Narrative is a word much used today. Whether we’re talking about story telling or something more meaningful, it is a potentially marvelous tool, but what do we mean by it and what are the concerns we need to think through when thinking about it? Narrative, as it is used here and as I’ve written before, is analysis of a chronologically told story with a focus on how elements are sequenced. It attempts to understand why some elements are evaluated differently from others, how the past shapes perceptions of the present, how the present shapes perceptions of the past, and how both shape perceptions of the future. The narrative process enables these participants to reconstruct experiences, meaning, and patterns of tool use according to the cultural patterns attributable to the underlying theme. Transformation can occur privately or when social groups indirectly or critically reflect on the conditions that constrain their actions and understanding of events.
The narrative process collects data to describe lives in, ideally, a collaborative atmosphere, giving the participant a direct voice while attempting to present an analytical and interpretive layer from the perspective of the researcher. In analyzing narratives, the researcher works to actively give voice to the participant in a particular time, place or setting and provide a description of experiences based upon his or her recollections and statements about past feelings and perspectives.
The narrative approach provides the researcher with an organizational structure designed to be responsive to analysis. The resulting analysis moves towards a reduction of the narration to answer the question “what is the point of this story?” In turn, this information is distilled into determinations of relevance to the various audiences according to business and design needs.
As each narrative unfolds, it is contextualized by the purposes of the interviewer in terms of the research and of the participant in terms of self-presentation. The story may not represent reality from an external perspective, but is an attempt on the part of the teller to reduce information into something meaningful for the outsider. In turn, the researcher serves a conduit for the final audience, adding an editorial and interpretive overlay. This representation is meant to convince the listeners of its trustworthiness, relevance, and association to more expansive concerns and events.
The use of a narrative inquiry and the development of case stories offer multiple perspectives in understanding a practice, social group, etc. This process gives meaning to the audiences; it yields history, meaning, myth and function. The recounted experience is central to the development of a social and personal identity. It also uses the form of a story-map to present a meaningful cross-case comparison. The patterns of a participant’s self identity, their culture and community, and any transformations that take place over time are represented by the participant in the telling of his or her story. No single story provides a full understanding of the meaning of an event, activity, etc., but it provides pieces for a total picture of a concept. Repeated patterns of behavior and repeated storylines are important to understand the total concept, shed light on the participant’s cultural consciousness, and elucidate the interrelationships between collective and individual experience.
A narrative is developed or constructed in the telling. The role of interviewer, of course, affects the stories as we ask for clarification or elaboration in that it is impacted by when and how we ask questions. In telling their stories, participants reveal themselves according to the social frame they believe fits the researcher/participant relationship. Consequently, the process is unavoidably a shared narrative construction and reconstruction. When examining the veracity of the participant’s account, there is the possibility that the participant will tell you what he or she thinks you want to hear. However, the participant is also compelled to draw on components of the story he or she believes are relevant to the historical and current situations in question, then piece them together in a meaningful and coherent way. Corrections, deviations, etc. occur and shed light on significant issues. All of this leads to serious questions.
First, does narrative vary according to culture and historical period, or do the fundamental conditions of narrativity constitute cognitive universals? That narrative was slow to emerge as a theoretical concept, and typically enjoys recognition largely within academic culture, seems to speak in favor of a relativistic approach, but the culture-specific feature could be the awareness of the concept, rather than the properties that define it. The relativistic approach raises the problem of comparability: if narrative takes radically different forms in every culture, where is the common denominator that justifies the labeling of these forms as narrative? If one opts for the culture-universal approach, the obvious differences between the narratives of different periods and cultures are a matter of thematic filling in and of variations on a common basic structure.
Second, does narrative presuppose a verbal act of narration by a narrator, or can a story be told without the mediation of a narratorial consciousness? What is at stake in this question is whether dramatic media or media that does not use language alone as their primary mode of representation are capable of narration. My position is that film narration does not necessarily require a narratorial figure. Some scholars have attempted to reconcile the narrator-based definition with the possibility of non-verbal narration by analyzing drama and movie as presupposing the utterance of a narratorial figure, even when the film or the play does not make use of voice-over narration.
Both of these issues hold significance in large part because they impact how we construct and distribute a narrative piece to the client audience(s). Additionally, these issues impact how the final report or video is understood. Is the intended message conveyed? Is there a necessary conflict between what in differing contexts might be labeled “science” and “drama”? If the piece is understood as science or art, what value do the audiences place on both of these concepts? The overarching issue at hand is less about determining what constitutes ownership of the narrative voice than it is about whether or not we, the anthropologists in the field, are able to successfully convey meaning that results in some degree of change or understanding. All ethnographers make use of narrative conventions when communicating the presumed results of our fieldwork, whether that method of communication is a piece of video or a monograph. The authorial voice is ever present. It’s simply a matter of how loudly we wish it to be heard in the telling of someone else’s story.