Analysing narrative interviews

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    Hello all,

    As a part-time Phd student, I’m fairly new to this, so here’s a simple question: what ways do you recommend to analyse narrative interviews?

    Thanks, Rob


    An interview is a pas de deux– a dance that may or not follow the music or be choreographed. A content analysis-style of interpretation would be like tallying the steps this way and that–valuable, but maybe missing something greater.

    Structuration is built into perception, yet built on templates. Aesthetic delight emerges when there is variation and surprise woven with the drone of expectation.


    Hi there. That’s a question and a half!! It depends on your ontological and epistemological position. Check this out for an introduction

    It also depends on your question – what are you asking of your data? (so, you could use positioning analysis if you are asking questions about identity for example)

    Check out work by Cathy Riessman, very interesting and she has a book on narrative methods 🙂

    All the best


    Thank you Lynn and Stephen,

    Lynn, your points about ontology/epistemology and what’s the question:

    I’m doing my research from an interpretivist angle, and am looking at people’s experience of ‘how complex organisational processes help and hinder creativity’. I’m researching a couple of longitudinal cases where people are working on changes, new in the context of their organisation, where they have to generate and implement creative ideas. The narrative interviews aims to understand in more depth what has helped them explore possibilities with others, and what has blocked this.

    So…thanks for your references and links, Lynn – I have printed several and will look through them.


    Roy Williams

    Hi Rob, you might find this useful ( – see figure 1 and 2 on page 19 and 20 of the Report.

    I asked quite open ended questions about learning, and got responses about learning and professional identity. I then had to find a way to analyse these in terms of the strategic responses the interviewees were making in a highly complex learning and social ‘ecology’. So I drew on ecological psychology (for ‘affordances’) and on complexity theory (for an analysis of unpredictable, but yet retrospectively coherent events).


    Thank you Roy. I’ve scanned and was interested in your thoughts about somato-sensory data gathering.

    I’ve wondered about doing something to gather data from my audience that seeks to understand their ‘inner’ experiences – both thoughts and emotions – over a period of time. In a context where creativity is required though not common, it is likely to arouse plenty of interesting, internal dialogue and bodily feelings. I haven’t resolved how to get this pragmatically…

    Also, nice to have some help from someone from Pompey – where I got my degree.

    Thanks, Rob


    Thanks Marjorie, I’ve read it, and found it v. useful. Good to have some corroboration.

    Roy Williams

    Rob, good go meet a Pompey graduate!

    There is lots that can be done in terms of analysis, but I think it depends on what you are looking for in the first place, and how you set up your ‘interviews’ – we wanted to step back from prejudging the way people were going about their business (which happened to be HE learning in a professional part-time context), so our ‘interviewing’ is much more like facilitating, and not like ‘structured interviewing’ at all.

    What is the problem or issue that you are curious about in the first place?



    Roy, thanks for your interest.

    My interviews have also, deliberately, not been very structured. I’m looking at several case studies, in each of which some kind of innovation has been taking place. I wanted to find out from people who have been involved with this change: what has helped them contribute to something novel happening, and what has hindered this?

    I’m doing the work from the view of a branch of complexity theory which focuses on the quality and pattern of people’s everyday conversation. My basic question is: in a context of ambiguity and uncertainty, where creative thinking is needed, when do people keep exploring possibilities, and when do they close down the possibilities?

    People are quite able to tell me stories of their experience, and I’m wondering whether there are apt methods around to analyse narrative interviews?

    I have around 25 interviews for one major case, and haven’t started analysing yet, but will by the end of March.

    Many thanks – Rob

    Dr Jim Byrne

    Hi Rob,
    There are real problems with the ontological status of people’s autobiographical narratives, including the type you are describing. I have explored those problems here:

    Later, I went ahead and analyzed my own sample narrative – using a quite pragmatic approach, involving immersion, incubation and harvesting of spontaneous writing outputs. Thereafter, it was possible to reflect on this journey, and some relevant literature, and to identify explicit processes that could also be used to analyze this narrative. I wrote up my analysis, and most of it is here:

    If you want any more on the models I derived from my study, please let me know at jim dot byrne at abc-counselling dot com, and I will send you a copy of Chapter 9 of my new book.

    Hope this helps.
    Best wishes,

    Dr Jim Byrne

    Of course my field is counselling and yours is commercial/industrial creativity, but some of the ontological and epistemological implications overlap.

    Tom Wengraf

    Rob Sheffield’s clarification of February 1st (which I’ve only just come across!) is very helpful.

    The problem that he defines around the conditions of ‘closure’ and of ‘opening up’ is a very interesting one. The various methodologies for looking at narrative interviews are also available and can be productive. Unfortunately, I doubt whether anybody could say very much about how your interviews – the ones you label ‘narrative’ — could be best thought about in terms of ‘exploring open-ness and closure’ until they’ve seen an example of what your interviews look like.

    You say that the interviews “are not very structured”, but that’s far too little information to say very much about it.However, confidentiality probably prevents you from providing a transcript!

    One method that is quite developed in ‘Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method’ (BNIM) for interpreting interviews is that which treats ‘responding in an interview’ as “doing things in “a context of ambiguity and uncertainty where creative thinking is needed”. It then treats the transcript/record as a record of such ‘improvised activity’ and attempts to understand the subjectivity situated behind the telling of the story. This would involve looking at moments of ‘creativity’ and ‘anti-creativity’ in such a record.

    If you are interested, you could look at the chapter on BNIM interpretation in my ‘Qualitative research interviewing: biographic narrative and semi-structured method’ (2001 Sage), or write to me for a free electronic copy of the current (2010) version of the ‘BNIM Short Guide and Detailed Manual’.

    Best wishes



    Dear Tom Wengraf,

    My PhD research on “Folklore and Resistance Culture” also involves biographic narratives. Where can we put a vivid line between the subjectivity of the Interviewer and that of the story teller as this can have a direct impact on the interpretation?


    Do you thin the approach you suggest BNIM workable for my research?


    I would love to see an Electronic copy of your ‘BNIM Short Guide and Detailed Manual’.

    my Address is


    Dear Tom Wengraf,

    My name is Maria VirgĂ­nia Cantagallo, I’m a master resercher student in Universidade Estadual de Maringá- Brazil. I’ll work with semi-structured interviews in my data colection for my dissertation. My work is abaout Marketing communication for retailing to low income. It’s a Popular and local TV program’s case study. Reading this forum  I’m now very interested in the free electronic copy of the 2010 version of your Qualitative research interviewing: biografic narrative and semi-structured method- Sage. Could you please send me that by e-mail, please? Do you have any references about vality, observation method and documental research?My e-mail is Thank you very much!

    Best wishes,

    Maria Virginia Cantagallo

    Interdisciplinar Research and Marketing Studies Group

    Master in Administration

    Universidade Estadual de Maringá

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