Narrative Research Design


Qualitative research focuses on the development of explanations of the various social phenomena, with the view to helping the population understand why things are the way they are. Qualitative research answers questions such as:

“why people behave the way they do; how opinions and attitudes are formed; how people are affected by the events that go on around them; how and why cultures have developed in the way they have and the differences between social groups” (Holliday, 2007).

There are various designs of qualitative research designs, whose differences are concerned with the original research question, the people or situations being studied, and the way the data is analysed, interpreted and presented. This paper takes a closer look at the narrative research design.

Description of narrative research

In narrative research, “the researchers describe the lives of individuals, collect and tell stories about people’s lives, and write narratives of individual experiences” (Zikmund, Babin, Carr, & Griffin, 2010)”. Narrative research is a distinct form of qualitative research whereby it “focuses on studying a single person, gathering data through the collection of stories, reporting individual experiences, and discussing the meaning of those experiences for the individual” (Zikmund, Babin, Carr, & Griffin, 2010).

There are particular instances when narrative research is used. These include:

“when individuals are willing to tell their stories; when the researcher desires to report personal experiences in a specific setting; when a close bond between the researcher and respondents is desired; when the respondents intend to process their stories; when there is a chronology of events; and when the researcher intends to write in a literary way and develop the micro picture” (Creswell, 2008).

The development of narrative research is influenced by particular trends including: “increased emphasis on teacher reflection; emphasis placed on teacher knowledge; and attempt to bring teachers’ voices to the forefront” (Johnson & Christensen, 2004). When conducting the narrative research, the researcher has to identify a few things such as the individuals who will write or record the story, like biography or autobiography; the depth of personal life that will be presented, like life history or personal experience story; who provides the story; and the ideal time to combine narrative forms, like biography and personal account.

Collection of individual experiences

he researcher “analyses and writes about an individual’s life or experiences using a time sequence or chronology of events” (Loseke & Cahil, 2007). The researcher arranges the occurrences in a manner that makes sense to individuals reading them. Narrative research tells stories in the first person, verbally. Some of the characteristics of these stories are that they have a beginning, middle and end. They “involve a predicament, conflict or struggle; a protagonist or character; and a sequence which has a plot or implied causality during which the predicament is resolved in some fashion” (Flyvbjerg, 2011). The stories have “time, place, plot and scene, with varied sources of data comprising the database” (Flyvbjerg, 2011).


This process requires the researcher to collect personal stories, and examine them for elements of the story. “The researcher rewrites the story to place it in a chronological sequence, to provide a causal link among ideas” (Loseke & Cahil, 2007). Information here includes interaction, continuity and situation. The first step in restoring is transcription. Here the researcher performs the interview and records the discussion using an audiotape. The second step is retranscription, whereby the researcher identifies the key elements of the story. These comprise codes used to identify the setting, actions of characters, problem, and resolution in the transcript. The final step is restoring, which involves arranging the main codes into an appropriate order (Johnson & Christensen, 2004).

The researcher uses themes to provide the complexity of the story. They can also “add depth to the insight about understanding an individual’s experiences” (Mahoney & Goertz, 2006). In addition to this, “themes can be incorporated into the passage retelling the individual’s experience or as a separate section of the study. The setting for the individual stories includes the people involved in the story; and the physical setting” (Holliday, 2007). This may be described before events or actions or included during the study period.

The process of collecting pieces of information from the subjects involves collaboration. “The inquirer actively involves the participant in the inquiry as it unfolds. The strategies used in collaboration include negotiating relationships, involving participants in the process of research, and negotiating transitions in the research process” (Holliday, 2007).

The narrative research processes

The association between the researcher and the respondents is one of the main features of narrative research. The informant is referred to as the collaborator. Data collected can take various forms including:

“field notes; journal records; interview transcripts; one’s own and other’s observations; storytelling; letter writing; autobiographical writing; documents such as school and class plans, newsletters, and other texts, such as rules and principles; video recordings; and pictures” (Zikmund, Babin, Carr, & Griffin, 2010).

steps in narrative research
Figure 1: steps in narrative research

The narrative research approach has three primary issues namely: “the relationship between the researcher and her or his research subjects; how a narrative is developed from an experienced and orally told story into a written text; and the hermeneutic or interpretive nature of narrative research” (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). In narrative inquiry, it is vital for the researcher and collaborators to exercise equality. This allows the subjects to feel empowered to tell their stories, by having their own voice in the field.

