Narrative Inquiry: Why Your Story Matters

Our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time; our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events – a story – and when we can’t figure out what our particular story is, we feel lost somehow [1].

Douglas Coupland, Player One: What Is to Become of Us

Everyone has a story. When we recall memories from childhood or even from yesterday morning, we structure them as narratives in which one situation flows into the next. These narratives encompass our thoughts and feelings to make them personal recounts that breathe of human life and experience [2]. Beyond their importance in shaping our personal understanding of the world around us, narratives have been used in the social sciences as a valuable research tool applied in a variety of contexts, from classrooms to medical settings [3].

We live lives that are structured as stories and, accordingly, we tell them as such [2]. This is why the research methodology of narrative inquiry is interesting. Narrative inquiry seeks to study how people and places are linked together in time [4], allowing a researcher to conceptualize the storyteller’s world and derive meaning from it [5]. Put differently, the narrative inquirer seeks to interpret experience [6]. A story can be understood within larger-scale cultural and social contexts, but ultimately retains the truth of the narrator rather than one that is objective and immutable [4,7]. Despite inherent partiality, researchers vie to maintain integrity of a story as told by its narrator [4].

So the question arises, how do researchers that use this method collect data? Narrative inquirers may use interviews to gather stories, or may even live alongside participants to experience a story as it is being constructed [3]. Researchers tend to get to know their study participants well, and as such, trust must be established between the two parties. This highlights an intriguing facet of narrative inquiry, which is that it is unconventionally relational [8].

The relational quality of narrative inquiry presents itself as a potentially difficult practice for researchers themselves, who may walk away from such endeavours being personally affected [8]. Dr. Vera Caine writes of an Aboriginal woman who was a participant in one of her studies, and how this woman’s sudden disappearance created a serious sense of worry for her well-being. Dr. Andrew Estefan, who was studying self-harm in same-sex-attracted men, similarly experienced such vacancy when a study participant could no longer be successfully contacted. Narrative inquiry is hence shown to be a practice in which the researcher and participant are collaborators. In turn, the researchers’ own stories may be shaped by their research [8].

This method has successfully added depth and dimension to our understanding of how people cope with stigma and personal identity. In one compelling example, researchers have employed narrative inquiry to investigate resilience in same-sex-attracted individuals [9]. A narrative approach added a new dimension to these individuals’ experiences, all through the addition of context. Researchers Dr. Andrew Estefan and Dr. Robert Roughley present the narrative of a man with the pseudonym of ‘Joseph,’ which in itself highlights his personal struggles with identity and acceptance as a homosexual man. This brings about a much different perspective than what one could garner from quantitative, generalized data. The narrative allows one to see that resilience is riddled throughout the participant’s entire experience rather than being concentrated to a single, measurable act. The individual’s narrative as a whole is thus important to take into consideration, especially for mental health practitioners who often encounter individuals with such experiences [9].

The meticulous scientist may be perplexed about narrative inquiry. There is no stringent laboratory environment in which you can hold constant every variable, and one story cannot be wholly compared to another. Narrative inquiry studies are not meant to be generalized [9] and as such, a story cannot be quantified lest it be deconstructed. A story is the embodiment of human experience, and so it is personal in its own right [2]. Moreover, narrative inquiry is not meant to rival population-based studies, or any type of quantitative research. Rather, the method presents the appealing idea of the qualitative and quantitative complementing each other. While population statistics are valuable, the importance of the individual is not to be forgotten. In clinical studies, for instance, narratives serve to add impact and offer clinicians insight into the world of a patient [6]. This insight, in turn, has been shown to aid new health care practitioners in becoming both empathetic and ethical professionals. In one study, residents in family medicine were asked to write reflective charts on their experiences with patients, which they shared with each other during meetings. The development of their identities as doctors stemmed from each of them deriving different meaning from the same story, highlighting this highly individual but important aspect of becoming a medical professional [10].

Narrative inquiry is compelling, because it is in tune with the idea that humans orient themselves around stories [3]. While not quantitative or generalizable in nature, the research method brings to attention the inherent value of subjective experience and how it can be used to better understand both the narrator and the listener. Narratives are both powerful and informative, and every person is a repository for stories; it is simply a matter of taking the time to listen to them.


  1. Coupland, Douglas. Player One: What Is to Become of Us: A Novel in Five Hours. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2010.
  2. Connelly, F. Michael, and D. Jean Clandinin. “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry.” Educational Researcher 19, no. 5 (June 1, 1990): 2–14.
  3. Clandinin, D. Jean. “Narrative Inquiry: A Methodology for Studying Lived Experience.” Research Studies in Music Education 27, no. 1 (December 1, 2006): 44–54.
  4. Caine, Vera, Andrew Estefan, and D. Jean Clandinin. “A Return to Methodological Commitment: Reflections on Narrative Inquiry.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 57, no. 6 (2013): 574–586.
  5. Kvernbekk, Tone, and Gudmundur H. Frimannsson. “Narrative: A Brief Introduction.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 57, no. 6 (2013): 571–573.
  6. Bleakley, Alan. “Stories as Data, Data as Stories: Making Sense of Narrative Inquiry in Clinical Education*.” Medical Education 39, no. 5 (2005): 534–540.
  7. Conle, Carola. “The Rationality of Narrative Inquiry in Research and Professional Development.” European Journal of Teacher Education 24, no. 1 (2001): 21–33.
  8. Caine, Vera, and Andrew Estefan. “The Experience of Waiting Inquiry Into the Long-Term Relational Responsibilities in Narrative Inquiry.” Qualitative Inquiry 17, no. 10 (December 1, 2011): 965–971.
  9. Estefan, Andrew, and Robert A. Roughley. “Composing Self on Narrative Landscapes of Sexual Difference: A Story of Wisdom and Resilience.” Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy 47, no. 1 (January 2013): 29–48.
  10. Clandinin, D Jean, and Marie-Therese Cave. “Creating Pedagogical Spaces for Developing Doctor Professional Identity.” Medical Education 42, no. 8 (2008): 765–770.


Vanessa Hill is a student at the University of Calgary. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.