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.