Anneke Sools: Pursuing quality in narrative research

Pursuing quality in narrative research

Anneke Sools (University of Twente, The Netherlands)

What better way to start the new year than by opening up a space for discussion about an issue that has been on my mind for some years now. On a regular basis I encounter the question what constitutes good narrative research. It is my experience, no surprise to narrative researchers there, that the answer I provide depends on the particular audience and context in which the question is asked. Because I am very much aware that there are many different views on what counts as ‘good quality’ in narrative research, and there seems to be no consensus about whether there should be quality criteria for narrative research, I now turn to the wider narrative research community. It is my impression that narrative researchers are particularly hesitant to formulate guidelines or criteria for their research, because of objections to mainstream science and its ideas about rigour and objectivity, and because of narrative inquiry’s inherent nourishment of the unique, the creative, the contextual, and the particular. And are criteria for qualitative research in general not sufficient? Do the same criteria apply for narrative research? The aim of this blog is to (re)open discussion about whether there should be criteria specific to narrative research and if so, what these should be like. For each of the following contexts, I would now like to pose some questions to stimulate discussion.

  • Qualitative research: do the same criteria apply to narrative research that are used more generally in other forms of qualitative research in the social sciences? Do we abide to some more general criteria such as transparency, emphasise some criteria more than others (e.g. reflexivity), have specific ways of following more traditional criteria (Amia Lieblich for example proposed at the Narrative Matters conference some years ago six dialogically based forms of external validity specific to narrative research; Mark Freeman proposed an alternative notion of objectivity), or do we align ourselves more with criteria derived from literary studies and linguistics? Or is the specific frame we use to assess the quality of our work dependent on the approach within narrative research? What would be the strategic advantage of having a set of criteria that we share with qualitative research or of having separate criteria? (for example to support – prestigious – grant applications).
  • Quantitative research: should narrative research be aligned automatically with qualitative research or (also) with quantitative research? Or do we identify with neither qualitative nor quantitative research, for example because we distance ourselves from the idea that narrative research is ‘science’? Does a lack of criteria, and of consensus about these criteria not undermine the academic credibility of narrative research?
  • Academic journals: Should there be criteria for assessing the quality of journal articles employing narrative research? Should authors for example define their use of narrative (as an approach, an epistemology, a data collection method, a method of analysis, an action method), and demonstrate consistency in executing their particular use/position? Should there be some minimal requirement to identify a study as ‘narrative’? (often interview studies using thematic analysis are portrayed as narrative studies while it is unclear what is narrative about either the data or the analysis). Having criteria could serve as a guide for authors to increase the quality of their work, and it could convince editors to include narrative studies in their journal.
  • Teaching narrative research: how much and what kind of guidelines are best suited to teach narrative research at various levels? What are basic criteria and do these differ from qualitative research more generally?
  • Practice/professional relevance: are quality criteria necessary when pursuing recognition from professionals/practice? When this aim is considered equally or more relevant than academic status, does developing criteria become less important? Or do different criteria take priority, such as practical relevance, implementation value, participatory value, and so on.

1 Comment

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One response to “Anneke Sools: Pursuing quality in narrative research

  1. Thank you for posing such interesting questions, Anneke. I am commenting as a ph.d. student at Dept. of Learning and Philosophy in Aalborg, Denmark, so I am not at CNR. But like you, I look forward to discussions of narrative research in this blog.

    I find the various issues you suggested quite comprehensive to try to tackle in a blog post, but nontheless important. Especially considering current debates about what counts as “evidence” and how to qualify results from narrative research in a wider scientific community.

    My intitial reaction was to reach for Elliot Mishler’s book on Research Interviewing (Mishler, 1986), because I remember he has a nuanced text about dealing with criteria for narrative research in general, not just regarding qualitative interviews. Mishler notes that the issues of using adequate assessment criteria is common in all modes of research (p.109), and not just in non-traditional research types, like narrative research.

    Mishler (p.109-110) discusses how questions of reliability, validity and replicability imply a presupposition that 1) these issues have been adequately resolved in quantitative paradigms and 2) that these issues have been ignored by nontraditional researchers who too often seems to be satisfied with imprecise methods, vague and ungrounded inferences and unrepeatable analysis and 3) that we have standard, universally applicable technical procedures that can ensure “the” one true interpretation of the material.

    So, the questions you pose, Anneke, seems to represent the pull from experimental paradigms (statistics, quantitative modes) towards finding monolitic and universal assessment formulas for research. And also the American types of “evidence based” research which is biased for granting funds only to research that complies with such assessment templates, which we also may find imported to various sectors in Denmark (and maybe also to other countries).

    As a consequence, validation of particular assessment criteria may be an issue of the context in where the research project is to be situated (in accordance with Kuhn’s theory of paradigms). As you say, funding may depend on this discussion, so a lot can be at stake, and can be beyond the influence of the individual researcher.

    Mishler suggests a typology from (Katz, 1981) to assess these issues in an example using Labov’s model for narrative research (as an example of a Realist approach to narrative research), but more generally suggests, like you also did in your post, that the criteria must depend on a combination of the research questions and the theoretical framework. You didn’t give examples of particular projects, but a researcher concerned about gender inequality may obviously interpret narrative accounts differently than the researcher looking to inquire into how creativity emerges in an organizational setting.

    In stead of relying on importing universal and monolitic standards for assessment criteria, Mishler argues for a practice of “methodological reasoning” (p.116) within each project. A text where the implications of social and psychological processes is discussed in the framework for assessing qualitative research criteria, in narrative studies as well as in other types of research. Mishler suggests Katz’ (1981) typology (representativeness, reactivity, reliability and replicability, p.108) to discuss well known problems of quality, but when I consult other sources like Christine Bold’s book Using Narrative in Research, she references Peter Clough (2002) criteria; aesthetic standard, emotive force, versimilitude and authenticity (Bold, 2012, p.144) as an example of criteria used in biographic research. Others may design and/or import other criteria relevant to their specific research.

    In my view, the point to extract from Mishler is that designing narrative research projects may require a special engaged effort to elaborate an adequate research design, that not only adresses the standard templates for experimental research, but extends these criteria in terms of adressing issues and incorporating knowledge bases from sociology, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies, semiotics and linguistics and many more, in order to develop a well argued methodological reasoning, that also is convincing when held up to standard assessment criteria like reliability, validity and generalization.

    I may not continue any longer here, as this went a bit lenghty already, but I hope blogs allow for more detailed posts, than the very short comments used on social media.

    I hope my comment at least show that you facilitate an engaging and important discussion, Anneke. And that there are resources in the body of scientific narrative litterature that adresses these issues. I have only offered views from a few of those that I enjoy, but there are many more, allowing for a broader discussion, for sure.

    Thank you CNR for kindly offering this discussion space. I hope it will be used globally, shared and referenced.

    Magne Kolstad
    Phd. Student
    Department of Learning and Philosophy
    Aalborg University

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