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What Is a Narrative Inquiry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Narrative inquiry is a discipline seeking to understand how people sense and order of their lives. It is distinct from storytelling because it is about self-perception and self-identity and how people arrive at these feelings through stories. It is a new discipline and is part of qualitative research.

A narrative is a well-structured order of events with an overarching theme. It is different from dry facts because it weaves a story out of those facts. Narratives try to be as realistic as possible, but do not shy away from the fact that self-perception is often built upon self-delusion, inaccurate memories and misconceptions.

Storytelling, on the other hand, is for educational and entertainment purposes. Stories are not always well-constructed. They run from personal anecdotes to myths and do not have to be truthful or realistic. Truthful ones are often embellished and exaggerated for effect.

The personal story is not the only focus of narrative inquiry. Many other entities build myths and stories around themselves. This ranges from a company or religious institution to governments. In this sense, the discipline covers the personal and the national, self-justification and nationalism.

There are a number of social sciences that make use of narrative inquiry. The most obvious one is history. In history, the discipline can be used to take greater understanding out of primary sources through their context and how the source fits a personal or national narrative. Other social sciences that use narrative inquiry include anthropology, the dramatic arts, philosophy and politics.

Like any inquiring discipline, narrative inquiry follows a set pattern for each piece of research. First, the inquirer finds the problem to discuss. Then he reads the literature and develops a statement of purpose. From that, he collects data and analyzes it. He then takes the work and draws a conclusion from it.

The types of evidence used in such inquiries include the spoken, the written and the photographed. Modern technology also allows for a combination of these through film. Spoken sources include interviews and conversations, which include stories and life experiences. Written sources range from journals and diaries to field notes, letters and autobiographies.

Several fields of professional work, as well as academia, use narrative inquiry. These include the fields of medicine, law and nursing. They form an important part of background research for counselors, therapists, psychotherapists and social workers.

Narrative inquiry has been criticized for being too ad hoc and too subjective. The discipline naturally allows more biased and subjective pieces of evidence instead of sticking to objectivity and raw unbiased data. This means facts are more fluid than in many other disciplines. Critics believe this leads to inaccurate findings and conclusions.

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