Two weeks have gone by very quickly! Several posts I composed in my head on a run or waiting in line at the grocery store have come and gone in relevance. Ah well. What I do have time to post this week are these instructions for my students about how to begin a narrative analysis of a sample of journal-style blog posts. I know how excited I was last semester to find Josephine Ensign’s posts about how she teaches close reading to students (links provided below) so I decided this blog post of mine could do triple duty: it will give my students a place to find the assignment, it makes it available for anyone else who could use it, and it will enable me to get something posted this week rather than going another week with radio silence! So here goes….instructions to my students (and anyone else who might find this useful):
Narrative Analysis Prep Work Assignment
Some of you may use this method for your final paper and then I’d encourage you to do ALL of he steps for a batch of stories; however, for our class session, I’ll invite you to do enough of the steps to give you a feel for the process (e.g., step 2 for all five assigned blog posts, all the parts of step 3 for one post so you can see how they might complement one another, and then one part of step 3 for all the posts so you can see the value of comparison and contrast). I hope to demystify the process of qualitative analysis for you and that your prep work will give you insight into how to make connections between data and theory (and back again and again).
NOTE: The ideas that follow here aren’t original to me–they are my attempt to be explicit about some of the steps I take as I’m getting started with some stories I’ve collected. Step 3, in particular, developed from the close reading drills developed by Rita Charon and Josephine Ensign (citations and links are provided at the end of this post).
Step 1: Find the stories. I’ve done this for you but it’s worth mentioning that deciding what “counts” as a story is a part of the analysis that relies on some theoretical assumptions about what constitutes a “narrative” and what kinds of texts are productively approached through narrative analysis. One aspect of this step that I will ask you to consider for our class is this: How do you treat the “comments” that follow some of these blog posts? Are they part of a collaboratively told story? Are they clues to actual or preferred interpretations to the story? Are they (sometimes) stories of their own?
Step 2: Read the story through to get a sense for it. Don’t look for anything in particular; allow yourself to be moved, surprised, confused, informed, and/or entertained! Mark anything that catches your attention.
Step 3: Look for narrative components. Now it’s time to be more systematic. Read one story at a time through once for each of the following attributes (don’t try to do multiple things at once) and jot down some observations—you don’t necessarily need to answer every single question, just think of these as prompts to clarify what I mean by “content,” “plot,” and so on.
- CONTENT If someone were to ask you, “what is this story about?” how would you answer? Is there a point or moral of the story? Do you recognize any themes in the content that you have seen in other stories?
- PLOT How does this story unfold? Where does it begin, and then what happens, and then what happens, and how does it end? Where are the peaks and valleys in the action? Can you identify a puzzle, problem, or conflict that is eventually resolved?
- CHARACTERS Who (and sometimes also “what”) are the actors in the story? Who is central and who is peripheral? From whose point of view is the story told? Who acts and who is acted upon? Do you recognize types of characters that are familiar from other stories?
- STYLE How would you describe the tone (e.g., formal/casual, serious/humorous, lush/spare, chatty, snarky, artsy)? What do you notice about the way language is used (e.g., repetition, dialogue or reported speech, metaphors)?
- CONTEXT Where did this story appear? How would you characterize the genre? Who appears to be the audience (and on what do you base that inference)? What do you know (or what do you find yourself assuming) about the author, medium, or events that shapes your interpretation? What do you need to know, or wish you knew, to understand some aspect of the story?
- WHAT’S NOT THERE Consider how any of the previous attributes of the story could have been otherwise: said a different way, organized a different way, evaluated a different way. Whose perspective or what events may be missing (and what difference might that make)? What assumptions do you need to share or make in order for the story to make sense?
For each of these features of the narrative, keep an eye out both for coherence (ways that things fit together and are mutually reinforcing) AND look for dissonance (contradictions; tensions; marked changes; subsidiary themes, voices, or styles). Don’t try to make things too neat or rush to find themes or patterns. Try to stay close to the data. Be mindful of theoretical concepts you know that may be relevant (including what you read in my chapter about open future and community responsibility), but hold them loosely.
Step 4: Develop tentative proposals, conclusions, questions. You now have “memos” that become a secondary source of text for analysis. When you’ve read and memo-ed all of the assigned stories, go back through your memos and formulate some tentative proposals, conclusions or questions. Did you notice any patterns? Themes? Puzzles? As you think about your initial experience of reading the stories, do you notice any points of connection or insight? Has your understanding and/or reaction to any of the stories changed?
Step 5: Check out your tentative proposals, conclusions, or questions. Ideally, you’d find more data (more stories, interviews, field notes, etc.) and put them into conversation with what you’ve noticed so far but as this is a class exercise, and not (yet) your research project, our next step will be to talk to others who have read these stories (that is, class discussion). Please bring your marked up copies of the stories, your memos, and your tentative proposals etc. to class for discussion with classmates.
I hope these steps can help you get started with narrative analysis and that going through them clarifies how a narrative analysis is both similar to and different from other kinds of qualitative, interpretive approaches. Once you’ve found a narrative pattern or question, there will be other specific concepts and theoretical frameworks that can help you hone in on that (e.g., theories of metaphor or narrative structure).
Some useful sources for narrative analysis how-to:
The components of step 3 resemble the “close reading” technique in narrative medicine. See, for example, Chapter 6 in Charon, R. (2006). Narrative medicine: Honoring the stories of illness. New York: Oxford University Press. Josephine Ensign provides a useful interpretation of Charon’s close reading drill and also gives her own “closer close reading drill.”
The text I use when I teach an entire course on narrative is: Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Riessman provides an overview to various types of narrative analysis, including thematic, structural, performative, and visual narrative anlaysis.