Narrative Analysis

Sally Eastoe, Joel Haire, & Alan Rees

Narrative analysis is a qualitative research method. Polkinghorne (1988) states that narrative is the fundamental scheme for linking individual human actions and events into interrelated aspects of an understandable composite.
Narrative analysis is a first-person account by respondents of their experience in relation to a nominated subject. This particular research method assesses how respondents in the course of an interview make sense of questions and comments raised in relation to events and actions in their lives. This research approach is therefore well suited to studies that are based around identity and subjectivity.
What About Narrative Analysis?
This research process is based upon different primary experiences: attending, telling, transcribing, analysing, and reading. The limitation we have with these forms of representation is that they all have text and talk that may either represent partly, selectively, or imperfectly part of the story.
Narrative analysis allows the researcher to see how respondents impose their order on experience and environment by commenting upon their relationships between events and actions through stories. Therefore, narrative enables the researcher to identify the transitional stages leading to a given situation, and to identify similarities and differences between groups.
A researcher would use this research method if they wish to gain a rich perspective, holistic, and dynamic view of their subject matter.
Structure of Narratives
Drawing from the seminal work of Labov (1969), Langellier (1989) reiterates that each narrative has formal properties, and a complete narrative has six key components: 1.An abstract (summary of the narrative); 2. Orientation (time, place, situation, participants); 3. Complicating action (sequence of events); 4. Evaluation (significance and meaning of the action, attitude of the narrator); 5. Resolution (what finally happened), and 6. Coda (returns the perspective to the present).
Limitations of Narrative Analysis
This research method has limitations in the following situations:
Studies of large numbers;
Researchers who seek an uncomplicated view of subjects; and
Where attention is required to understand subtleties of the information gathered.
The information gathered and analysed through this research approach may see interpretations distorted by subjectivity as to an understanding the key issues, subject manipulation, self-selection of target audience, and generalisation of results.
Narrative Analysis in a Business Context
This section offers suggestions about where narrative analysis could be used in a business context and the links between narrative analysis as a methodology and organisation dynamics.
Narrative analysis is concerned with the recording and interpreting of stories. Subjects are asked to relate stories about a topic, to the researcher, in an attempt to explain phenomena in the subject’s life. Since stories are ubiquitous in social contexts (people relate experiences to each other through stories) and stories are used to structure meaning from experience (people tell themselves stories) narrative analysis can be used widely.
This is an abductive (inductive) approach. Thus, this research method is useful in developing new hypothesis to explain shared or different perspectives and to explain how these perspective’s evolved over time. For example, this approach may be suitable to support research that examines the unconscious aspects of organisational life, culture, leadership, power and conflict. In today’s changing world the issues that are central to organisational life such as managing change in a complex environment need to be understood from a dynamic perspective. We would therefore argue that narrative analysis lends itself to the research of organisational phenomena of this nature.
Narrative analysis provides subjects with the opportunity to tell a story in order for the researcher to understand the interdependency between numerous social factors and the changes that underpin the complexity of the organisational environment.
Organisations as systems have become a favoured way for academics and practitioners to understand organisation dynamics. A systems perspective lends itself to a qualitative method of research, and to be understood holistically requires that the researcher investigate the human dynamics that impact, as well as the process, systems and feedback loops. Narrative therefore allows the researcher to draw upon a far greater range of issues in either testing or explaining a hypothesis or organisational problem.
Since narrative frames reality in the context of an individual or groups perspective, this enables us to understand what is required to change the story, so an organisation can influence its future (Riessman, 1993). Therefore narrative analysis could be said to intrinsically embrace the issues associated with change since all theories are in fact narratives.
Fundamentally narrative is about the telling and analysis of stories, it therefore can be interpreted that all business theorists (e.g. Porter, Ansoff, and Adizes) influence the individual narratives of organisations if they adopt their theories as their own. This argument supports the view that narrative analysis as a method of research can be applied to organisations in general.
Application to Organisational Research
"The narrative scheme serves as a lens through which the apparently independent and disconnected elements of existence are seen as related parts of a whole" (Barry & Elmes 1997, p3). Therefore narrative enables the researcher to gather and analyse information from multiple dimensions and has the capacity to present the relatedness between interdependencies.
This methodology enables the researcher to synergise and bring together a number of key elements when approaching or analysing an organisational problem, or testing a hypothesis which contributes to presenting a holistic way of understanding a particular organisational issue.
Conflicting Views

