Personal stories as data

04Apr06

Came across this on Dina's blog – "One thing remains constant about our humanity – that we must never stop trying to tell stories of who we think we are. Equally, we must never stop wanting to listen to each other's stories. If we ever stopped, it would all be over. Everything we are as human beings, would be reduced to a lost book floating in the universe, with no one to remember us, no one to know we once existed" – Ruth Behar in an article called Ethnography and the Book That Was Lost.

Stories and narratives as means of capturing and preserving information – and data . I had written something on narrative interviewing a few years ago when I had just begun to get interested in alternative research methods. Here it is:

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Was at the Chalukya temples of Belur and Halebid recently….. our guide pointed to each sculpture with great excitement - Can you see the angry expression on her face…. See the modern hairstyle of women even in those days… that is the story of Dashavatara…. and so on…..

Messages and morals communicated through stories in stone…. Stories which have survived centuries of exposure to the elements and invasions. Would these have survived as well in any other form ?? Or been as interesting and relevant in today’s times ?

I have been thinking about the idea of using narratives as a tool for collecting qualitative research data. This technique derives its name from the Latin word narrare meaning, to report, to tell a story…. The basis of narrative interviewing and analysis is ‘every idea is a story and can be recounted so’.

The idea of stories or narratives as a social communication tool has been in existence since the times of Aristotle's Poetics. It is certainly no stranger to India, where didactic fables and tales have been the most popular and effective method of sharing socio-cultural and religious norms and mores. The Panchatantra, The Upanishads….

And what is the Mahabharata but one huge tree of a story with a million stories and sub-stories as branches in between?

Narratives are ideal for understanding personal experience and are always embedded in a social-historical context. Further, they concede to no boundaries of space or time and can be transported everywhere.

Roland Barthes says Narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative…..

…..narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself….

There are various advantages to narrative interviewing : they do away with traditional and schematic question-answer format and let the narrator (or the respondent in this case) relate the “issue” in her own words and according to her understanding of the flow of events. It reveals a world-view not imposed by the “researcher” through his/her own analysis and interpretation of the situation, but one that is the narrator’s own and therefore invaluable.

How many times have we encountered respondents within the structure of a focus group discussion or a formal interview embark upon a story in order to elucidate her point….. Would some of these ‘stories’ be worth pursuing instead of multiple ‘answers’ to the question in hand….

How many times have we ourselves started a conversation with ‘you know what happened yesterday…..?’ Would we be able to communicate the same feelings and ‘data’ in a question-answer format?

As a social research tool, narratives have been proven to be indispensable; can we experiment with this tool in conventional market research…
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