‘You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool of water, and you were afraid of drowning’

One of the challenges in narrative interviewing is the defended interviewee. This, from some Sparknow materials on narrative research.

‘In any research topic, there are two overarching questions that have to be addressed: what is the object of the enquiry and how can it be enquired into.’ [Doing qualitative research differently: free association, narrative and the interview method’ Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony, Sage 2000]

Hollway and Jefferson draw examples from their Economic and Social Research Council project on ‘Gender difference, anxiety and the fear of crime.’ The authors aim is to recognise and question generalisations of fear and crime from the British Crime Survey (BSC) e.g. Are women afraid of the dark? The problem is that if you ask a woman if she is afraid of the dark, you are likely to be asking altogether the wrong question to find and in some way be able to assess her experience comparatively with those of other interviewees.

Some of the things we have learned about about how to find the essential story, rather than have people leap over it include

• be a good listener and the interviewee is a storyteller, not just a respondent to an interview question
• use open ended not closed questions, and use the questions as storytelling invitations
• avoid ‘why’ questions, they lead to intellectualisations, abstractions, disconnections (this comes from appreciative inquiry)
• seek not to be a visible asker of questions, instead to be an almost invisible, facilitating catalyst to stories – if necessary find indirect and gentle ways to pick up on gaps, omissions, hesitations and pauses to give you, as an interview pair, a chance to go deeper and find their meaning
• seek not to offer judgements, or lead, but use the subject’s ordering and language to retain their meaning frames without offering interpretations or judgements
• invite metaphor and vivid language which might deepen and enrich insight into aspects of the experience which would probably not be visible by using more traditional methods (what does fear feel like? what does pain feel like? these emotions are only accessible to the listener through metaphor and analogy)
• allow the story to emerge uninterrupted – leave it until later to follow up on facts, omissions, spellings, details which trigger curiosity
• take extensive fieldnotes

The narrative enquirer is always tussling with questions of accuracy, comparability and representativeness. How the storytellers motivations, memories and anxieties affect the telling? How do the tellers assumptions about what the listener is looking for, or about some social gap between teller and listener affect the story? How does the listeners need for coherence and patterns close their ears to the importance of fragments, trailings off, pauses and omissions?

There are particular, ironic, challenges in narrative research, in that the tendency is to recall a well rehearsed story. And a well rehearsed story or ‘whole’ episode is likely to contain drama. Indeed the insight we seek may not qualify, in the mind of the subject, as a story at all. So we need to look for gaps and hidden qualities and apparent ‘nothings’, as well as the more evident something which story-seeking questions throw up.

There is something beyond the ‘nothings’ which is the hiddens, and these may, or may not be, easy or appropriate to identify. In his book ‘The Gate of the Sun’ Elias Khoury weaves together true life stories of Lebanese refugee camps into a fictional setting. At one point, the narrator is talking to a someone in a coma and he says

‘You only spoke about one woman, and even that one you only talked about a little. Piecing the tale together and arranging or scattered sentences, I turned it into a story. But you only mentioned love incidentally. You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool and you were afraid of drowning.’

This can happen with narrative research too. Sometimes, interviewees will jump over the essential story ‘as though it was a pool’ and the interviewer must judge whether it is appropriate to pay attention to this or not.

There is also the temptation to draw on other observations, outside the actual product of the interviews between researcher and subject. There needs to be agreement as to the degree to which inference is valid or peripheral vision – things noticed which creep beyond the scope of the specific piece of research – should be permitted.

In addition, the positioning of the researchers needs to be considered. They need to be seen as clearly kinds of episodes collected through narrative research are, in part, skewed by the assumption of an authority figure and the relationship of the subject with faceless authority figures in general. One challenge we have found in our interviewing and facilitation work is the casting of our interviewers and facilitators as witnesses, not as pushers or snoops for the mangers who generally commission us.

The challenges of developing consistent standards in this kind of approach are compounded by Sparknow’s particular leaning towards collaborative enquiry, working in partnership with untrained volunteers in the client to build a sharper provocation and a deeper set of insights, while risking a more uneven, subjective and rawer approach. We take the view that this kind of situated learning has a value in its own right. But it’s not easy to pull off.

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