Since narratives are fundamentally abductive it allows for different views to emerge. This method allows the researcher to study interdependent issues, and from this explore and analyse differences that impact upon organisational performance.
"Narrative stories express multiple, possibly conflicting viewpoints, these are often choral-like, three dimensional, self-reflexive, and dynamic." (Barry & Elmes 1997, p.13) In today’s changing world managers are faced with managing in ambiguity and paradox, which requires a research methodology that can deal with uncertainties. The breadth, complexity and richness of stories offer a holistic way of collecting data.
Changing Context

Organisational phenomena, such as leadership, strategic management, culture and change are narratives that have an historical context, which are quantifiable and measurable. When understood from a dynamic perspective differing and new narratives do emerge. Narrative analysis encompasses both the told and the telling. This implies that narrative not only addresses the present reality but it also shapes future direction.
Let us consider organisational strategy as an example. Traditionally, strategy is a story of the past and the expected future that is usually articulated through text and performance objectives for key stakeholders. Narrative analysis provides a medium for an organisation to express their current reality, and the multiple stories that describe and predict their future (Barry & Elmes, 1997).
"This has powerful implications for organisations in a future context as they move away from individual, monological organisations (Gergen, 1995) to virtual or throw-away ones (March 1995)" (Barry & Elmes, 1997). These discard organizations will require narratives that can cope with blurred organisational boundaries (Hirschhorn & Gilmore, 1992).

Today’s organisations are becoming more and more complex. Roles have greater breadth of responsibility and boundaries less clear. The speed and amount of change is increasing. This has implications for the researcher, as this requires a methodological approach to reality that is emergent.
Since the ontology of narrative analysis takes the view that reality is created by individuals and group stories, narrative analysis therefore takes care of these requirements of complexity from a research perspective. As a research method it can allow respondents to express greater feelings, celebration, individuality. This opens the argument that stories connect with the experiences of organisational life that to the future might look like and transform existing paradigms (Barry & Elmes 1997, p.11).

We have already suggested that narrative gives the researcher a view of the organisation from either an individual or group perspective. This may be different based upon their own frame of reference and their perception of the current status of their internal and external environments. These narratives will change as these environments evolve, and at the same time these internal and external environments will change based upon the influence of these narratives. As a research method, therefore narrative in itself is dynamic.
This method requires the researcher to ask the respondents to verify their stories. In turn this provides feedback to the organisation through the respondents, who not only, validate the research method, but also provide a dynamic process where stories become changed. As we change our stories we change the organisation.
Limitations of Narrative Analysis in Business Research
Listed below are the limitations of narrative analysis in the context of business related research: Predominant research history in social sciences in preference to business;
Not necessarily applicable across organisations, findings are not easily generalised;
Requires other research methodologies to support overall analysis of a given subject; and
Our research has shown that narrative analysis has been used predominantly to research the social sciences, and that minimal research has been undertaken using this methodology in a business context. Historically the two disciplines have been considered to require different philosophies and ways of thinking, consequently scientific methods of research have been seen as the preferred and more valid method in the business field.
Developments in organisational theories have bought both disciplines closer together, however narrative analysis, which occupies the extreme of the qualitative and subjective continuum, is still seen as problematic in terms of finding the "truth". In a business world that is driven by the ‘bottom line’ there is still a tendency to favour research methods that are more quantifiable.
Qualitative method, and narrative in particular is concerned with the depth of the subjects experiences and interpretations. This, together with the fact that data is drawn from a relatively small number of subjects makes it more difficult to generalise and compare results across organisations.
It is generally accepted that narrative analysis has limitations as a research methodology, and that additional research methods are required to provide a more complete picture of the information given. In the business context this will mean additional time and costs to confirm findings.
Narrative as a Research Method: Papers of Interest
1. Pugh, Deborah, The Use of the Qualitative Case Study Approach as a Way of Integrating Research
and Practice in Counselling Psychology, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, Sep 98, Vol.11 Issue 3, p257

