Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

6. Conversation and discourse analysis

6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis
6.2 Conversation analysis
6.3 Genre analysis
6.4 Pragmatics
6.5 Discursive psychology
6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics
6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking

6.8 Narrative analysis

6.8.1 Introduction
6.8.2 Sources of narrative
6.8.3 Analysis of narrative Variety of approaches Narrative analysis of oral history Narrative analysis of life history Structuralist analysis of narrative Sociology of stories Narrative practices

6.9 Critical discourse analysis
6.10 Summary and conclusion

6.8 Narrative analysis

6.8.3 Analysis of narrative Variety of approaches

As suggested in the Section 6.8.1, narrative analysis refers to a range of analytic approaches.  However they tend to share certain assumptions including a concern not only with content but also with the social context in which stories are told. Who is telling the story, to whom, when and to what end? Who is influencing the narration. The different approaches all explore how people tell stories and, in so doing, produce narrative accounts of their lives.

Rather than a focus on 'factual' information collection, narrative analysis is also concerned with the very construction of narratives as well as the content (true or imagined) and the role the narratives play in the social construction of identity.

Top Narrative analysis of oral history

Narrative analysis is to some extent used in oral history, which aims to explore what it was like to live in a past era and to capture and preserve the memories of a cohort while they are still alive. Oral histories are typically constructed through the shared experiences of individuals that cast light on the nature of society. Most oral histories prioritise the construction of an accurate history acknowledging different points of view and retaining memories of events as well as what the meanings that events had for people: what, for example, it was like to be working class in Dublin around 1850, a non-commissioned officer in the First World War trenches, a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur in the 1960s. As such, content is prioritised, even if it is memories of 'myths'. Oral history is not so concerned with analysis of the construction of narratives.

The work of Portelli stands out among oral historians as adopting an approach more akin to contemporary narrative analysts. Portelli (1998, p. 36) argued that oral history says less about events than about their meaning and he considered oral history to be a personal, subjective, form of evidence. For him the strength of oral sources is that they can 'reveal unknown events or unknown elements of known events'. Oral history tells 'us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did... Its importance may lie not in its adherence to fact, but in its divergence from it as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge… Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible "facts"'.Portelli argued that, while verification is necessary, fabrications and incorrect stories represent an underlying meaning that is also significant to the historical discourse.

Oral sources may not add much to what we know, for instance, of the material cost of a strike to the workers involved, but they tell us a good deal about its psychological costs. Borrowing a literary category from the Russian formalists, we might say that oral sources, especially from nonhegemonic groups, are a very useful integration of other sources as far as the  fabula—the logical, causal sequence of the story— goes; but they become unique and necessary because of their plot—the way in which the story materials are arranged by narrators in order to tell the story. 9 The organization of the narrative reveals a great deal of the speakers' relationships to their history.
Subjectivity is as much the business of history as are the more visible 'facts'. What informants believe is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact that they believe it), as much as what really happened. When workers in Terni misplace a crucial event of their history (the killing of Luigi Trastulli) from one date and context to another, this does not cast doubts on the actual chronology, but it does force us to arrange our interpretation of an entire phase of the town's history. When an old rank-and-file leader, also in Terni, dreams up a story about how he almost got the Communist Party to reverse its strategy after World War II, we do not revise our reconstructions of political debates within the Left, but learn the extent of the actual cost of certain decisions to those rank-and-file activists who had to bury into their subconscious their needs and desires for revolution. When we discover that similar stories are told in other parts of the country, we recognize the half-formed legendary complex in which the 'senile ramblings' of a disappointed old man reveal much about his party's history that is untold in the lengthy and lucid memoirs of its official leaders. (Portelli, 1998, p. 36)

Potelli's (1991) book, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, then shifts the focus in oral history from factual and historical accuracy in memory-based history to the meaning and nature of memories. In the book, Portelli explored the relationship between traditional cultures and industrialisation. He not only wanted to make the ordinary 'voiceless' view heard he wanted to understand the political 'conditions of the suppression of voices and memories the differences of class difference and oppression' (Shuman, 1993, p. 119). In the analysis of the Trastulli's death, Portelli explores differences in accounts of witnesses, co-workers, labour sympathisers and reporters as to how he dies and as to whether Trastulli was even a striker. For Portelli (1991, p. 26) '…the discrepancy between fact and memory ultimately enhances the value of the oral sources as historical documents' because they illustrate how people make sense of events and turn them into significant moments.

