Approaches to examine storytelling

Researchers who use narrative inquiry focus on telling the stories of the participants of their studies. There are so many different approaches to narrative inquiry though — how might one begin?

What is meant by the term “narrative”? That depends on the perspective to narrative that one takes. Some argue that narrative data can include open-ended survey data, through interview data, to written narratives. From this perspective, “narrative” is being used synonymously with “words” or “textual data”. Others argue that narratives are stories that have a beginning, middle and an end. That is, narratives are stories that involve a plot with temporal order.

Another way to approach is to think about how “stories” about human experience are organized and told. Donald Polkinghorne (1995) discusses two approaches to narrative – that of “paradigmatic” approaches to narrative that compare and contrast people’s stories. Approaches to analysis that use coding to highlight the topics of talk and then sort topics into different categories in order to generate themes use a paradigmatic approach to narrative analysis. Polkinghorne also discusses the idea of “narrative configuration”. This means that researchers take all sorts of data (for example, documents, letters, photos and interview data) and configure this into a story with a plot that answers questions to do with how something came about. Biographies provide an example of this approach to narrative.

Narrative inquiry also encompasses approaches to analysis that examine the structure of people’s stories. Perhaps the most well-known of these approaches is that developed by William Labov and Joshua Waletzky (Labov, 1972; Labov & Waletzky, 1997). In their 1967 paper (which was republished in 1997), Labov and Waletzky analyzed stories that people had told when asked the question: “Were you ever in a situation where you thought you were in serious danger of getting killed?” (1997, p. 5). This analysis examined closely the organizations of clauses in the stories told by participants and developed a model of story-telling that included the following elements:



Orientation Who? What? When? Where?
Complication Then what happened?
Evaluation So what?
Resolution What finally happened?
Coda [finish narrative]

Some iterations of the model include an abstract prior to the orientation that answers the question “what was this about?”

Although this model has been critiqued (e.g., Gale, 2007; Patterson, 2008) — especially on the basis that it reflects a western mode of storytelling — it has also been very influential, and has been adapted by others (Ochs & Capps, 2001). Ochs and Capps examined the way people tell stories in everyday life, and generated a model with the following components:


Abstract (not always present)
Setting/Central problematic experience

  • Psychological
  • Behavioral
Coda (not always present)

Ochs and Capps (2001) also discussed the range of dimensions that might be examined in narrative data. This is presented in the following table:

 Narrative dimensions and possibilities

Dimensions   Possibilities
Tellership One active teller → Multiple active tellers
Tellability High→ Low
Embeddness Detached→ Embedded
Linearity Closed temporal and causal order→ Open temporal and causal order
Moral stance Certain, constant→ Uncertain, fluid

Source: Ochs & Capps (2001, p. 20)

What this short review of “narrative” reminds us is that whatever methodological approach is used by researchers, there is much methodological literature that will help us understand the historic development of the approach, and how to apply it in our work.

The Handbook of Narrative Inquiry (Clandinin, 2007) is an excellent place to start reading on narrative approaches to research. Catherine Riessman provides another excellent review of the variety of approaches included in this methodology (Riessman, 2008).  You can find more resources to examine approaches to narrative analysis here.


Clandinin, D. J. (Ed.) (2007). Handbook of narrative inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gale, K. (2007). A Conversation With Labov. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(5), 728-742. doi:10.1177/1077800407301184

Labov, W. (1972). The transformation of experience in narrative syntax. In W. Labov (Ed.), Language in the inner city (pp. 352-396). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1997). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7(1-4), 3-38.

Ochs, E., & Capps, L. (2001). Living narrative: Creating lives in everyday storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Patterson, W. (2008). Narratives of events: Labovian narrative analysis and its limitations. In M. Andrews, C. Squire, & M. Tamboukou (Eds.), Doing narrative research (pp. 22-40). Los Angeles: Sage.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1995). Narrative configuration in qualitative analysis. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 8(1), 5-23.

