Mike Rustin: Narrative research and social theory

I was not able to come to the CNR December event. However, there is an  issue/area which I would like there to be some discussion about, which relates both to Narrative Research and the Biographical research which Tom Wengraf has been pursuing so energetically since Sostris.

This is the question of the relevance of these methods for the development of Social Theory,  and indeed for the development of knowledge of social structures and processes, and indeed cultures too.

My impression is that despite the large amount of research which has been done in these genres, and using  these methods, there is a serious difficulty in getting beyond particularism, the accumulation of instances and cases of one kind or another. One might say these methods have been very fruitful methodologically, and have certainly given great scope to individual researchers to do interesting work, but have not so far been very fruitful theoretically,  or in terms of generalisation and typification at a societal or cultural level. I think this particularism, or distance from theory and generalisation, limits the influence of this field of research on larger public debates about society and its condition.

A contrast might be made in this respect with Cultural Studies, in the 1970s in particular, where because there was  guiding interest (in part this was political) in understanding larger societal developments –   particular studies of media, sub-cultural phenomena, etc., did lead to larger theoretical interventions and challenges.  For example, an analysis of the media representations of ‘mugging’ in the 1970s led all the way to the analysis of Thatcherism and the crisis of the corporatist  social settlement which led to it.  There was a whole week of events devoted to Stuart Hall’s work last week at Goldsmiths (Maria was at the Memorial event on Saturday) so this is much in my mind. In the case of Cultural Studies, they devoted immense efforts to theorising what they were doing, with reference to Gramsci, Althusser, post-structural theorists, etc., these theoretical points of reference evolving over time.

Might one envisage a conference of some kind specifically devoted to this question, ‘From the particulars of narrative and or biographical analysis, to new understandings of society?’   I myself think that without generalisation, with conceptions that challenge the prevailing commensense,  work of this particularistic kind does not develop the influence it should have (given its quality)  nor is it easy for it to become cumulative.

There is another analogy which can be made, with psychoanalysis, and the relationship between clinical case studies (the main form of investigation) and theoretical understanding, which has always been a very close one, more so than I think is the case in the fields of narrative and biographical research.  Another analogy could be made with ethnography, and its relation to theories in anthropology, which has also been a strong one.

I don’t know if this issue interests you CNR folk, but if you were interested to pursue it, I would be very glad to be involved in discussion of it, and perhaps in preparing an event of some kind.  .

Best regards




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2 responses to “Mike Rustin: Narrative research and social theory

  1. I am not with CNR, and have not read Tom Wengraf, so I may not be able to address your post directly concerning this author, but I’ll write a post anyway as I find your concerns very interesting. Please excuse the detour, though, if it reads too far off.

    I think some of the issues you seem to be interested in was addressed by Lyotard in his book on The Postmodern Condition (Lyotard, 1980). He argues that big narratives like those of Christianity, Marxism and Nationalism does not play a major role in peoples identity work anymore. The new individual narratives are fragmented, and their lifestories are more up to themselves.

    In consequence, Lyotard’s view shifts focus for social research from big societal categorizations to situated studies where knowledge is local and highly dependent on context. Together with the language philosophy from (later) Wittgenstein, Lyotard paved the way for a lot of biographical and narrative research, as the standard identity categories of class, gender and race couldn’t be assumed as default anymore. I believe that biographical and narrative research were developed as appropriate tools for this new type of research, as it were able to both adress the linguistic turn and the postmodern condition, not because it is an end in itself to be concerned with biographies or narratives.

    Allthough Lyotards views are contested, and by all means not authoritative for all, I think you may be putting the chart before the horse. Personally I recruit theories and methodologies to do some work, and I have no interest in them, if they are not up for it. Depending on your research questions, or intrests, it may be that you don’t need biographical nor narrative research, or that these theories and methods may not be the most appropriate for the type of work you are engaged in. Regarding the lack of influence, I’m not so sure. I believe narrative research has grown from being very niche to becoming more mainstream in qualitative research departments, and that has happened in a period of time where many alternative approaches have emerged simultaneously. As public debate more often than not, has been dominated by realist thinking, contextual approaches have had a hard time cutting though the populism, I believe, and still has, but narrative research should not be influential because it is taking intrest in narrative, but because it can achieve results that other approaches cannot.

