What is Life Narrative?

This project is based on what we call Life Narrative sessions, which are typically 2-to-4 hours in length and are recorded. In essence, people share their life story with as much interference from the Listener; the ultimate hope, of course, is that the Rivers and River communities in which the participants have lived and traversed, will wind their way through the narrative. This necessitates, on occasion, the Listener to be actively engaged and to hope that the nature of the project itself, “NY River Voices,” will serve to prompt the participant to talk about their life, livelihood and relationships with rivers in mind. Stories are then analyzed individually, for each offers rich data to be mined, and they are also examined as a body of stories to see what valuable information, theories or data might emerge.

If you are interested in the more “academic” background of Life Narrative, read on, including some recommended articles and resources at the bottom to learn more.

Formal, Academic Description of Life Narrative as a Method

Life Narrative as a methodology is often grouped as one of several forms of narrative inquiry and is rooted in the premise that as humans, we come to understand and give meaning to our lives through story. Trahar (2009) notes this inquiry, grounded in hermeneutics and phenomenology, embraces narrative as both the “method and the phenomena of study.” Life narrative, by contrast to other forms of narrative methodologies, has normally focused on the capturing of stories orally, rather than collecting stories in written and visual form, and seeks to provide “insight that (befits) the complexity of human lives” (Josselson, 2006, p. 4). Trahar emphasizes that the importance of narrative methodologies is not merely in the uncritical collection of stories; rather, researchers should strive to “attend to the ways in which a story is constructed, for whom and why,” as well as the cultural discourses from which these stories draw.

Of important distinction, researchers emphasize the importance of remembering that in life narrative methodologies, in which stories are gathered and retold, the researcher is not necessarily telling stories of the past, but rather from the past.

“Making stories from one’s lived history is a process by which ordinarily we revise the past retroactively, and when we do we are engaged in processes of languaging and describing that modify the past. What we see as true today may not have been true at the time the actions we are describing were performed. Thus we need to resist the temptation to attribute intentions and meanings to events that they did not have at the time they were experienced” (Bochner, 2007 p.203).

Considering Murray (2004), the relationship established during storytelling may transform the role of the researcher from ‘interviewer’ to that of ‘storyteller’ to an even greater extent when compared to a less intimate pairing. Murray describes the life narrative interview process as a ‘shared experience’ and in this context, “a researcher’s own interaction is involved and the co-creation of events must of necessity be the starting point” (in Klaebe, 2006, p. 46). Recognizing this dynamism, narrative inquiry as a particular qualitative method often relies on a standard practice that begins with the “researcher’s autobiographically oriented narrative associated with the research puzzle” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 40).

Bryman (2001) and Becker (1999), discussing ethical considerations, argue that in using interview techniques, it is not possible for the researcher to remain completely objective regarding the data. They call for limiting conclusions carefully, and for fielding, as best as researchers can, any accusations or doubts one might have (in Klaebe, 2006). Recorded self-reflection is recommended, and to that end, reflective, post-interview field journals were used in this project, employing Geertz’s “thick description,” to include notations of setting, location, physical description of the subject-participants, body language, relationship between the interviewer and subject-participants, and other contextual observations. These field notes contextualize not only the current project, but may offer additional insights for other future endeavors using similar methodologies.

It should also be noted that this project was carried out with mindfulness of the skepticism put forth by Grele (1999), whose criticism of oral history methodologies concerned the lack of scholarly rigor employed by ‘untrained users’ of oral history techniques. These deficiencies, he notes, evidence lack of preparation and “badly formulated” questions and interviewing methods. An attempt was made in this project to depart from what he describes as a willingness to “settle for journalistic standards of usefulness” (pp.179-180), by developing well-informed prompts and widely-held approaches. At the same time, this project acknowledges an unavoidable inclusion of the use of “conversational narrative: conversational because of the relationship of interviewer and interviewee, and narrative because of the form of exposition – the telling of the tale” (p. 184).