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


10 Suggestions for Summer-time things to do in qualitative inquiry

For those in the northern hemisphere it is summer time, and some qualitative researchers have extra time to do things that are difficult to squeeze into a regular semester. Here are suggestions for 10 fun things to do…

  1. Visit an archives to look at the documentation left by other researchers

I recently spent some time looking at a bulky box of interview transcripts from a large research study on centenarians. It was fascinating both to look at the transcripts from this study, as well as the methodological analyses included in the administrative files that had been completed by researchers working on this project. These reports provided lots of ideas for other researchers to do with recruitment of this special population, as well as how data might be most effectively generated. Examining the records from another research study gave me lots to think about. Some researchers use archival data sets for their own research. For example, Catherine Stewart’s book (2016) reports findings from her examination of the records from the Ex-Slave Narratives study conducted as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. Lampropoulou and Myers (2013; 2012) have published secondary analyses from their examination of interview transcripts in the Qualidata Archive in the UK. What’s in your local archive?

  1. Read a book on writing.

There’s so many books, articles and chapters on writing that are fun to read, especially if you don’t feel like writing! Perhaps find a novelist who has written about writing (e.g., Dillard, 1989; Lamott, 1994; LeGuin, 1998); consider the intricacies of editing (Truss, 2003); or learn about therapeutic approaches to writing (Klauser, 2003). Or you could try the work of an ethnographer (Goodall, 2008), or a sociologist (Richardson, 1990; Van Maanen, 2011). Of course there are also books that take up specific topics, such as writing literature reviews, articles, or dissertations. If you have some favorites, add them in the suggestion box at the bottom of this page.

  1. Review the wonderful list of “Sixty genres of life narrative” by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson

Smith and Watson (2010) include an appendix in their book, Reading autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives which lists no less than 60 forms of life writing. This list might inspire you to write your own narrative – whether that is an autoethnography, a confession, a diary, collaborative life writing, or an ecobiography. If you’ve never heard of an ecobiography, Smith and Watson (2010, p. 268) describe this as the “story of a protagonist with the story of the fortunes, conditions, geography, and ecology of a region.” Popular books in this genre include Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And I’ve mentioned just five of the longer list.

  1. Try out one or more of those 60 forms of life writing.

It’s your turn now. Set the timer, and start writing. Five minutes will get you started.

  1. Take a moment to read an account of doing research from an ethnographer

How do other researchers practice the craft of ethnography? Again, there’s many to choose from – whether written decades ago; such as those by Clifford Geertz (1973), Hortense Powdermaker (1966); or more recently, for example, Bud Goodall (2000).

  1. Read a classic study.

You may have seen these texts cited. Find out what others are talking about by reading the original. Again, there are numerous books to select from, including… William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society (Whyte, 1993 [1943]), Margaret Mead’s Coming of age in Samoa: A pscyhological study of primitive youth for Western civilization (Mead, 1961 [1928]), Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski, 2014 [1922]), Hortense Powdermaker’s Hollywood the dream factory (Powdermaker, 1951) or Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher (Lortie, 2002 [1975]).

  1. Read a recent ethnography.

Again, there’s plenty to choose from. For starters, try the much talked about ethnography by sociologist Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive life in an American City (Goffman, 2014); or Matthew Desmond’s acclaimed Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American City (Desmond, 2016). Dip into Laurence Ralph’s ethnography of gangland Chicago (Ralph, 2014); Khiara Bridges’ (2011) study of a pregnancy and birth in a New York hospital, or Robin Boylorn’s (2013) award-winning autoethnography which chronicles growing up in a southern town that she names Sweetwater.

  1. Take moment to write a poem from your data set

If you haven’t done this before, Laurel Richardson, Corinne Glesne and Misha Cahnmann-Taylor provide some ideas (Cahnmann, 2003; Glesne, 2006; Richardson, 2002).

  1. Read a poem written by a qualitative researcher

If you have not come across this form of representation, you could start by reading poems by Sandra Faulkner (2005), or Prendergast, Gouzouasis, Leggo, and Irwin (2009). Recent issues of Qualitative Inquiry are a great source for poetic representation.