This article demonstrates the use of narrative analysis in the context of a case study. The strength of this article in relation to narrative is that: It shows how by examining the choice of words and selection of phrases how a relationship can be understood as a dynamic and how the relationship changes; Identifies themes across relationships; By examining the language the author demonstrates how people can construct their narrative to serve a particular purpose. Although the example is in a counselling context it could easily be transferred to explore relationships in any setting. It is also a clear, simple practical example of narrative analysis.
2. Barry, David; Elms, Michael, Strategy retold: Toward a narrative view of strategic discourse, Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review, Mississippi State; Apr 1997.
This article uses narrative theory, to explore strategic management as a form of fiction. It introduces several key narrative concepts, and the challenge strategists have faced in making strategic discourse both credible and novel. It also considers how narratives may change within the virtual organisation of the future. Victor Shklovsky first put forth the narrative model that is explained. (whose ideas were further developed by other members of the Russian Formalist circle; cf. Ann Bowlt, 1973; Lemon & Reis, 1965; Matejka & Pomorska, 1971). It is a deceptively simple approach which underpins several other narrative frameworks, thus providing a possible foundation for future work. It can also be applied to many kinds of narrative, an important point given that strategic discourse tends to adopt a variety of forms. The model contends with credibility and defamiliarisation.
For strategy to be successful it needs to be believable and change perception. Both of these are dealt with in depth. It also discusses what forms narratives might take when contending with strategy in relation to the virtual organisation of the future. The strength of this article is that it places the use of narrative theory firmly in the realm of business as opposed to the fields of psychology, sociology or feminist theory.
By working with narrative in the context of strategy it place narrative theory in what might be considered to be the core of organisational functioning. Although this article does not deal with narrative in the context of research it demonstrates how narrative contributes to organisational development in a powerful way. From this assumptions could be made about how narrative as a method of research could be used in a business setting.
3. Bailey, Patricia Hill, Assuring Quality in Narrative Analysis, Western Journal of Nursing Research, Apr 96, Vol. 18 Issue 2, p186-189.
This article is of particular interest as it deals with qualitative research and narrative analysis in the medical profession where scientific research methods have been traditionally valued. It clarifies what the terms quality, trustworthiness, credibility, authenticity, and goodness mean in qualitative research findings. The process of assuring quality and validation, in qualitative research are discussed within the context of the interpretive method, narrative analysis. The strength of this article is that it deals with the issue of validity in relation to qualitative research method. It links the interpretive approach with an interest in meaning rather than truth and specifically refers to narrative analysis in this context.
4. Lempert, Lora Bex, Narrative Analysis of Abuse, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Jan 94, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p 411-342.
Narrative analysis as described in this article endeavours to interpret the feelings and reactions of an individual in a physically and mentally abused relationship. It focuses on the internal logic of this narrative as it is relayed to the reader through grammatical structures and word selection. This approach was used to uncover the multiple meanings that emanate from a person in terms of their frame of reference as a partner, mother, and an individual in the context of social structures, historical, and public perceptions.
This analysis helps the reader understand how the person experiencing this abuse was able to react and later transform while interacting with her psychological, physical, social and cultural environment Lempert (1994). Narrative analysis focuses on the "how" of lived experience and the causal "why", analysis is framed interactionally and attempts to unravel the multiple meanings that derive from interactional events while simultaneously seeking to examine the social text presented in the personal narrative Denzin (1989). The strength of this article is that it was able to demonstrate to the reader how narratives evolve and their impact upon research.
5. Atkinson, Paul, Narrative Turn or Blind Alley, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Aug 97, Vol. 7 Issue 3, p 325-344
This article is a commentary on narrative analysis in the context of qualitative research in medical studies. The basic premise of this article is that narrative analysis should be built into a systematic approach and should not be the sole method of assessment when investigating the multiple issues related to a given subject. This article demonstrates that narrative is an authentic account of a given subject, where storytelling is used to represent reality. It deals with the notion that where narrative is used to promote one view of culture it is using narrative in reductionist way. To overcome this article suggests that thick description should be used to provide multiple perspectives.
6. Polkinghorne, David. E, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1988.
This paper is an attempt to explain narrative. The proposition is that narrative consists of two elements: a scheme that links actions and events, which is primarily concerned with the connectivity between them. Secondarily this article examines how linguistic is a form of expression of the meaning contained in narrative. It suggests that narrative are pervasive and can be divided into subjects and can accommodate and generate an infinite variety of specific stories. It draws on suppositions about human experience and uses the narrative scheme to compare and contrast narrative against paradigmatic mode.
Narrative is described as the connections between events and paradigmatic mode is the search from truth. In this chapter the author suggests that the plot is central to narrative theory and provides the organising theme through chronicled events. The plot constructs the realm for meaning to be expressed and the interpretation of the relationship between perceptions and the events. It also considers the impact of culture on the plot.
Narrative theory is concerned with the explanation of the complexity of events rather than the demonstration of what has occurred. The benefit of this chapter for the researcher is that it provides depth of understanding of the construction of narratives.
7. Blyler, Nancy & Perkins, Jane, Culture and the Power of Narrative, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, July 99, Vol. 13 No. 3, p. 245 - 248.
This article explores the linkage between culture and the concept of narrative analysis. Narratives are used to make meaning of knowledge and experience in the context of an organisations culture. The use of narrative analysis is used to overcome the binary approach of western thought and provide a more enriched understanding of organisational culture. Narratives are demonstrated as being the process of drawing together organisational thought in a given area, e.g. Bank of Canada. Stories are central in providing meaning to organisations. Scientific narratives enable scientists to give meaning to scientific work, and to fully explain limitations within their work.
Narratives are seen as being important in expanding the existing boundaries of communication for results and activities. The strength of this article is that it demonstrates the relationship between narratives and culture in an organisational setting.
8. Stevenson, W. B., Greenburg, D. N. The Formal Analysis of Narratives of Organizational Behaviour Journal of Management Nov-Dec 1998 v24 i6 p741 (2)
These authors argue that historically, narrative analysis developed as an interpretive technique with a strong emphasis on what the narrative explained rather than how the events in the narrative were related in a cause and effect relationship. This emphasis, the authors feel, leaves narrative analysis unable to support the development of effective and sustainable generalizations. Their answer to this challenge is to introduce the concept of narrative positivism. Narrative positivism according to the authors; "...differs from these techniques in its desire to link events to other events, determine which events precipitated other events, and produce consistent inferences through the use of formal rules that allow replication and generaliazability"(1998 p744)
In order to satisfactorily carry out narrative positivism the authors introduce a tool. A computer program called ETHNO. This tool is based on Event Structure Analysis (ESA). In turn ESA is based on "formal mathematical logic" (1998 p745) The ESA approach sequences events and constructs cause and effect relationships between them. It attempts to identify critical points in the narrative when the flow changes. The program itself produces a diagram, which is used in the explanation process.
The paper elaborates on the application of the technique with an analysis of the mobilization of a city council in response to environmental pressure groups. The use of the approach proposed in this paper is that it is dependent on the researcher’s philosophy. Is the social world capable of being reduced to cause and effect relationships or is the reductionist approach going to ignore the subjective interpretation (or misinterpretation) of reality by social actors and the distortion of cause and effect by this subjectivity?
9. Labov W. Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis,
Labov, in this article, give a brief history of how and why using a narrative develops narrative analysis! The article does not stop at this point but continues on to raise two important issues. The first of these issues relates to the proof value of narrative analysis. "The discussion of narrative and other speech events at the discourse level rarely allows us to prove anything." The second relates to the usefulness of narrative analysis. "The most important data that I have gathered on narrative is not drawn from the observation of speech production or controlled experiments, but from the reactions of audiences to the narratives as I have retold them"
In addition to raising and discussing these two issues, Labov discusses further the following areas, which can be analysed in narrative; 1. temporal organisation
2. reportability
3. credibility
4. objectivity
5. causality
6. assignment of blame and praise