    If we’re revisit Lyotard, knowledge becomes culture, and narrative research can help to understand cultures, selves and practices in great detail. But with the extension that it is neccessary to reflect upon narrative as a research tool, as it is derived from the language it helps to explore, and thus highlights issues of mediation, representation, mimesis and agency, among others. Those exact issues are the same reason many may have left big story, categorial approaches in the first place, finding that narrative research adressed these issues more adequately, which there were not a lot of space to account for in some departments back before the millenium (I got into the University about the mid-1990s).

    As a tag, I have been enjoying the latest write-up “What is Narrative Research?” from Corinne Squire and fellow authors, though, and may suggest you review it for some of your concerns. The book is organized with a series of problematic questions and concerns regarding narrative research, and I find this stages a very helpful discussion of the issues and shows how narrative research attempts to deal with them. Excellent for both students and experienced researchers struggling to navigate the now very large sections of narrative research in the University libraries, I believe.

    Here’s the link to the title:

    Kind regards

    Magne Kolstad
    Ph.d. student
    Dept. of Learning and Philosophy
    Aalborg University

  2. Mike,

    In relation to your point about generalisability: I think that overall, narrative researchers tend now to use fairly standard qualitative-research samples (30+ interviews, stuff like that) and to talk about narrative patterns across such datasets. So they are already working with a model that suggests some generalizability is possible – even if sample size is a rather banal way to state that.

    There are people who work with single narratives or small numbers of narratives, and who strongly justify that approach (as with some using BNIM), but I think not many, over the whole field.

    A strongly related question, though, is about the particularity of qualitative social research overall. All the great qualitative research published in Sociology (which I have just been reviewing, as I am part of the editorial board’s review subgroup) – does it add up? Guba and Lincoln wrote about this usefully when they tried to formalise criteria for qualitative research’s ‘transferability’ (rather than generalisability and predictivity).

    I think the question about whether to work with specific cases, or with concatenated narratives, or narratives in dialogue, is a bit different from this question about qualitative research’s ‘generalisability’ or ‘transferability’ overall. I’m more concerned with the second question, usually. People who query the value of qualitative research on the grounds of the impossibility of generalising from it, are rarely worried about whether that research’s findings are expressed through individual case study or in more thematised or structural ways. The particularity they object to and find limiting, is a more ‘general’ phenomenon.

    It’s harder and less automatic to pursue generalizability with qualitative than with quantitative research. One has to do considerable work to construct a kind of ‘coalition’ of research findings, I would say. Nevertheless, this does happen. In my own field, people are very committed to working with commonalities across psychosocial studies of HIV.

    In relation to some phenomena which are diversely articulated and lived with across social groups – for instance, HIV -there is, for me, a lot of value in working with collections of narratives and bringing them into dialogue with each other. And to have the weight of stories that are held in common understood, especially by quantitative researchers, it does sometimes help to demonstrate that numerically, these are indeed common narratives. That doesn’t mean only doing statistics, or that one can’t work in detail with specific narratives.

    I also think that generalisable or transferrable qualitative ‘findings’ do manage to generate shared theory. Some of the theoretical arguments consequent on shared qualitative empirical findings about HIV – about the contemporary forms and difficulties of what Bourdieu would call ‘naturalisation’ , for instance – apply also to other conditions of the body. Moreover, these theorisations are often very fruitful to consider alongside quantitative research in health fields. This is work rather similar to Rose’s on ‘the politics of life itself’, perhaps (if less developed) – so there are strong commonalities, even if they are not always strongly asserted.

    There are differences between this kind of theoretical work, and that within cultural and media studies, which from my perspective is often beautifully developed and argued, but can be rather loosely tethered to very small amounts of material, and somewhat susceptible to counter-arguments ‘from below’. That doesn’t necessarily make those theories less helpful, of course.

    I think, though, that a lot of qualitative social research has a kind of unspoken commitment, itself theoretical, to ‘small theory’ or heuristics. Perhaps that’s what you are responding to. I don’t think that commitment is necessarily helpful, though it can be in certain fields. It can become a somewhat easy, miniaturised reification of research. At the same time, feminism is one of the important drivers towards keeping in mind these stubborn particularities of narratives and other qualitative materials; I think they have to be a parallel research trajectory.

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