“The fish don’t talk about the water”: an impression of the Spring Symposium on Narrative Research, University for Humanistics, Utrecht (31.03.11). From Kevin Haynes

To an uninitiated outsider, the Netherlands appears to be the land of straight lines evoked in an Escher or a Mondriaan. A walk beside a canalized river presents us with few features that might distract us from the need to carry goods by water as efficiently as possible. Similarly, Dutch academia likes to apply an efficient positivist brush of wetenschap (science) to the landscapes it researches: the ‘subjects’ of this research are preferably investigated alongside control groups, and results are analyzed statistically to ensure validity. Anything else just wouldn’t be considered scientific? Fortunately, at the inaugural Spring Symposium on Narrative Research, keynote presenters Matti Hyvärinen (University of Tampere) and Brian Schiff (The American University of Paris) demonstrated that narrative research is firmly grounded in the traditions and conventions of qualitative research.

Just as it is possible to leave the beaten track and find oases of natural growth in the unexpected meanders of Dutch rivers, it is also possible to find oases of exceptional practice in qualitative research. One such site of growth is the Dutch Network for Narrative Research (NNN), which provides a welcome platform for the discussion and development of the narrative research discipline in the Netherlands. I use the term ‘discipline’ to underline the rigorous nature of narrative research methodology. Narrative research draws conceptually from theory and methodology in a variety of fields, notably Psychology, Sociology and Linguistics. Anneke Sools, chair of this intriguing symposium, puts it this way: “A wide scope is needed to give meaning to the detail”.

The most transparent value of narrative research is its ability to ‘give a voice’ to the individuals or groups being studied. Narrative approaches allow participants to express their experience in terms that they had not previously considered, either because their everyday experience is too familiar for them to be able to examine it critically, or because the experience is subject to social taboo. We are reminded of Risseeuw’s metaphor at this point: “The fish don’t talk about the water”. Narrative research can open the door to personal transformation, and consequently it has the potential for empowerment, as exemplified in the research reported by Karin Willemse (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Corinne Squire (University of East London). In quite different settings – Willemse in Darfur, Squire in urban London – these researchers have succeeded in co-creating narratives with participants which gave the participants access to ‘imagined future identities’. This work is reminiscent of the work of the Luttrell’s classic Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds in which these possible futures may have remained ‘unimagined’ without the intervention of the narrative research process.

Such research challenges the traditional scientific view of the researcher as an independent observer. These researchers are involved in the inter-active co-creation of narratives with their participants, and they therefore need to be explicit about the identities and values that they bring to this process. Another challenge for narrative researchers lies in demonstrating the wider social value of this kind of qualitative research. If we are to be taken seriously as academic researchers, we will in the long-term need to build a convincing case for the validity of our research, specifying the criteria we apply to the validation process. Also, we will need to show that our work contributes meaningfully to understandings of the experience of certain groups in our society, and ideally that it has an explicit impact. Gerben Westerhof (University of Twente) gave us a powerful insight into the impact value of narrative approaches to mental health practice, showing how narrative can function to transform the self-image of patients. However, his need in the academic environment to combine narrative analysis with statistical data demonstrated the difficulty of taking a purely narrative approach when the academic audience also expects to see quantitative data.

Further challenges were embodied in the presentations of Fleur Basten (Campus Orleon Nijmegen) and Alexander Maas (University for Humanistics). Basten challenged us to be critical in developing the narratives of disadvantaged groups, not taking the potential empowerment at face value but first establishing a clear agenda for such research in its social context. Maas showed the value of narrative research in relation to organizational story-telling, a tool that is increasingly used during organizational change. This latter example once again emphasized the inherent tension in narrative research between the needs of the individual and the needs of the social groupings of which that individual is a member. I found myself wondering whether it is possible to create an organizational story that properly reflects the experiences of the individual employees in that organization; or will the corporate message prove dominant? Maas stressed the need for openness with such an approach, recognizing that it would be an inappropriate method in a financial climate in which change may amount to downsizing, which in practice may result in job losses.       

It was a singular achievement to bring together so many branches of thought from the growing tree of narrative research. The next step will be to pursue the various themes in more detail through a series of workshops proposed over the coming two years.   

References:

Luttrell, W. (2003): Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds. New York: Routledge.

Risseeuw, C. (1988): The Fish Don’t Talk about the Water: Gender Transformation, Power and Resistance among Women in Sri Lanka. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill.

Dr K.B.J. Haines, University of Groningen, 13th June 2011

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