For the serious researcher using the technique this is a must read article!
10. Shorter Worktime Network of Canada. Narrative Policy Analysis
This article refers to a book by Emery Roe called Narrative Policy Analysis. In this book, it states, Roe specifies four steps for narrative policy analysis

1. Identify policy narratives that dominate the issue under investigation
2. Identify other narratives that counter the dominant themes
3. Compare the two sets and develop a meta-narrative from both
4. Determine if the meta-narrative can recast issues in an attempt to make it more palatable to policy makers
This list suggests a very practical application of narrative analysis it indicates how narrative analysis can be used to redefine actions. Thus the text would appear to be worth reading.
Atkinson, Paul, "Narrative Turn or Blind Alley", Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Aug 97, Vol. 7 Issue 3, p 325, 20 p.
Bailey, Patricia Hill, "Assuring Quality in Narrative Analysis", Western Journal of Nursing Research, Apr 96, Vol. 18 Issue 2, p186, 9.
Barry, David; Elms, Michael, "Strategy retold: Toward a narrative view of strategic discourse", Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review, Mississippi State; Apr 1997.
Blyler, Nancy & Perkins, Jane, "Culture and the Power of Narrative", Journal of Business and Technical Communication, July 99, Vol. 13 No. 3, p. 245 - 248.
Labov W. "Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis",
Labov and Waletzky (1972) Language in the inner city
Lempert, Lora Bex, "Narrative Analysis of Abuse", Journal of Contemporary Ethnography,Jan 94, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p 411, 31.
Polkinghorne, David. E, "Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences", State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1988.
Pugh, Deborah, "The Use of the Qualitative Case Study Approach as a Way of Integrating Research and Practice in Counselling Psychology", Counselling Psychology Quarterly, Sep 98, Vol.11 Issue 3, p257.
Riessman, C., K. Narrative Analysis, Sage Publications, USA, 1993.
Shorter Worktime Network of Canada. "Narrative Policy Analysis"
Stevenson, W. B.& Greenburg, D. N. "The Formal Analysis of Narratives of Organizational Behaviour" Journal of Management Nov-Dec 1998 v24 i6 p741 (2)