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Finding the Narrative in Narrative Research

Author(s): Cathy A. Coulter

Source: Educational Researcher, Vol. 38, No. 8 (Nov., 2009), pp. 608-611
Published by: American Educational Research Association
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Response to Comments

Finding the Narrative in Narrative Research

Cathy A. Coulter

The author responds to comments by Barone (2009), Clandinin and canonical quality of a narrative would hav
Murphy (2009), and M.W. Smith (2009) on "The Construction Zone: generous page limits allowed by the journal
Literary Elements in Narrative Research" (Coulter & M. L. Smith, We thank every single reader along the
these readers not only for their investmen
2009). She clarifies issues regarding point of view, authorial surplus,
intellectual contributions, but also because
narrative coherence, and the relational qualities of narrative research.
every piece of writing is nothing until it
She maintains that the relational, the ethical, and the aesthetic are not
readers bring multiple readings.
mutually exclusive. Literary elements can function to support col Nevertheless, to some readings I must re
laborative processes while attending to the aesthetic qualities that Michael W Smith (2009; this issue of Educ
invite the reader into the storied account. pp. 603-607) writes that we "make claims f
narrative research as compared with othe
research" (p. 603). Yet an examination of ou
Keywords: narrative research; qualitative research; research
arly work would reveal a wide, even cathol
methodology Indeed, claims of superiority for any given r
be held up to critical scrutiny. We did, howe
conceptual space of narrative research ove
standard and qualitative research in impor

ur initial article in this issue of Educational Researcher explored. Narrative and arts-based forms of
(Coulter & Smith, 2009) has a narrative of its own? wide frontier of possibility in social science
one that stretches over more than 3 years and includes Both Smith's article and Clandinin and M
responses from scores of readers, editors, critics, and champions. issue of Educational Researcher, pp. 598-60
Throughout this history, we clung tight to a singular purpose: of-view issue. Smith begins his comments w
to describe and illustrate with pieces of text some literary prac we construct point of view as a rigid categor
tices useful for crafting results into narratives. The readership we choice of one point of view (e.g., first perso
wanted to reach was education researchers in general, many of omniscient third person) will have a static,
whom are unfamiliar with the rich literature on narrative fact, although we did introduce various asp
research and literary practices. In this literature there is much and the trappings of each as they intersect w
about theory of narrative and little about the simple definition extensively qualified how point of view can
of narrative or its aspects. We wanted to locate the "narrative" in the use of other literary elements such as narr
narrative research by drawing on narratology and the practices and authorial distance. Smith, quoting Lan
of writers. additional factors that mitigate point of v
Many complications troubled the plot line of that article. These and stance?and mentions Lanser's "33 d
can be categorized in relation to reviewer requests to (a) expand our within these three superordinate factors" (
purpose, for example, to defend the enterprise of narrative research as applaud the narrative examples that Smith
a legitimate form of research; (b) narrow our audience to narra hope that other narrative researchers will
tive specialists and distance ourselves from other researchers; and and Booth's (1983) Rhetoric of Fiction. I h
(c) defend the examples we chose as legitimate forms of narrative experiment with the "complex of factors"
research. Generalist researchers seemed to think we were too literary; satisfaction of the goal of the "communicati
literary theorists thought we were too bound by research conventions. message is "received, interpreted, and valu
We did what we could to accommodate these requests. But tions are of Lanser, from Smith, p. 604).
expanding our scope to include postmodern and poststructuralist Clandinin and Murphy, too, take up the d
theories, issues of authorial excess and hypercongruence, and the view and, in particular, of how use of the om
question whether participant experience or social justice is the narrator "distances the researcher from an