Problems may arise due to varying interpretations by both the researcher and the collaborator. The collaborator may question the interpretive authority of the researcher, though the researcher may not always accept the explanations provided by the subject as correct. Including both the researcher and collaborator’s points of view in the research process helps to eliminate any inaccuracies that may arise due to the collaborator shaping the story, instead of expressing the facts (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). In this way, “the multivoicedness of the narrative would appear more clearly than it would if the researcher and the research subject have a joint understanding of the narratives that occur during the inquiry process” (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008).

The process of creating a narrative involves documenting an accurate story resulting from collaboration between the researcher and the respondent. Documentation of the story means that the story is not attached to the period in which the events happened. This implies that the story is autonomized, since it has been isolated from the time of its occurrence. Another result of documentation is that the story assumes importance that is not tied to the initial circumstances, but is applicable in various contexts. In addition to this, the documented narrative is “considered an “open work” where the meaning is addressed to those who read and hear about it” (Mahoney & Goertz, 2006). This makes it possible to interpret the story in a variety of situations.

The creation of a narrative involves the organization of human experiences into significant events. These human experiences are not accessible to direct observation, but their narration to text allows for direct observation and personal interpretation. A narrative, therefore, functions at two levels, whereby the first is a selection of a particular story from a complex situation and fixing it in a narrative. The second level involves giving the story meaning by constructing the narrative (Mahoney & Goertz, 2006).

Limitations of narrative research

It is not possible for a researcher to identify whether a story is authentic or not. Since the individuals provide personal stories, they can provide false information that is in their favor. Some of the stories shared by the participants may have omissions or exaggerations, especially when they are not experienced firsthand. Another problem that the researcher may face is whether to share the story obtained or not. The issue here arises because nobody knows who owns the story (Creswell, 2008).

In addition to this, the issue of whether the participants lose their voice arises. Here, the participant may share a story in order to gain recognition, but the researcher may end up gaining at the expense of the participant.

Comparison of qualitative and quantitative research

The features of qualitative studies may be viewed from two perspectives, merits, or limitations. A common criticism for qualitative research is that the study results may not be generalisable to a larger population. This belief is justified by the small sample group and non-random selection of collaborators or respondents. Another way to look at the same characteristic is that the investigation may be seeking a particular insight from a specific subgroup of the population and not the general population. The small sample may be an attribute of few subjects, as in the case of patients suffering from a rare condition. Other differences in features of qualitative research and quantitative research are tabulated below according to Creswell (2006).

Qualitative research and quantitative research
Figure 2. Qualitative research and quantitative research

Other Qualitative Research Designs

Besides narrative research, there are other common qualitative research designs used, namely phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, and case study.


This term is used both as a particular type of qualitative research and a general description of qualitative research. Phenomenology refers to the study of phenomena, by describing something that exists as part of the world in which we live. Phenomena comprise many things including events, situations, experiences and concepts. The researcher observes that the population is surrounded by many phenomena, but is not aware of them. This is because a particular phenomenon may not be overtly described and explained or the public’s understanding of its impact may be unclear.

An example of such a phenomenon is back pain. There may be numerous studies about the kinds of people who are likely to experience back pains and the causes, or even comparisons of various back pain treatments, but there are some questions that remain unanswered. Such include the actual feeling of living with back pain; its effect on people’s lives; and the problems caused by back pains. In such a case, a phenomenological study would seek to investigate the effect of back pain on sufferers’ relationships with other people. The study would also study the strain of such a condition on marriages, or the effect on children of having a disabled parent.

For a phenomenological study to be conducted, the researcher has to identify the existence of a gap in the understanding of the population, and that its clarification would be beneficial. Phenomenological research can, therefore, be said to increase awareness and insight, though the explanations may not be necessarily clear.


Ethnography has a close association with anthropology as it is a methodology for descriptive studies of cultures and peoples. The people being studied are observed to have something in common. This could be geographical, religious, tribal, or a shared experience. The use of ethnography in a health care study would be aimed at identifying the effect of a cultural parameter in the population’s response to treatment or medical care. Such a study is beneficial to health care professionals since it would help to develop cultural awareness and sensitivity and enhance the provision and quality of care for people from all cultures.

