Narrative analysis is the exploration of the everyday stories (or narratives) that people construct and relate. Such narratives aid people in making sense of the world. Narratives are, thus, interpretive devices through which people represent themselves and their worlds to themselves and to others. Paul Ricoeur, (1994–98) for example, argued that narrative is a key means through which individuals and groups produce an identity.
There is no single notion of what constitutes a narrative. Narratives can be construed narrowly as shared stories communicated through oral traditions or somewhat more widely as the stories not only told in conversations or family stories but also encapsulated in written texts such as autobiographies, diaries and journals, letters, social media pages, or emerge during an interview. People's accounts of themselves, encapsulated in narratives, are juxtaposed to 'public' stories circulating in popular culture ('urban myths') that people can use and adapt in the construction of personal identities and personal narratives.
Narratives involve a temporal plot line, however convoluted with digressions and subplots, with characters and action. The characters and actions do not need to be real or true, they may be entirely fantasy or adapted from 'reality' for the sake of the story. The key is that the narrative has a point (an explicit message), which is often a moral message.
The aim of narrative analysis (or narrative inquiry) is to explore how human actions are informed by meaning projected in narratives. In essence, narrative analysis focuses on the ways in which people construct and use stories to interpret the world.
The intention is not to use the narrative as the source of fact or truth by which to assess a hypothesis . The assumptions and nature of narrative analysis challenge the positivist approach to data collection and the need to attest to reliability and validity.
On the contrary, narrative analysis assumes that the story is an interpretation that may or may not be factually correct; indeed is likely to have elements of myth or imaginative reconstruction. Narrative analysis usually adopts a phenomenological approach of interpreting meanings rather than a positive approach to causality. Narratives are viewed as social products constructed in specific social, historical and cultural contexts. Narratives link the past to the present, although narrative accounts of the past are not unbiased.
There are various different ways to analyse narratives (discussed in Section 6.8.3) but first a brief exploration of sources of narrative.
For the purposes of research, narratives are of two types, primary and secondary. Primary narratives are those elicited by the researcher (or research team) as data for a specific project. Such narratives are usually the result of semi-structured or in-depth interviews. Such interviews may be part of life history research or stem from the investigations of oral history. Other primary narratives include journals or diaries written expressly by subjects for the researcher, or contributions to (on-line) discussion forums set up by the researchers.
Secondary narratives sources include extant diaries and journals, letters, social media posts and blogs that the research subjects have responded to. Other slightly more removed secondary textual sources of narrative include autobiographies and biographies (but these tend to be crafted and edited and have less immediacy than other secondary sources).
Using textual sources of narrative data usually facilitates a much larger sample size and enables random sampling methods of selecting cases for study if required.