  1. Check out a new journal.

Journals that publish qualitative inquiry are being added every year. One recent addition is Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal


Kathy Roulston


Boylorn, R. M. (2013). Sweetwater: Black women and narratives of resilience Peter Lang.

Bridges, K. M. (2011). Reproducing race: An ethnography of pregnancy as a site of racialization. Berekeley: University of California Press.

Cahnmann, M. (2003). The craft, practice, and possibility of poetry in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 29-36.

Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper & Row.

Faulkner, S. L. (2005). Method: Six Poems. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(6), 941-949. doi:10.1177/1077800405276813

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Glesne, C. (2006). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Goodall, H. L. (2000). Writing the new ethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Goodall, H. L. (2008). Writing qualitative inquiry: Self, stories, and academic life. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Klauser, H. A. (2003). With pen in hand: The healing power of writing. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Lampropoulou, S., & Myers, G. (2013). Stance-taking in interviews from Qualidata Archive. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 14(1), Art. 12.

LeGuin, U. K. (1998). Steering the craft: Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. Portland OR: The Eighth Mountain Press.

Lortie, D. C. (2002 [1975]). Schoolteacher: A sociological study (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Malinowski, B. (2014 [1922]). Argonauts of the western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archivpealos of Melanesian New Guinea. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mead, M. (1961 [1928]). Coming of age in Samoa: A pscyhological study of primitive youth for Western civilization. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.

Myers, G., & Lampropoulou, S. (2012). Impersonal you and stance-taking in social research interviews. Journal of Pragmatics, 44(10), 1206-1218. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2012.05.005

Powdermaker, H. (1951). Hollywood the dream factory. London: Secker & Warburg.

Powdermaker, H. (1966). Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist. New York: Norton.

Prendergast, M., Gouzouasis, P., Leggo, C., & Irwin, R. L. (2009). A haiku suite: the importance of music making in the lives of secondary school students. Music Education Research, 11(3), 303-317. doi:10.1080/14613800903144262

Ralph, L. (2014). Renegade dreams: Living through injury in gangland Chicago. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Richardson, L. (1990). Writing strategies: Reaching diverse audiences (Vol. 21). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Richardson, L. (2002). Poetic representation of interviews. In J. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 877-892). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2010). Reading autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives (2nd ed.). Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Stewart, C. A. (2016). Long past slavery: Representing race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York, NY: Gotham books.

Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the field: On writing ethnography (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Whyte, W. F. (1993 [1943]). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum (4th ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.


Tips on considering “subjectivity” in qualitative research

Many newcomers to qualitative studies struggle with the idea of how one’s self, and “subject positions” or “subjectivities” might be represented in qualitative inquiry. For those more attuned to positivist approaches to research in which the researcher is depicted as “neutral” and “objective,” discussing one’s own interests and relationships to a topic and participants of a research study can be viewed as erring dangerously into the territory of “biased” research that is viewed as problematic, if not lacking in validity.

One scholar who wrote about his subjectivities in relation to his research was Alan “Buddy” Peshkin (1931-2000), who was an educational ethnographer who worked at Stanford University. Over the course of his career, Peshkin used ethnographic methods to explore how schooling was accomplished in multiple settings in the United States. His ethnographies include studies of a Midwestern school (1978), a fundamentalist Christian school (1986), an ethnically diverse school in California (1991), a Native American school (1997) and an elite school (2001). What all of these ethnographies have in common is an interest in providing multi-faceted and in-depth portrayals of what goes on in school settings.

Peshkin also talked about how his own subject positions intersected with those of research participants in these studies. For example, Peshkin describes how his positionality as a Jewish person conflicted with that of his hosts in his study of Bethany Baptist Academy (1986). In this book, Peshkin details the personal challenges and costs of undertaking a study in which he was consistently made aware of his “potential nonexistence, or disappearance” (p. 287) as a Jewish person. The participants he worked with believed that non-Christians would not be saved and were “fair game for conversion” (p. 289). In this book, Peshkin considers the personal and societal costs inherent in these views, and ponders over the potential problems represented by the positions taken by fundamentalist groups within a pluralist society. More to Peshkin’s liking was the cultural diversity and ethnic maintenance promoted at Riverview High, a school attended by a multicultural student body, including Sicilians, Mexicans, blacks and Filipinos.

