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Narrative-Rich Data

What is a Narrative?

Narratives are stories, a particular kind of discourse. Narratives typically feature one or more characters, including the narrator. Narratives have a structure, or "storyline," consisting of a beginning, middle and end. They usually convey an overall point, which may be of more significance than particular details. Narratives partly communicate on emotional and unconscious levels because they resonate with larger stories or myths that we understand in common through shared culture and shared humanity. Common cultural (and even trans-cultural) narratives, called "meta-narratives," powerfully shape the way we perceive the world and our place in it. Our human ability to associate personal narratives with meta-narratives, therefore, helps us communicate. The symbolism and emotional elements of a story sometimes communicate more effectively than the aspects we understand intellectually.

Respondents as Story-tellers

In good interviews, respondents become story-tellers. Through narratives they convey factual details of their life experiences. Just as importantly, they also convey their cultural views and self-understanding. Sometimes stories express emotions, beliefs and principles that may be deeply held but unconscious or taken for granted. The researcher, as story-listener, draws on shared understandings and meta-narratives to bring to light the deeper meanings in respondents' stories.

Narratives versus Facts and Opinions

Oftentimes respondents do not tell stories, but answer questions directly with information and opinions. Depending on the researcher's goals, such non-narrative responses may be interesting. Faced with facts and arguments, however, we may become more interested in verifying their "truth" than in the primary task of qualitative analysis: interpretation. Qualitative researchers are most interested in the processes by which respondents make meaning of the events of their lives. Facts and arguments do not always reveal these processes of meaning-making.

The Value of Narrative-Rich Data

Narrative responses may include facts and arguments. The difference is that narratives place life events in a cultural context. By examining narratives, we can glimpse the emotional and symbolic significance of respondents' knowledge, experience and relationships. In this way we can come to understand the processes through which individuals make sense of their worlds.

Example: Narrative-Rich Data

Interviewer: What do children expect from parents? Financial aid?

Franca: When our son (the younger, married son) decided to buy a house, he needed some money. I told him that I would give it to him, and that he could pay me back without interest. He will get that money anyway (as inheritance when the parents die) but I told him he has to pay us back or else he would spend the money on other things. Every month you give me back whatever you can spare, I told him. He wrote me some cheques. With my luck, my other son who was writing a cheque for us, because we don't know how to write in English, saw the other one's cheques to us. He asked about them. I explained to him what they were about. He said, "I want money, too". He didn't need the money but he wanted things to be fair between the two sons.

Carmelo: Half and half he wants.

Franca: He (the older, unmarried son) is a good guy but what I give to one, I have to give to the other.

Italian Interview #4


In this excerpt the interviewer asked a general question about children's expectations of parents and the respondent answered with a rich narrative about her relationship with her two sons. Notice how in this short passage the respondent gives four types of information about her life: (1) factual details, (2) insight into her feelings, (3) an overall message, and (4) larger themes that intersect with her life story.


First, the narrative conveys factual information that an interviewer would not be able to gather easily through a question-answer format.


Second, the narrative is rich with feelings


Third, the narrative has a point. Franca sums it up in the last line. Her older son is a "good guy" in spite of his demand for money that he does not need. In the interest of maintaining good relations between the two sons, she will comply with his insistence on fairness. Whereas before she lent money according to her perception of her sons' needs, she is willing to give up this right and give the same favours to both. Her unspoken message is that, as the financial decision-maker, she places the highest value on maintaining family harmony.

Larger Themes

Fourth, the narrative resonates with larger themes and images, or meta-narratives:

Example: Non-Narrative Data

Interviewer: What do you think that the Italian family will be like in the future? Will there be an Italian family?

Vincenza: I hope that there will be but I do not know. Today's youth are not as attached to Italian tradition but some parents are not either. I just don't know. In the home, children should speak Italian because outside the home it is rare to speak to somebody in Italian. If they speak it at home at least they retain some of the language. By me talking to my children in Italian it is always a second language for them and knowing another language is good.

Italian Interview #8


In this passage Vincenza is asked for her opinion about the future of the Italian family. She appears not to have a strong opinion; twice she says she does not know. She says she hopes there will be an Italian family in the future, but she does not say why this is her hope. Also, it is not clear what she or the interviewer mean by "the Italian family." Vincenza mentions "Italian tradition" but is not sure whether to hold the youth or the parents responsible for its decline. She then mentions language, explaining that speaking Italian in the home is good for children. How language would help preserve the Italian family, however, is not clear. She suggests only that children will benefit from knowing some Italian as a second language. In short, this passage is an example of "thin" data. When asked her opinion, Vincenza gives an overly general answer. She does not indicate the strength of her opinion or why she thinks as she does. We learn little about the meaning of the "Italian family" for her, or her feelings about how the "Italian family" is changing. If the interviewer had encouraged a narrative response rather than an opinion, we may have received a better sense of Vincenza's more deeply held values and feelings about how the Italian family is changing.

Exercise: What's in a story?

Select a narrative in the interviews. Describe its characters and summarize the storyline, even if it is very short. Identify the main point the teller was trying to convey. What other factual details are transmitted in the narrative? What is the emotional effect of the narrative? How does it connect with larger themes?

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