However, Portelli goes further than sense-making in his additional concern with form.

Oral historical sources are narrative sources. Therefore the analysis of oral history materials must avail itself of some of the general categories developed by narrative theory in literature and folklore. This is as true of testimony given in free interviews as of the more formally organized materials of folklore.
For example, some narratives contain substantial shifts in the 'velocity' of narration, that is, in the ratio between the duration of the events described and the duration of the narration. An informant may recount in a few words experiences which lasted a long time, or dwell at length on brief episodes. These oscillations are significant, although we cannot establish a general norm of interpretation: dwelling on an episode may be a way of stressing its importance, but also a strategy to distract attentions from other more delicate points. In all cases, there is a relationship between the velocity of the narrative and the meaning of the narrator. The same can be said of other categories among those elaborated by Gérard Genette, such as 'distance' or 'perspective', which define the position of the narrator toward the story....
Oral sources from nonhegemonic classes are linked to the tradition of the folk narrative. In this tradition distinctions between narrative genres are perceived differently than in the written tradition of the educated classes. This is true of the generic distinction between 'factual' and 'artistic' narratives, between 'events' and feeling or imagination. While the perception of an account as 'true' is relevant as much to legend as to personal experience and historical memory, there are no formal oral genres specifically destined to transmit historical information; historical, poetical, and legendary narratives often become inextricably mixed up....The result is narra­tives in which the boundary between what takes place outside the narrator and what happens inside, between what concerns the individual and what concerns the group, may become more elusive than in established written genres, so that personal 'truth' may coincide with shared 'imagination'.
Each of these factors can  be revealed by formal and stylistic factors. The greater or lesser presence of formalized materials (proverbs, songs, formulas, and stereo­ types) may measure the degree in which a collective viewpoint exists within an individual's narrative. These shifts between standard language and dialect are often a sign of the kind of the control which speakers have over the narrative.
A typical recurring structure is that in which standard language is used overall, while dialect crops up in digressions or single anecdotes, coinciding with a more personal involvement of the narrator or (as when the occurrences of dialect coincide with formalized language) the intrusion of collective memory. On the other hand, standard language may emerge in a dialect narrative when it deals with themes more closely connected with the public sphere, such as politics. Again, this may mean both a more or less conscious degree of estrangement, or a process of 'conquest' of a more 'educated' form of expression beginning with participation in politics.... Conversely, the dialectization of technical terms may be a sign of the vitality of traditional speech and of the way in which speakers endeavor to broaden the expressive range of their culture.  (Portelli, 1998, pp. 35–36)

Celine Kearney (2017, p. 24) has also explored a narrative analysis approach to oral history in her study of Scots and Irish in New Zealand (Kearney, 2016), in which she presents long transcripts. She emphasises that it is not just the voice of the respondents that gives history meaning but there is also a role for the reader.

Readers are an influential component of narrative, as they bring their own experiences and understandings to the text, and long interview narrative allows them opportunities to do this. The reader or audience thus becomes a 'co-participant'..... Clandinin and Connelly [2000, p. 42] suggest that the narrative inquirer does not prescribe general applications and uses, but rather creates texts which, when well done, offer readers a place to imagine their own uses and applications…. Ken Plummer [1995, p. 87] writes, 'for narratives to flourish, there must be a community to hear... for communities to hear, there must be stories which weave together their history... [where] the one—community—feeds upon the other—story'…. It is the community of readers then who carry these stories into the future, enriched through their own understandings. This narrative methodology offers mainstream historiographers opportunities to co-construct texts which potentially provide deeper insights into aspects of the identity of the narrator, and so an opportunity for readers to empathise with individual stories and their narrators, within the wider analytical frame of an inquiry. Readers too as 'co-participants' bring their own experiences and understandings to the texts, so adding further layers of insight. My aim for these narratives is for them to reach as wide an audience as possible, and … I hope that readers will engage with the narratives and think with them rather than just think about them.

