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Philosophical and methodological tensions in Narrative Research

The article Narrative Research Evolving: Evolving Through Narrative Research, by , , , draws on the experience of a longitudinal narrative study, Re-stor(y)ing Life Within Life-Threatening Illness, to describe how the processes of reflection and research differed, compared to what was planned at the beginning of the research: the project was dedicated to people suffering from lethal diseases, such as cancer, chronic kidney diseases and HIV, and the authors stress that – once the data collection with these people has begun – important differences have emerged with the original project.

What the authors propose as a reflection is that instead of interpreting these divergences as problems, they have tried to explore the importance of what was emerging, also with the aim of carrying out an epistemological and methodological reflection on narrative inquiry.

In this reflection – as within qualitative methodology, after all – the concept of emerging design is central. It has been defined as a circular process: as new data is collected, an analysis is in progress, so that the research methods and questions can be adapted to the field. If a certain degree of divergence can be foreseen, in this case the authors recognise that it was not possible to foresee such a high divergence from the planning of the research project.

In particular, during this process, four key philosophical tensions emerged: What distinguishes narrative inquiry and narrative analysis? How do we distinguish stories from narratives? What is the difference between a theme and a plot? What is the connection between plot and meta-narration? In summary, the impact of the field on the project leads to a reflection on the definitions themselves:

Tensions that arose and our ensuing shifts in thinking and analysis could not be known—as is expected practice—when developing the original research proposal. In retrospect, we were surprised by the range of core concepts requiring adjustment and deeper discussions as our analysis unfolded. Even as we write this, we continue to pursue clarity of evolving methodological ideas of what constitutes a story that can be coded as a whole. We hope that sharing our process may resonate with other narrative researchers, spark dialogue, invite curious ponderings, and move narrative into a next turn.

A critical aspect that is linked to the concept of emerging design is the structural difficulty of letting the field act on the redefinition of inquiry: research institutes and ethical commissions, or other funding bodies, for example, often reflect values of certainty, clarity and control that easily come into conflict with open and less structured qualitative projects.

There are four strategies that the authors propose to encourage emerging design in narrative inquiry: (a) design research that recognises the methodological unknowns using an open language (it will be determined, in consultation with, awaiting initial analysis); (b) encourage collective reflexivity, which creates capacity and breadth in the interpretative repertoire of researchers; (c) supporting pluralistic approaches that include methodological synthesis and creativity; (d) consider approaches to strengthen trust and understanding between ethics review boards and researchers.

In conclusion,

We contend that minor, yet frequent, ethics amendments for changes that are low in risk may thwart creativity and constrain researcher responsiveness to the voices of participants within the very turn intended to shine a light on stories of lived experience. We suggest there is a need to develop sensitivity regarding potential barriers to emergent aspects of NI and advocate minimizing methodological and institutional barriers, when there is limited risk.

The entire article is available for free here.

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