Peshkin takes up the idea of how one might consider one’s subject positions in a much-cited article (1988) entitled: In search of subjectivity: One’s own. Peshkin defines “subjectivity” as the “amalgam of the persuasions that stem from the circumstances of one’s class, statuses, and values interacting with the particulars of one’s object of investigation” (Peshkin, 1988, p. 17). He inventories his “subjective I’s”, describes how these I’s surfaced in the conduct of his research students, and gives each “I” a distinctive label to indicate how it surfaced in his research in schools, namely:

  • The Ethnic-Maintenance I
  • The Community-Maintenance I
  • The E-Pluribus-Unum I
  • The Justice-Seeking I
  • The Pedagogical-Meliorist I
  • The Non-research Human I

Suggesting that qualitative researchers need to notice the emergence of the various “subjective I’s” in any given study, Peshkin (1988, p. 17) observes that

When researchers observe themselves in the focused way that I propose, they learn about the particular subset of personal qualities that contact with their research phenomenon has released. These qualities have the capacity to filter, skew, shape, block, transform, construe, and misconstrue what transpires from the outset of a research project to its culmination in a written statement.

I’ve found reading Peshkin’s ethnographies and thinking about his reflections on how his subjectivities emerged differentially in the studies he conducted helpful in my own research, as well as in teaching.

Although some scholars have critiqued how the notion of reflexivity has been taken up in qualitative inquiry (e.g., the writing of subjectivity statements), for newcomers to qualitative research, Peshkin’s (1988) article is still a useful reminder and starting point. This article suggests that qualitative researchers ask themselves questions, such as:

  • What subjectivities might you bring to your research?
  • How might you label your “subjective-I’s”?
  • What have you left out?
  • What do each of these subjective-I’s allow with respect to your research study?
  • How do these subjective-I’s potentially limit you as a researcher of your topic?

Through his use of ethnographic methods to examine a multitude of school settings, Alan Peshkin has left a wonderful legacy in qualitative inquiry that contributes not only to how qualitative research studies are conducted, but how schools work.

There are many more articles and books on the issue of subjectivity and reflexivity in qualitative research. For starters, I recommend the following texts to begin (Finlay, 2002, 2012; Finlay & Gough, 2003; Macbeth, 2001; Pillow, 2003; Roulston & Shelton, 2015).

Kathy Roulston


Finlay, L. (2002). Negotiating the swamp: The opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice. Qualitative Research, 2(2), 209-230.

Finlay, L. (2012). Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. Marvasti, & K. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (2nd ed., pp. 317-331). Los Angeles: Sage.

Finlay, L., & Gough, B. (Eds.). (2003). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Macbeth, D. (2001). On “reflexivity” in qualitative research: Two readings: and a third. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(1), 35-68.

Peshkin, A. (1978). Growing up American: Schooling and the survival of community. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Peshkin, A. (1986). God’s choice: The total world of a fundamentalist Christian School. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1988). In search of subjectivity: One’s Own. Educational Researcher, 17(7), 17-22.

Peshkin, A. (1991). The color of strangers, the color of friends: The play of ethnicity in school and community. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1997). Places of memory: Whiteman’s schools and Native American communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peshkin, A. (2001). Permissible advantage? The moral consequences of elite schooling. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pillow, W. S. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175-196.

Roulston, K., & Shelton, S. A. (2015). Reconceptualizing bias in teaching qualitative research methods. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(4), 332-342. doi:10.1177/1077800414563803

Influential qualitative researchers: Harry F. Wolcott

Educational anthropologist Harry Wolcott (1929-2012) has written numerous books on how to do qualitative research. His early study investigated the work of a principal in The man in the principal’s office: An ethnography (Wolcott, 1973). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wolcott argued for the merit of an n of 1 (Wolcott, 1995). One of his more well-known studies examined the life history of a young man known in a trilogy of publications as Brad. Brad took up residence on Wolcott’s property in Oregon (Wolcott, 2002), and Wolcott went on to interview him and publish his life story in a journal article.