Overall, oral history has tended to be less concerned directly with the imaginative aspect of stories other than when they provide a rationale for a given activity or set of attitudes. Hence narrative analysis in this context is more focused on the content than the form of narration (except in case such as Portelli) and is more likely to seeks data to reconstruct history rather than explore historical meanings or myths or folklore, which tends to be seen as the province of anthropology.

Top Narrative analysis of life history

Life history (or life story) is similar to oral history but usually about an individual's biography and how they became what they are or cope with trauma in their life (see Section The Chicago School of sociology gave great emphasis to life history in sociology. They used them to explore how social processes were interpreted by people and impacted on their life. Much of this early life history explored meanings but were less concerned with the form of the life history narrative and more focused on how life experiences shape attitudes and actions.

Life history was used as source of data for sociological research long before narrative analysis became an established form.

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki's (1918-1920) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America was a pioneering study, subsequently voted the most outstanding research study in sociology in 1938 by the Social Science Research Council. It used hundreds of 'life records' (letters to family members, records from courts and social work agencies, newspaper articles and a 300-page 'representative' biography). Almost 800 pages of the 2200 page, five volume work,  consisted of life history data in support of their conclusions and generalisations. Thomas and Znaniecki related attitudes (individual subjective meanings) to values (societal conditions) and proposed a set of causal explanations based on how the relationship between attitudes and values were interpreted by individuals and groups.

The Polish Peasant demonstrates the power of individual story for the sociological imagination. The belief in the factual, referential transparency of these documents of life is tangible while the authors read the letters as illustrations of attitudes, life situations or their own conclusions. While the authors introduced new kinds of material to social research, they were still convinced that their field of study was sociology. (Hyvärinen, 2008, p. 449)

However, one must be wary of creating a historical legitimacy for life history by retrospectively placing too much emphasis on its role in the early development of sociology, as is explained in Myths of the Chicago School, Section 3.3. See also Appendix 6 that shows the usage of life history in a random sample of 52 PhD theses at Chicago from 1915–1950. Most important, was the concern among American sociologists generally in the half century up to 1970 about the  reliability of 'case study' data, which included life histories, and its contribution to sociology as an empirical and scientific discipline (see Myths of the Chicago School, Section 4.2)

In short, the early life history approach did not adopt a narrative analysis approach. Narrative analysis of life history started to emerge following the 1970s revival of interest in the life history format. Research in this period shifted from a concern with reliability and validity to an acceptance that all social data, whatever its form, are interpretations.

Research by  Daniel Bertaux, Fritz Schütze, Norman Denzin, Ken Plummer and Michal McCall adopted a wider interdisciplinary approach including narrative theory and methods. This approach, as had earlier life history study, regarded the material as an indication of the subject's meanings and provided a temporal sequence to changes in the person's life. The difference was the concern with the meaning for the subject rather than concern with whether the story was 'true' or verifiable. 

Bertaux (1990), for example, undertook collaborative research on social movements using life history data from members of students movements in the British Isles, Italy, West Germany, France and the United States. He was not just interested in collecting biographical experiences of the activists rather he analysed them as a whole by focusing on similarities in accounts across nations, for example, looking at processes of commitment to social-movement ideologies. However, according to Hyvärinen (2008, p. 449) it was Martin Kohli (1981) who had  explicitly offered 'the vision of narrative analysis'.

Kohli approaches biographical data from the perspective of its terms of production and wants to notice the "codes", or "textual schemata which are available for the production of meaningful biographical accounts" ([Kohli, 1982,] p. 62). But this is a new research problem, and "one has to rely not only on sociological approaches, but also on those of linguistics and literature" ([Kohli, 1982,] p. 62). Where "life records" orient the analysis towards registering past events, Kohli already addresses the relevance of the present moment and expectations of the future in the creation of biographical materials. Kohli notices the relevance of literary analysis for sociology by asserting that "both literature and sociology are dealing with texts" ([Kohli, 1982,] p. 67). The tone and point of view of his analysis is explicitly textualist: life stories should be analyzed as texts like literary artefacts.

Marya Sosulski, Nicole Buchanan and Chandra Donnell (2010) provide an example of narrative analysis of life history in their study of black women with mental health issues. (See CASE STUDY Black women and mental health)



Next Structuralist analysis of narrative