Narrative Research: Considerations in Gathering Quality Data

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 317-318).

The in-depth interview method most often used in narrative research takeStorytellings the form of the unstructured interview where the interviewer is not so much equipped with a series of questions or topics as a reminder of the research objective and areas where clarification or words of encouragement may be particularly appropriate. In lieu of a formal interview guide, the interviewer may want to enlist certain aids. For instance, Elliott (2005) suggests using a “life history grid” (e.g., a spreadsheet with each row representing a specific year and the columns used to record life events) to facilitate biographical interviews when narrators may need some structure in which to place their life events, beyond an open-ended question such as “Tell me about your life.” A Total Quality Framework approach to narrative research fully supports the life history grid and other tools that may enable the narrative researcher to obtain more complete and accurate data that ultimately lead to more credible and useful outcomes.

Another important consideration when conducting narrative research, particularly in the in-person mode, is the very close relationship that is likely to develop between the interviewer and the storyteller. For this reason, the researcher must vigilantly guard against biasing some or all of the story that is told by the participant due to his/her behavior. This biasing can result from behaviors that are within the control of the interviewer (e.g., facial expressions that signal agreement or disagreement with what is being said, making evaluative comments about what is being said, paying closer attention to some parts of what is being said and less attention to other parts) and/or from characteristics that are part of the interviewer’s own physical (e.g., hairstyle, body art, demographic characteristics) and behavioral (e.g., voice parameters, gesticulations) nature. Although it is true that the mere interaction of the interviewer with the narrator serves to shape the outcomes to some degree, researchers should be aware of, and consciously work to avoid, as much as is practicable, these potential biasing effects—that can lead to inaccuracies in the recording and interpretation of a narrator’s story. With this in mind, it is strongly advised that the interviewer record his/her behavior or characteristics that possibly affected the data in a reflexive journal, which should be kept throughout the period of interaction the interviewer has with the storyteller.

Similarly, researchers in narrative research must guard against the narrator’s telling of a story in ways that are wholly fictitious (untrue), embellished, and/or incomplete, including telling only part of the story and contextualizing some parts in a manner that leads to a misinterpretation of what actually took place. The storyteller may do this consciously (e.g., actively try to impress the interviewer) or unconsciously (e.g., succumb to the general tendency of humans to paint themselves in the best possible light by giving a socially desirable depiction of events or feelings). Indeed, narratives represent what Gubrium and Holstein (2008) call a “complex stock of ingredients” that reflect an “interplay between experience, storying practices, descriptive resources, purposes at hand, audiences, and the environments that condition storytelling” (p. 250). And, although it is important for the researcher to be aware of these complexities, it is also important to acknowledge what the researcher can and cannot affect in terms of the ultimate quality of the outcomes.

Elliott, J. (2005). Using narrative in social research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. London: Sage Publications.

Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (2008). Narrative ethnography. In S. Hesse-Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of emergent methods (pp. 241–264). New York: The Guilford Press.

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