Navigating Narrative Research & the Depths of the Lived Experience

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 298-300).

Narrative research investigates the stories of what narrative researchers call “lived experiences.” These may be firsthand experiences of Navigating the lived experienceindividuals, groups, organizations, and even governments. Regardless of the entity, it is the story that is the case or object of attention and the focal point of the research. Unlike the structured or semi-structured in-depth interview (IDI), where the interviewer–interviewee relationship is directed by the researcher’s question agenda that serves to extract information from the interviewee, the narrative researcher allows the narrator (i.e., the interviewee in narrative research) to be the guide, welcoming the narrator’s stories wherever they may lead, by conducting a form of unstructured IDI whereby the researcher makes broad inquiries such as, “Tell me what happened when you joined the Army,” “Tell me about your life as a health care worker,” “Tell me how you became a regular coffee drinker.”*

The belief in narrative research is that it is the narrated story—whether told orally, via some form of text or documents, and/or through the use of visual data (e.g., photographs, video, drawings)—that allows researchers to learn about individuals, society, and history, and that, indeed, “narrative inquiry [is] the study of experience as story” (Clandinin, Pushor, & Orr, 2007, p. 22).

For the most part, there are three (not mutually exclusive) ways to consider narrative inquiry, by the type of:

  • Narrative being studied: for example, life history, life story, biography, autobiography, or autoethnography.
  • Analytical approach used by the researcher: for example, thematic, structural, dialogical/performance, or visual (Riessman, 2008).
  • Scholarly discipline applied to the research: for example, psychology, sociology, or education.

The variations of narrative research across fields of study demonstrate that there is no one way to think about narrative inquiry and, indeed, the three delineated types of approaches—narrative, analytical, and discipline—are often co-mingled. For example, various factions of psychology have embraced the use of narrative: with heroin addicts to understand “how individuals phenomenologically wrestle with decisions at crucial transition points in their lives” (Singer, 2013, p. 46); in identity research, by which people’s life stories can be analyzed from multiple perspectives, including the “small stories” within the “big stories” (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008), as well as the conditions that shape their stories and how the stories shape their life experiences (Esteban-Guitart, 2012); and to explore the connection between social stigma (e.g., not being accepted, being the target of discrimination) and intimacy in same-sex relationships (Frost, 2013).

Sociologists such as Cederberg (2014) have considered the biographical narratives of migrants and how public discourse potentially molds these narratives of their lived experiences. And Luttrell (2003), also a sociologist, elicited visual and performance narratives from pregnant teenagers who were better able to express their life stories in these less structured approaches than in response to conventional narrative interviews, explaining that “the more I stayed out of their way, the more the girls would talk and free associate while doing these self-representations activities. For me, this meant giving up my more immediate desire to ask questions, make sense of, or put order into the girls’ creative expression or their conversations” (p. 150).

Scholars from many other disciplines are also using narrative research. For example, educational researchers such as Clandinin and Connelly (1998) used “narrative histories” to study school reform by investigating the school as a “living place” where “teachers and the principal come to the landscape living and telling a complex set of interwoven stories of themselves as teachers, of children in this school, of the community” (p. 160). Austin and Carpenter (2008) used narrative research with mothers of children who are “disruptive” in the classroom (i.e., who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) to explore the “harsh and judgmental treatment” these mothers experience “from medical professionals, teachers, friends and family” (p. 379).

Examples of the anthropological uses of narrative include such work as the analysis of the narrative elements in Eskimo folktales (Colby, 1973), and the use of historical narratives as “cultural tools” to examine the presentation of events in post-Soviet Russian textbooks (Wertsch, 2000). Communication and health care researchers have explored “illness narratives” by way of online conversations among people suffering from drug addiction in order to understand their life experiences and the effectiveness of online support (Jodlowski, Sharf, Nguyen, Haidet, & Woodard, 2007). Scholars in social work have demonstrated the challenges and benefits of conducting narrative research with marginalized segments of the population, such as teenage mothers (Harlow, 2009), young people from the child welfare system (Martin, 1998), and heterosexual serodiscordant couples (Poindexter, 2003). And, social scientists engaged in performance studies, such as Madison (2003), have used the performing arts to communicate the stories of significant political moments in history.

Navigating the waters of narrative research is a rewarding experience that takes the researcher into the uncharted depths of human behavior and attitudes to exact meaning and bring about change for the social good.

* The critical role that storytelling plays in research methods is also discussed in this Research Design Review article.


Austin, H., & Carpenter, L. (2008). Troubled, troublesome, troubling mothers: The dilemma of difference in women’s personal motherhood narratives. Narrative Inquiry, 18(2), 378–392.

Bamberg, M., & Georgakopoulou, A. (2008). Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis. Text & Talk, 28(3), 377–396.

Cederberg, M. (2014). Public discourses and migrant stories of integration and inequality: Language and power in biographical narratives. Sociology, 48(1), 133–149.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1998). Stories to live by: Narrative understandings of school reform. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(2), 149–164.

Clandinin, D. J., Pushor, D., & Orr, A. M. (2007). Navigating sites for narrative inquiry. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(1), 21–35.

Colby, B. N. (1973). A partial grammar of Eskimo folktales. American Anthropologist, 75(3), 645–662.

Esteban-Guitart, M. (2012). Towards a multimethodological approach to identification of funds of identity, small stories and master narratives. Narrative Inquiry, 22(1), 173–180.

Frost, D. M. (2013). Stigma and intimacy in same-sex relationships: A narrative approach. Qualitative Psychology, 1(S), 49–61.

Harlow, E. (2009). Eliciting narratives of teenage pregnancy in the UK: Reflexively exploring some of the methodological challenges. Qualitative Social Work, 8(2), 211–228.

Jodlowski, D., Sharf, B. F., Nguyen, L. C., Haidet, P., & Woodard, L. D. (2007). “Screwed for life”: Examining identification and division in addiction narratives. Communication & Medicine, 4(1), 15–26.

Luttrell, W. (2003). Pregnant bodies, fertile minds: Gender, race and the schooling of pregnant teens. New York: Routledge.

Madison, D. S. (2003). Performance, personal narratives, and the politics of possibility. In Y. S. Lincoln & N. K. Denzin (Eds.), Turning points in qualitative research: Tying knots in a handkerchief (Vol. 3, pp. 469–486). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Martin, F. E. (1998). Tales of transition: Self-narrative and direct scribing in exploring care-leaving. Child & Family Social Work, 3(1), 1–12.

Poindexter, C. C. (2003). Sex, drugs, and love among the middle aged: A case study of a serodiscordant heterosexual couple coping with HIV. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 3(2), 57–83.

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

Singer, J. A. (2013). Living in the amber cloud: A life story analysis of a heroin addict. Qualitative Psychology, 1(S), 33–48.

Wertsch, J. V. (2000). Narratives as cultural tools in sociocultural analysis: Official history in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Ethos, 28(4), 511–533.


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