Ethnographic studies require extensive fieldwork by the researcher. “The data collection techniques include both formal and informal interviews, and participant observation” (Cozby, 2009). The interviews are often conducted on several occasions, and this is what makes ethnography time-consuming. During the analysis of data, the researcher attempts to interpret the data from the perspective of the population under study. The results are expressed in terms familiar with the subjects, using local language and terminology. An example is in a study for mental illness, whereby the ethnic community identifies it as blessed or gifted behaviour (Cozby, 2009).

The process of ethnography can raise a few challenges in cases where the researchers are unfamiliar with the social mores or language of the subjects. Confusion may arise from misinterpretation by the etic or outsider perspective, and the researcher, therefore, needs to revisit the field to verify his explanation with collaborators’, and validate the data before presenting the findings (Cozby, 2009).

Grounded theory

This research design deals with the development of new theory through the compilation and examination of data regarding an occurrence. Unlike phenomenology, the explanations obtained are indisputably new knowledge and are used to formulate new theories about a phenomenon. New theories are especially useful in healthcare settings, whereby they provide a new approach to existing problems, such as health promotion or provision of care.

The various data compilation systems used to build up grounded theory include: “interviews, observation, literature review and relevant documentary analysis” (Loseke & Cahil, 2007). “Grounded theory involves the simultaneous collection and analysis of data using a process known as constant comparative analysis” (Loseke & Cahil, 2007). The process requires data to be transcribed and evaluated for content right after data collection. Valuable information obtained from the examination is used in the next process of data collection in subsequent field studies, which may result in alterations of the interview process and schedule as the research progresses.

The conception of new theory starts with the recognition of new ideas and themes emerging from what people have said or from dealings that have been witnessed. The review of raw data helps the researcher to form memos, and the formulated hypotheses regarding the association of ideas or categories are tested out. This process leads to the formation of constructs that result in new concepts or understandings, leading to a ‘grounding’ of theory in the data.

Case study

The case study research design can assume either a qualitative or quantitative stance, just like surveys. When observed from a qualitative perspective, a case study relates to the in-depth analysis of a single or small number of units. The case study research is used t describe an entity that forms a single unit such as a person, an organization, or an institution.

The complexity of the case study is varied with the simplest one being an illustrative description of a single occurrence, and the more complex one being an analysis of a social situation over a period of time. The most complex is the extended case study which traces events involving the same actors over a period of time allowing the investigation to reveal changes and adjustments.

The case study research design offers a richness and depth of information not usually offered by other methods since it attempts to capture as many variables as possible. This allows case studies to identify how a complex set of circumstances come together to produce a specific appearance. “It is a highly versatile research method and employs any and all methods of data collection from testing to interviewing” (Johnson & Christensen, 2004).

The case study approach can be used in instances such as the analysis of organizational change in the planning, purchasing, or delivery of health services. A common use of the case study approach is in the evaluation of particular care approaches such as an outreach teenage health service set up as an alternative to general practice-based teenage clinics. The teenage health service, in this case, might be evaluated in terms of input, impact on the health of teenagers locally, and the improvement of mutual associations with other groups involved in promoting teenage health (Johnson & Christensen, 2004).

One of the criticisms aimed at case study research is that the case under study is not necessarily representative of similar cases and therefore the results of the research are not generalisable. This criticism is unfounded since case study research is aimed at describing a particular case in detail. Generalisability is not an issue for the researcher who is involved in studying a specific situation. It is an issue for the readers who want to know whether the findings can be applied elsewhere. It is the readers who must decide whether or not the case being described is sufficiently representative or similar to their own local situation (Mertova & Webster, 2007).


A common feature of narrative research is its continuous interpretive process. “This process of interpretation starts with the selection of a single story from the many possibilities and goes on throughout the research process” (Onwuegbuzie, Jiao, & Bostick, 2004). The interpretive process involves two parties, namely the researcher and the collaborator or subject. The process of interpretation is also continued after the final narrative since publication allows other readers to draw their own conclusions. For the researchers to conduct the study without bias, they have to distance themselves from the scene and make it unfamiliar. The researchers employ theoretical perspectives in an orderly manner, both when they are in the field and when they justify their interpretations to enable them to gain further understanding and insight (Onwuegbuzie, Jiao, & Bostick, 2004).


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