Educational Researcher,Vol. 38, No. 8, pp. 608-61 I

? 2009 AERA,


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with both the participants and the field texts" (p. 601). Again, studying the experiences of people in relation" (Clandinin &
I concur. Indeed, I see literary elements as inclusive of the rela Murphy, p. 600), are we not ethically obligated to bring our col
tional, and it is this ethical consideration that prompted our laborative understandings forward for others to experience, as
exploration of literary elements in the first place. I also believe well? For, as Barone says, "if social change?including educa
that there is a place for third person in narrative research, just as tional reform?is to occur through the work of narrative com
there is a place for distance and detachment. Third person can posers it will surely be the readers and not the researcher who are
take the reader from scene to scene, filling in and generalizing the the ultimate agents ofthat change" (p. 596). If we limit ourselves
details that otherwise might be left out. Furthermore, sometimes to the research context, including the experience and the rela
choosing a detached perspective to present particularly dramatic tional, then collaborative "findings" will lack the valence required
events provides a necessary buffer. One such event is when Darek for the deeper understanding that promotes social reform. After
(see Coulter, 2003) is turned away at the door of a party hosted all, "story," as Connelly and Clandinin (2006) write, "is a portal
by his football buddies: To describe that scene with as much emo through which a person enters the world and by which their
tion as the experience itself generated might have reduced the experience of the world is interpreted and made personally mean
account to bathos. On the assumption that readers can fill in ingful" (p. 375).
emotional gaps, the detached perspective may be preferable if the This brings me to another reading by Smith, who asserts: "David
aim is to make the material accessible without melodrama. did indeed object to how his story was rendered, and Coulter
Clandinin and Murphy take great care to situate their beliefs and Smith make it clear that they think his objection was wrong"
within ontological and epistemological assumptions. Central to (p. 606). In fact, as we report, David did not object to how his story
those beliefs is their statement, "Narrative research is relational was rendered. Had he objected, I would have revised the story
research" (p. 599). By implication, in their view, ethical standards according to his instructions. David was active in the process of
must be carefully and explicitly examined. I share Clandinin and constructing his story, and requests for revisions were always hon
Murphy's concern. Indeed, my research spans nearly 15 years of ored. Moreover, I realize that participants may be hesitant to dis
collaborative work and is centered in caring relationships and the agree with researchers' perspectives; thus ethical concern must be
communal desire to explore and understand both researchers' meticulously exercised in the relational elements of researcher
and participants' collective and individual experiences. participant discourse. In this, I agree with Clandinin and Murphy:
I am grateful that Clandinin and Murphy challenge us with the The ethics of narrative research should be the highest priority.
notion of "in relation," which could be encountered in a number
of writings, such as Richardson's (1993) study with Louisa May or Polyphony
Barones (2001) featured study in Touching Eternity. "In relation"
In regard to polyphony, Smith quotes Bakhtin (1984) on
refers to researchers' time spent with participants but also to the
nature of their involvement and collaboration with participants.
The obligations of researchers to participants differ in degree and The direct and fully weighted signifying power of the characters'

kind, and there can be longitudinal implications (Craig & Huber, words destroys the monologic plane of the novel and calls forth

2007). Clandinin and Murphy remind us that in narrative an unmediated response?as if the character were not an object of
authorial discourse, but rather a fully valid, autonomous carrier of
research, ethics are, and should remain, paramount. As I contem
his own individual word. (p. 605; I added the italics)
plate these and other questions, however, I believe that we can
turn to the art form in which we center ourselves for possible In the polyphonic novel, the reader and the author conspire
answers, without assuming that the relational, the ethical, and the (Barone, 2000) with one another; the reader understands that the
aesthetic are mutually exclusive. author has written the narrative but suspends knowledge of
According to Clandinin and Murphy, when Clandinin and authorial discourse. It is this conspiracy that intrigues us with its
Connelly are asked, "Why narrative inquiry?" they answer: possibilities in narrative research. Yet the reader-writer exchange
"Because experience" (p. 601). This is also the answer to the ques in a work that is not polyphonic operates similarly: Readers must
tion "Why literary elements?" Should we not consider the kinds also cipher the multiple levels of an interpretive novel.
of experiences that readers construct out of narratives? At best, Furthermore, whether a narrative is polyphonic or heteroglossic,
the writer creates a vicarious experience (Eisner, 1998; Stake, we still have the opportunity presented by multidimensional
2000) that bears a tenuous connection to those constructed and images that need to be resolved through interpretation. Such
co-constructed by researcher and participant. The vicarious expe images " [do] not proffer summative conclusions" but rather are
rience, I submit, has to do with choices of literary elements to tell "more formative ... in [their] appeal, tacitly promoting deeper
the stories that the reader has not lived directly. The reader's vicar thought and extended conversations about that which has been
ious experience of Bowden's (2004) text, for example, includes (re)experienced by . . . readers" (Barone, 2009, p. 594).
both intellectual and emotional aspects. The judicious use of lit As for authorial surplus, the researcher/writer can include ele
erary elements can create a compelling, persuasive, believable ments to indicate that she herself is not entirely trustworthy.
account. Doing so makes it possible for the reader to be a part of Smith points out the example of Darek from my (Coulter, 2003)
the experience vicariously and the text to be read "doubly ... [so study. It is true: I did intend the interpretation that Darek's iden
that] social change may be fostered both on the inside and on the tity shifted as he was granted membership on the football team
outside" (Tom Barone, 2009, this issue of Educational Researcher, and, as the data indicated, was subsequently excluded from the
p. 595). We can speak, as Clandinin and Murphy write, "in two ESL group. However, there were other ways in which I layered in
directions" (p. 600). When we study "people in relation who are unreliability of the narrator. Thus a piece does not need to be