The first chapter I ever read by Wolcott examined the notion of “validity” in qualitative research in a book edited by Elliot Eisner and Alan Peshkin (Wolcott, 1990). Since that time, I’ve read many more books by Wolcott and still frequently refer to them. Eisner’s and Peshkin’s book drew together a series of essays on critical issues in qualitative inquiry that had been delivered at a conference at Stanford University in June 1988 (Wolcott, 1994, p. 337). Wolcott’s approach to his assigned topic of validity, was to examine the relationship that he had developed with Brad over the course of developing his life history, and the tragic subsequent events that occurred between them. Wolcott uses this example to illustrate “why validity does not seem to be an appropriate concept for judging the results of qualitative inquiry” (1994, p. 338). For those readers unfamiliar with this paper, rather than recount the details here, I will let you read Wolcott’s original articles as I did when I first read the “validity” chapter. Rather than search for the original articles, you will find these republished and discussed in the book, Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork (Wolcott, 2002). A friend and colleague who attended the conference at which Wolcott first presented his “validity” paper has shared with me that the “validity” paper received a mixed review from conference attendees. Apparently, audience members displayed a range of responses – from intense disagreement through to support. In using this text in teaching, I’ve encountered the same sort of responses among readers – this article arouses strong viewpoints and poses difficult questions about not only how one might address the issue of validity in qualitative inquiry, but how qualitative researchers conduct research, how one engages with participants, as well as the ethics involved in doing qualitative inquiry.

In the chapter “On seeking — and rejecting — validity in qualitative research,” Wolcott (1990) boldly dispenses with the idea of validity, and suggests that qualitative researchers might just try to “get it right”, or try not to “get it all wrong.” He suggests a “constellation of activities” (1994, p. 353) that researchers can take to do this:

  • Talk little, listen a lot
  • Record accurately, in their words, immediately after or during events
  • Begin writing early, share drafts with others knowledgeable about the setting
  • Let readers see for themselves, include primary data in final accounts
  • Report fully, deal with discrepant cases
  • Be candid, sees subjectivity as a strength of qualitative research
  • Seek feedback
  • Try to achieve a balance – return to site or field notes to reread the data, then reread the draft
  • Write accurately – write for technical accuracy, internal consistency with generalizations grounded in what is seen and heard (pp. 337-373).

Less controversial among Wolcott’s writing are his books on the process of conducting qualitative research. Wolcott has written numerous books that outline the steps in conducting a qualitative research study for novice researchers. These include The art of doing fieldwork (Wolcott, 1995), Ethnography: A way of seeing (Wolcott, 1999), Transforming qualitative data (Wolcott, 1994), and Writing up qualitative research (Wolcott, 2009). Wolcott’s writing is reader-friendly and conversational in style, and filled with useful tips for novice researchers. I have used all of these texts at various times in teaching qualitative research, and have found them to be straightforward and practical accounts related to the use of ethnographic methods in doing qualitative inquiry.

In recognition of his contributions to the field of qualitative research, Harry Wolcott received the inaugural Special Career Award in Qualitative Inquiry for dedication and contributions to qualitative research, teaching, and practice at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in 2010. If you have not read any of Wolcott’s work, be sure to add some to your reading list. There is much to learn and consider from his work.

Kathy Roulston


Wolcott, H. F. (1973). The man in the principal’s office: An ethnography. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wolcott, H. F. (1990). On seeking — and rejecting — validity in qualitative research. In E. W. Eisner & A. Peshkin (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in education: Continuing the debate (pp. 121-152). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (1994). Transforming qualitative data: Description, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wolcott, H. F. (1995). The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (1999). Ethnography: A way of seeing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (2002). Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (2009). Writing up qualitative research (3rd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.