Telling the Story About Narrative Inquiry and Its Value

Categories: Qualitative, Teaching


Jeong-Hee Kim

Jeong-Hee Kim

Jeong-Hee Kim says academics who use narrative inquiry as a research method still have lots of work to do if they hope to see their approach fully embraced by the larger methods community. But Kim, a professor of curriculum studies at Texas Tech University, is doing her share, both in the classroom and in print with her 2015 book, Understanding Narrative Inquiry: The Crafting and Analysis of Stories as Research.

Her efforts on behalf of the method – an interdisciplinary form of qualitative research exploring the narratives or stories of participants — have not gone unnoticed. The Narrative Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, or AERA, has just awarded Kim its Outstanding Publication Award for her book. “My book is very special to me because it documents my own story of becoming a narrative inquirer including the challenges and struggles that I experienced during my academic journey,” she said. “By sharing my own vulnerabilities, I wanted to let readers know that narrative inquiry begins with oneself, one’s untold story, and one’s way of being.”

That her work, which combines both a strong theoretical grounding with very practical strategies, caught the attention of AERA. “Dr. Kim takes up diverse ideas of narrative research and supports researchers in their use of various strategies and techniques in field text (data) collection and analysis within the framework of narrative research,” said Shaun Murphy, who chaired the committee deciding on the award recipient. “She considers the complexity of the research methodology in its relationship to theory.”

This isn’t Kim’s first award, or even her first recognition from AERA. She was named a Professor of Curriculum at AERA in 2014, and saw two of her articles honored by the group, one for Outstanding Narrative Research Article Award in 2009 and the other for Outstanding Narrative Theory Article Award in 2007. And in 2011, she received the Faculty Excellence in Research/Creative Activities Award from Kansas State University (where she was until 2015). On campus, she practices what she teaches: Kim engages in “hermeneutical excavation” of the stories of students and teachers around the notion of Bildung, or self-cultivation.

MethodSpace took the opportunity to ask Kim about narrative inquiry as a method and her work to explain and extend its practice.

You’ve been honored by AERA for this work, so perhaps the answer seems obvious, but how well accepted is the narrative tradition in the larger research community?

Although big name researchers like Norm Denzin said “narrative is everywhere and it’s flourishing,” I’m not sure how well it is accepted in the larger research community. When the research community talks about “research,” it’s often about quantitative research in general and qualitative research, e.g., case study or grounded theory, in particular. Narrative inquiry is still on the margin in the broader research community, so I feel we have a lot of work to do. Although narrative and stories are everywhere, knowing how to theorize them to make a difference would be the key.

What is your own background in deploying narrative research?

Although I’m not sure if one needs any specific background for deploying narrative research, I have a background in English literature. I have always admired good writers since my teenage years (Herman Hesse is one of them). So, when I was introduced to narrative inquiry in my second year of doctoral study, I was hooked. I believed that research should read like a well-written story in which readers are immersed in the story and lose track of time while reading. The story is so good that they keep thinking about it even long after done reading. I wondered if research had such an impact on the reader, we could make a huge difference in improving the human condition through our research. Narrative inquiry is one of the methodologies that makes it possible.

Are narratives and stories the same thing? If not, what are the differences? Is one a subset of the other?

They are two different things although most people use them interchangeably. A narrative is a recounting of events and a story is a detailed organization of such narrative events. Therefore, narratives can exist without stories but stories rely on narratives. I would say that the distinction is critical in narrative inquiry because it could help a narrative inquirer determine what kind of narrative inquiry genre she wants to use. Also, I think understanding the etymology of narrative is important as it has two meanings in Latin: ‘to tell’ (narrare) and ‘to know’ (gnarus). So, narrative is a way of telling as well as a way of knowing.

How important is the person receiving the narrative (as opposed to the ostensible subject) to the academic output? Are some interviewers just naturally better, or can everyone be equally adept at using these techniques?

I’m a believer of the growth mindset that Carol Dweck talks about. Although some may be naturally good at narrative inquiry (collecting narratives and writing stories), I think anyone can be adept at narrative techniques as long as they have dedication, practice, and persistence. However, some may not have dispositions or predilection for narrative inquiry, so narrative inquiry is not for everyone in that sense, nor can it be used for every research topic.

What’s the biggest obstacle that would-be practitioners (or even old hands) of narrative inquiry stumble over?

Good question. I see this tendency in many of my students. They get excited about narrative inquiry, thinking that it is just storytelling, which anybody can do. Then they don’t have confidence in it as a “rigorous” research methodology. For example, I had a student emailing me asking, “Is storytelling enough for my dissertation?” This kind of a question doesn’t come out of nowhere. This assumption that narrative inquiry is an easy methodology is pervasive in academia. They forget about the inquiry aspect of narrative inquiry (again the why of it), just busy telling stories that may make other researchers raise their eyebrows. However, when they find out how deep, profound, complicated narrative inquiry is, some of them just run away from it, while others take it seriously and are successful at it.

What did you learn about the subject while writing the book? Did anything really surprise you?

Narrative Inquiry cover

Visit the Understanding Narrative Inquiry site to learn more about its features and to read a sample chapter.

There were many surprising things I learned while writing the book, but one of them is that I didn’t know how profound narrative inquiry was until I began digging the literature on narrative. I casually thought, “Well, I’ve done some work on narrative for quite some time now, so it won’t be that difficult to write about it.” But I was so wrong! The more I dig into the literature, the more complicated it became. It was like walking in a labyrinth and there were many moments I felt I would never get out of it! I didn’t realize how so many scholars and philosophers have talked about narrative and its significance and how narrative is deeply ingrained in our history, culture, knowledge, and life, until I began writing about it. Sometimes, ignorance is a bliss, as they say. I hope that my book maps out some of the intricacies and complexities of narrative inquiry, so that readers don’t feel that they are in a labyrinth when exploring narrative inquiry, although it is a good feeling once you find a way to get out of it.

What made you think that a book that talks about the ‘why’ as much about the ‘how’ of narrative inquiry was needed? And did making the text as ‘friendly’ as it is come naturally given the breadth of what you chose to cover?

There are so many textbooks on research that talk about the ‘how’ of research. With such books we tend to be bogged down with the technicality of doing research, which becomes merely a means to an end, losing sight of why we are doing what we are doing. When I think about narrative inquiry, however, which has a strong foundation in theories and philosophies of narrative, we cannot maintain its integrity by focusing on just the ‘how.’ Thinking about the ‘why’ helps student researchers think of their research more broadly, allowing them to situate their research in the larger context. It also helps them justify their methodological and methodical choices.

The ‘how’ of narrative inquiry is also very important, but it should not precede the ‘why’ of narrative inquiry. Thinking about the ‘why’ gives them the purpose. Having the purpose in conducting a narrative inquiry gives them some meaning in what they do. When they find meaning in what they do, they become intrinsically motivated, which will make conducting narrative research real fun. They won’t get the sense of meaningful fun if they have to read a dry textbook that is “lecture-ly.” I think there is a need for a textbook writer to make their work as friendly as possible no matter how dense the content is.

Your book touches on the idea of narrative inquiry “flirting” with data. Could you share some details about this romance?

When you “flirt” with someone, you’re not committed to that person – not just yet. You may flirt with some others until you find out who is the best match for you. When you flirt, you’re in charge as you are curious and skeptical, explore possibilities, anticipate surprises, and imagine the best. We can apply this flirtation idea when we work on our research with different ideas and varied data. We can be excited, perplexed, surprised or disappointed by what we see in those ideas. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, “flirtation keeps things in play.” We can keep playing with new ideas until we settle on one.

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