NOVEMBER 2009 609

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polyphonie to be interpretive. Interpretation can be encouraged collaborate on research studies about their experiences may alter
by problematizing the researcher's voice, thus mitigating rela their interpretations over time.
tional aspects to help collaborators navigate ethical issues. In fact, Experiences and our stories about experiences endure and
researchers should exercise a degree of authorial surplus. change. For a narrative researcher in a longitudinal study, the data
Researchers report (ethical, collaborative, relational) findings, change with the changing interpretations of the participants. In
but do not disclose every byte of data. Just as a conventional table order to "finish" a narrative construction, an arbitrary point in
may compress quantitative data, so can a story sketch a larger time is selected, and a point in time before that is the filter
body of information. In her discussion of social-realist film as through which the narrative is told. Coherence is a matter of
research, Woo (2008) writes: complex balancing, because readers must, at a minimum, sus
pend disbelief that the construction offered constitutes an experi
Validity does not derive from the transparency of the methodology
but rather... from the film's ability to bring audiences to "suspend
ence that has ended. On the other hand, without a degree of
their disbelief" by making its methods invisible. Audiences should coherence, there may be no opportunity to suspend belief.
not... have to be aware that the daytime scene they are watching Readers can be surprised, and they can also weave together what
was actually shot at night with a full bank of lights approximating the clever storyteller has pulled apart (think of the chronological
daylight, or that boom microphones are always hovering just time versus story time in a movie like Pulp Fiction, or the trick
above the actors' heads. . . . With social-realist narrative films, ending of the John Fowles novel The French Lieutenants Woman).
validity is established less by the dispassionate dissection of meth Clandinin and Murphy's concern that the researcher might
ods and data than by the emotional resonance (or its absence) of impose some moral on the story from outside the context of the
the story and characters for audiences, (p. 325)
teller, essentially colonizing the story, is an important consider
A narrative construction can be interpretive without being poly ation. In stating that "constructing a narrative almost always
phonic, and we contend that "authorial surplus" is not the control involves invoking some theme or moral" (p. 585), we did not
ling issue. A narrative, like a social-realist film, can stand on its own. mean to imply that the narrative imposes a theme or moral.
I am not opposed to authors' providing "sample analytic Barone (2000) discusses the qualitative problem-solving process
memos detailing one or more of the critical choices [they have] (Ecker, 1966) in which a theme, metaphor, or "pervasive quality"
made" or posting "more expansive details of their methods on a (Barone, 2000, p. 195) emerges from the research process.
website and referring] readers to it," as Smith (p. 606) suggests. Polkinghorne (1995) discusses this in terms of emplotment. In
Indeed, Smith's point is well taken. As he says, "Authors are not other words, themes are not imposed; they emerge from the data
granted unlimited pages for the amount of methodological in the authentic practice of narrative research.
detail" (p. 606) that some readers may want. If narrative research Writing to theme can create boring narratives, a point that
ers are to experiment with such forms, as Smith points out, edi Smith takes up when noting that cultural expectations of narra
tors and reviewers must be open not only to alternative forms but tives include some sort of "surprise" or "frame break." Something
also to myriad page-lengths. "newsworthy." In Darek's story, for example, the "ordinary" might
be that he tried out for football and made the team. The surprise,
Coherence then, is that once he made it on the football team, the ESL kids
began to exclude him. Or it might be that, although his teammates
I noted some disagreements among respondents regarding the
accepted and even cared for him, he was not allowed to participate
place of coherence in narrative constructions. Smith points out,
"The need to make a relevant point means that narrators tell in a privately hosted team party because he did not look like a
Northwest High student. These events may fit into the category
coherent stories" (p. 605). Yet Clandinin and Murphy state:
of newsworthy. They were experiences that Darek narrated,
The seduction of coherence?coherence in the narrative text itself,
believed, and interpreted, as I documented. The events in question
and the imposition of coherence by the researcher on his or her own
were the recorded data to which a systematic analysis was applied.
experience and on those of the participants?is an aspect of narrative
In arriving at my interpretations, I considered both confirming
research to be wary of when producing our research texts, (p. 601 )
and disconfirming evidence from the study as a whole. I presented
The apparent contradiction may come from the intersection of the interpretations as a story that the reader was invited to believe.
narratives in fiction with those in nonfiction?the intersection of However, in other sections of the construction, I invited the reader
nonresearch narratives with narratives based in research. We to read with suspicion, and I even demonstrated narrator unreli
understand the need to "artfully hold open both the beginning ability. In this sense, deeper coherence is characterized by an effec
and endings of the narratives presented," to borrow the words of tive juxtaposition of elements that may be coherent or, alternatively,
Pinnegar & Daynes (2007; quoted by Clandinin and Murphy, may offer an illusion of coherence.
p. 600). The reason, as Clandinin and Murphy maintain, is in part Like any research act, choosing literary elements is a practice.
the importance of offering room for reader interpretation and in To ask whether the researcher imposed a frame, a plot twist, or a
part what they call the "nature of storied experience" (p. 600). happy ending that falsely represents the data is like asking the
Narratives are told from a particular place in time. Although meta-analyst whether she sampled all the available studies on a
changes in the time of retrospection can be indicated structur topic, or asking whether the qualitative researcher considered
ally in a narrative, the narration itself operates from a point in contrary data to test his assertions. Making the right choices is no
time. A first-person narrator, for example, is telling the story from guarantee of truth or quality. In the end, though, the practitioner
his or her perspective as a young man, or a child, or a murdered asks where the data have led her, whether there is a reading public
girl looking down from heaven (Sebold, 2004). Participants who or a friendly journal or a socially just policy outcome.


