms, but only a holistic account of the story that is waiting to be told and an honest analysis of the story as data will give the researcher what storytelling can do so well – an understanding of how people think.

Chase, S. E. (2011). Narrative inquiry: Still a field in the making. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research2 (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


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