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On Narrative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy

reviewed by Colleen Fairbanks - September 29, 2011

coverTitle: On Narrative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy
Author(s): David Schaafsma and Ruth Vinz, with Sara Brock, Randi Dickson, and Nick Sousanis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752037, Pages: 160, Year: 2011
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On Narrative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research had been on my list of books to read when I was invited to do this review. I have had many doctoral students propose dissertations that, while not specifically narrative inquiry as Schaafsma and Vinz define it, certainly have drawn on narratives as a means of analyzing and interpreting experiences, both their own and others’. I had always looked for a text that might help these students understand the complex process of rendering experiences in research, one that requires a fair amount of self-examination and tolerance for ambiguity not always comfortable for beginning researchers. It is from this perspective that I began my reading. I discovered through my reading that although there may be a few “I wish they had” ideas for me, On Narrative Inquiry provides the kinds of immersion into the process of narrative research that will prove useful for beginning and experienced researchers alike.

The organization and point of view in this last volume of the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy series is unique in its form and approach. Schaafsma and Vinz make the deliberate choice to use narrative to move the reader through the process of narrative inquiry by speaking directly to the reader and sharing their conversations about composing this book. This choice illustrates simultaneously the intricacies of narrative inquiry and the possibilities open to researchers who adopt narrative approaches. As part of one such conversation, specifically related to point of view, Vinz explains:

Consider how we use second person narrative in this book. We made a conscious decision to have our readers as a character in this book because as we see it our readers are on the narrative journey with us. (p. 104)

The writers’ decision here points to both the immediate point of view they adopt and one of the essential considerations all researchers must explore as they undertake narrative inquiries (and should be a consideration in all forms of research). The structure of the book then takes us on a journey through the labyrinth of narratives, narrative inquiry, its recursiveness, and the authors’ procedural insights.

Their commitment to narrating their way through such inquiry is punctuated with stories of various sorts that flesh out, in an almost literal sense, the unfolding of research narratives. Chapter Three, for example, is a narrative by then doctoral student, Sara Brock, who tells a story of the way she works to frame her dissertation study, intertwining her personal and academic explorations. This story is a significant part of the text for several reasons. Its narrator Sara, who is both doctoral student and new mother, is a character certain to resonate with many graduate students and professors. Equally important, her story allows readers to see and hear the questions she wants to explore, how she does so, whom she reads, how she understands their stories, how her commitments to specific tenets of narrative inquiry evolve over time. This story and others throughout the text help readers grasp the multi-perspectival nature of narrative as well as the choices researchers make in following specific theoretical threads and questions. Narrative, to be well crafted, requires that researchers continually examine and reveal their interpretations, their questions, and their positions in the research.

This notion is best represented in Chapter 5, Narrative Conversations: Questions of Efficacy, which closely examines a researcher, Paul, and his evolving relationship to the inquiry, its participants, each person’s history, and especially his own:

The key to the process, in fact, is shaping the instrument—the researcher—to become a traveler, a medium for questions, stories, possibilities, and interpretations. This requires tuning-the-self as researcher to particular dispositions and ways of working that keep a degree of flexibility when articulating research agendas. (p. 69)

What follows from this assertion is, I believe, one of the clearest explanations of how Paul learns to explore his questions, the data he has collected, and himself, developing the “habit of critical reflection” essential to the interpretive process (p. 76). In my experiences, what generally passes for self-exploration and positioning oneself as a researcher amounts more accurately to the “rehearsals towards reflexivity” (p. 76) that stop short of the deep interrogation of dispositions that we see Paul acquiring through the reflections the authors provide us.

At the end of this chapter, Schaafsma and Vinz take up the way narrative researchers may similarly narrate theory. In a section entitled “Narrating Bourdieu,” Roberta Lenger Kang writes about Bourdieu’s concepts of structuring structures, objective structures, and habitus. She opens this story by describing her neighborhood and the “Keep off the Grass” sign that sits across the street from her apartment building and then examines the idea of signs and their connection to Bourdieu in a way that makes these abstract concepts come alive. The purpose of such stories, as Schaafsma and Vinz make clear, is the need for theory not to be summarized in a literature review:

Before any of us can know theory as a supple presence in our research and in our lives, we must live with it, articulate it through “objects” and experiences, and story it as a way of understanding how it works in the world. (p. 83)

This process, they contend, assists narrative researchers to embody theory specifically in narrative inquiry and “to imbue the interpretation, analysis, and reflection back into narrative accounts.

The book concludes with a more intimate examination of narrative through stories written by Randi Dickinson followed by a reflective essay about their construction and the art of narrative craft. Both of Dickinson’s stories are written with grace and insight, and the following chapter on narrative techniques is a useful set of tools for those interested in crafting stories. Dickinson’s essay, “Dilemmas of Craft,” outlines the feelings most researchers feel in their inability to capture all that is important to the story, whether it be case studies or other kinds of qualitative research, as well as the sense of responsibility of writers who have been “entrusted with the story of a life, and [who] must tend carefully to how [they] return that life to the teller through [their] words” (p. 116). This, it seems to me, simply and powerfully reminds us of not only the ethics of research with others but also the significance of what has come before in the text: the thoughtful examination of what it means to conduct narrative inquiry.

Shaafsma and Vinz’s On Narrative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research responds admirably to its primary questions:

Why are narratives researched? What are the potential purposes in doing so? What does narrative research ask and expect of researchers, participants, and audiences? How might narrative be used to gather, interpret, or analyze data? (pp. 1-2)

If I have small wishes, they would include a bit more expansive description of the various theorists who have informed narrative inquiry and their epistemological perspectives. These are complex theories that without more explanation might confuse rather than enlighten. I might also want a bit more introduction to the chapters written as stories. I understand the commitment that stories stand on their own merit and insights, but I fear that my students and researchers less open to narrative inquiry may struggle with their purpose and meanings without some guidance from the authors. By comparison to what this book accomplishes, however, these are small regrets. The ways the authors and their students and colleagues illustrate processes and perspectives gets, for me at least, to the heart of narrative inquiry. I can fill in where needed using many of the ideas the authors propose.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 29, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16553, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 1:48:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Colleen Fairbanks
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    COLLEEN M. FAIRBANKS is professor and chair in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her interests include adolescent literacy and identities, socio-historical theory, and policy and practices related to English learners. She has published recently in Harvard Educational Review, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Research in the Teaching of English, and Journal of Teacher Education.
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