Analysis of narratives versus narrative inquiry

By | April 2, 2017

Yesterday, I read a great article by Bochner & Riggs (2014) about narrative inquiry. In it, they use a framework defined by Polkinghorne (1995) to differentiate between analysis-of-narrative (or narratives-under-analysis) and narrative inquiry. I found this particularly interesting in part because my research seems to be using both.

“In Polkinghorne’s (1995) schema, analysis of narratives refers to storytelling projects that are grounded on pragmatic reasoning. These projects treat stories as ‘data’ and use ‘analysis’ to arrive at themes that hold across stories or on delineating types of stories and/or storylines. Grounded theory (Charmaz, 2000, 2005; Glasser & Strauss, 1967), in which researchers work inductively from the ground of the stories upward and present the analysis in the form of a traditional social science report, is one method commonly used to analyze narratives.” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.204)

In the first, analysis-of-narrative, the object of study is the text itself. The research is typically an objective (or subjective) outsider, looking in on the text and analyzing it for themes. Personally, I see this as traditional social science or qualitative research – this is the type of qualitative research that tries to argue with the post-positivists about validity in research. My qualitative research education and my previous focus on pragmatic mixed-methods research makes this type of analysis comfortable for me.

When blogs are used as data in health sciences research, this is usually the type of research that is done. The researcher looks at the blog text in search of various themes (either pre-determined themes or themes drawn from the data itself). In either case, the analysis uses qualitative data but tries to model itself after quantitative research practices – trying to find generalizations (themes) out of the qualitative text.

But although I find this type of research comfortable, I am challenged by it too. I am much more drawn to the second kind of narrative research, that is, narrative analysis.

“In Polkinghorne’s (1995) second type of narrative inquiry, which he calls narrative analysis, the research product is a story—a case, a biography, a life history, an autobiography, an autoethnography—that is composed by the researcher to represent the events, characters, and issues that he or she has studied.” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.204)

In this sense, writing itself is seen as a form of inquiry. The act of creating the stories in a way that tears at the emotions of the reader, bringing them into the story, is an act of inquiry. This requires a huge paradigm shift for my previously pragmatically trained brain. However, those that have known me over the last few years have seen that I have shifted, from a pragmatic sense of research to more of an interpretive research. I look at the world differently now.

“Thus, the goals of much of narrative inquiry are to keep conversation going (about matters crucial to living well); to activate subjectivity, feeling, and identification in readers or listeners; to raise consciousness; to promote empathy and social justice; and to encourage activism—in short, to show what it can mean to live a good life and create a just society” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.201)

I find that if you look at the goals as defined here, you can see that the authors of the piece also see great value in narrative analysis as opposed to narrative-under-analysis. I am drawn to the social justice aspect of research too. I want to figure out how my research can change the world in some way or another. I know that the telling of my story is important, not just for my personal healing, but also to help many others heal. I’ve had lot of people reach out to me to tell me that my blog has helped them better understand their experience. This is exactly what autoethnography (and narrative analysis) is all about.

“Narrative inquiry is confronted by the troubling fact that what a story means to an analyst may be quite different from what a story means to the storyteller.” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.205)

This is part of my challenge, because I am both the analyst and the storyteller. I am attempting to look at my blog ‘data’ as an ‘objective researcher’, in search of themes that emerge as I read through the text. But I’m also the storyteller. So I do know what the story means to me as both the analyst and the storyteller. What I do not understand is what the story means to others. I get a glimpse of that when people email me, leave comments, or otherwise tell me how my blog has helped them. I see this as a follow-on study – after having re-created the story in a more evocative and book like way.

We see a world of difference between treating stories as “data” for analysis—thus privileging the standpoint of the analyst—and encountering stories experientially—thus privileging the standpoint of the storyteller. In the former case, how a story makes sense is strictly a scientific/analytic question; in the latter case, it’s an ethical and relational one.” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.205)

The idea of privileging is an important one to me, that I don’t want to let go of. One of the biggest arguments for the need to approach my work autoethnographically, as a double-insider, is that prior research has been done privileging the analyst (researcher) point of view, and not that of the storyteller (in my case the patient blogger). This means that prior research, to me, feels like it is missing the point of the narrative. The abstraction of the themes or objective analysis takes a way a lot of the complexity of the real story – making it feel like an oversimplification of an experience that is far from simple.

“Whereas evocative narrative takes the standpoint of the storyteller, narratives-under-analysis normatively are governed by an analytical standpoint that positions the researcher as “other” to the storytellers whose texts are to be analyzed.” (Bochner & Riggs, 2014, p.210).

The re-reading of my blog has put me in the position of the analyst rather than that of the storyteller. Since the narratives are mine, there is no way for me to stay outside and be the other looking in on the narrative, however, the re-reading and the act of thematic analysis does give me at least some sense of what it would be like for someone not emotionally involved in the story to simply read it. That being said, it is rare that someone who is not in some way emotionally involved would be drawn to read my blog. My friends and family are drawn to the blog because they know me, and fellow breast cancer survivors are drawn because of the shared experience. It therefore feels odd when a researcher looks at the blog data as unemotional text. It feel inauthentic.

I find that I don’t like how autoethnography, in this paper (Bochner & Riggs, 2014), it is seen only as narrative analysis and not seen as narrative-under-analysis. Manning & Adams (2015) talk about the different forms autoethnography can take, and specify that both the more ‘scientific’ variant and the more artistic variant both can been seen as autoethnography.

In my autoethnography, I want to find the space / place for the telling of the larger story, not just the small clips of the story that act as evidence of themes in the research. I don’t feel that you can grasp the complexity and enormity of the experience without the emotional story that aligns more with the writing of evocative autoethnogragphy.

My question while reading this article is are the two forms of analysis mutually exclusive? Is this not what I’m trying to do with my dissertation – using the analysis as a way to help focus the stories that I tell, but also using the stories to help communicate the complexities of the experience itself? Moreover, using the stories to help compel emotional responses from the readers, so that they are not just intellectually knowing but also developing some level of emotional knowing?


Bochner, A., & Ellis, C. S. (2016). Evocative autoethnography: Writing lives and telling stories. New York: Routledge.

Bochner, A., & Riggs, N. A. (2014). Practicing narrative inquiry. In The Oxford handbook of qualitative research (pp. 195-222). Oxford University Press.

Manning, J., & Adams, T. E. (2015). Popular culture studies and autoethnography: An essay on method. The Popular Culture Studies Journal, 3, 187-222.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1995). Narrative configuration in qualitative analysis. In J. A. Hatch & R. Wisniewski (Eds.), Life history and narrative (pp. 5–23). Washington, DC: Falmer.

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