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.\

Kathy Roulston 


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.


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