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Areas of Confluence Connelly, M., & Clandinin, D. J. (2006). Narrative inquiry. In J. Green,
G. Camilli, & P. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods
Among the responses to our article, I see many promising conflu in education research (pp. 375-385). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
ences and points of departure for further dialogue. For example, Coulter, C. A. (2003). Snow White, revolutions, the American dream and
I am happy that Clandinin and Murphy have addressed ethical other fairy tales: Growing up immigrant in an American high school.
considerations so eloquendy and passionately. We must always con Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University.
duct research under the banner that reads "Do no harm." Because Coulter, C. A., & Smith, M. L. (2009). The construction zone:
of the emotional impact of telling, writing, and reading stories, Literary elements in narrative research. Educational Researcher, 38(8),
narrative researchers are deeply obligated to their participants.
Craig, C, & Huber, J. (2007). Relational reverberations: Shaping and
Barones discussion of socially minded researchers "intervening
reshaping narrative inquiries in the midst of storied lives and contexts.
in history," of narrative researchers whose aim is to "enhance social
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justice?and to do so through storytelling that is artful rather than
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selves" (Barone, p. 595). Smiths discussion of authorial surplus Waltham, MA: Blaidsdell.
reminds us that we are working within a community that may be Eisner, E. W. (1998). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the
dubious about the potential of narrative methodology (e.g., the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice
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researchers have experimented with ways to disclose methodology Lanser, S. (1981). The narrative act: Point of view in prose fiction.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Lather, P., & Smithies, C. (1997). Troubling the angels: Women living
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that run side by side (e.g., Lather & Smithies, 1997; Schultz & Richardson, L. (1995). Writing-stories: Co-authoring "The Sea
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widespread acceptance of stand-alone narrative constructions.
Schultz, B. D., Baricovich, J., & McSurley, J. (2009). Beyond these tired
Exchanges on narrative research such as this one arranged by
the editors of EducationalResearcher'will contribute to our under walls: Social action curriculum project induction as public pedagogy.
In J. A. Sandlin, B. D. Schultz, & J. Burdick (Eds.), Handbook of
standings of the vast possibilities in narrative and other arts-based
public pedagogy: Education and learning beyond schooling. New York:
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venue and am hopeful that interested education researchers will Sebold, A. (2004). The lovely bones. New York: Little, Brown.
take up these issues and challenges in their own work. Such con Smith, M. W. (2009). The issue of authorial surplus in narrative research.
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(Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 435-454).
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