Telling the story of what it was like (at Narrative Matters 2010)

A bridge to? (there's a story in it I'm sure)

A bridge to? (there's a story in it I'm sure)

This is the prompt for Carol, Eljee, Richard, Tanya and Viv to post their reactions and reflections on the May 2010 Narrative Matters conference in Fredericton in Canada where they all presented.


  • Richard Fay

    This was my 2nd Narrative Matters conference (it occurs every two years). My experience this time confirmed several things for me. It also provided me with an opportunity and stimulus to think about where I want to go next with my (usually collaborative) narratively-oriented research. More on these ideas later, but first some thoughts on what the conference confirmed for me.

    In Canada, the narrative research scene is towered over – at least that’s how it seems to me as an outsider – by the tradition of Narrative Inquiry (NI) and its figureheads there, Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin. MC was a plenary speaker last time, and JC was one this time around. Whilst I have found their written work to be impressive and insightful – indeed, I used it to help frame my thesis thinking about narrative – I am not sure that my own narrative work and research instincts sit easily in the tradition they embody. We share much: with them, I very readily accept and embrace the view that narrative research is not only highly contextualised, but is also very intentional and relational in character; and from these characteristics flow major concern with reflexivity and ethics that I too share. However, in this NI tradition – and I hope I do it fair service in this characterisation – the co-costruction / co-composition aspect of the encounter between researcher and storytelling participation can become very much foregrounded, to the extent (it seems to me) that what we (the audience) hear as much about the researcher’s own narrative (of the research experience for example, or of their realationship with the participant) as it is about the lives and storied experiences of the participants. This characteristic, when coupled to a seemingly strong tradition of reading outloud highly-crafted, inherently-personalised written texts is not one that fully suits me. It is, however, clear to me that this way of working has a profound effect on those undertaking such NI studies – including many of their doctoral students udertaking NI in educational cotexts – and I am sure that such revelatory studies – and they do have this powerful, evocative feel about them that makes me think of the revelatory – have their place and that narrative research is an obvious place for them.

    Second, we also had a plenary by Mary and Ken Gergen who are not closely linked to the NI tradition. They began with some memories of, and insights on, the ‘narrative turn’ in social sciences and concluded with some of the dilemmas that they think narrativists (and qualitative inquirers more generally) now face. They bounced ideas off each other in a naturalistic performance (without any sign of a script to be performed, still less one to read outloud). Thus, what they had to say and the way in which they performed it were more suited to my own preferences.

    A third plenary was given by Ruthellen Josselson, a major figure in ‘the narrative study of lives’ tradition and a psychotherapist I believe. I found her positions not surprising. As with MC and JC (mentioned above), I made use of what I took from her thinking to help frame my doctoral study. But on this occasion, I found myself less connected by some of what she had to say. For example, she made a broad distinction between the authority of expertise (i.e. what the researcher brings) and the authority of experience (i.e. what the storyteller brings). I found this useful to begin with. However, she used this distinction to explain why she is not in the habit of asking participants to read what she writes about them because the texts she produces are grounded in her authority as the reearcher / expertise whereas their reactions will tend to derive their authority from the experience of the teller. When I review my own work (as I do below regarding recent narrative interviewing of fellow musicians) this becomes an awkward binary distinction which has little positional appeal for me. It is hard when the ‘icons’ we have created of those we read in print fail to me the (impossible?) standards we set for them when we encounter them face to face.

    The conference is multidisciplinary more than it is interdisciplinary with researchers presenting work undertaken in, for example, healthcare, counselling, gerontology, psychology, education, and teacher education. The interdisciplinary possibilities need to grasped I feel if they are to become ‘live’. I am very much enjoyong straying these days into narrative work within ethnomusicology and also within counselling and I am looking forward to retruning before too long to the interdisciplinary space created when I work narratively with others on the politics of national identity (in the Balkans), i.e. some way away from language teacher education!

    Overall, I felt that the three papers given by the Manchester team – each of which had both a distinct topic explored narratively but also a research methodology issue to be raised – stood up well in the context of this conference. So, this was a very good part of the conference experience – i.e. we could all see where we fitted into the world of narrative research, and where we stood in the company of the famous and as yet less famous members of the narrative researcher community. I am wondering whether, next time, we could (and perhaps should) offer a narrative research methodology panel in which our separate papers were brought into closer contact thus enabling less contextual talk (only one intrduction to Manchester would be required!) and more time would be thus available for methodological discussion. Perhaps we could (and should perhaps?) do a ‘dry run’ of this within our own School of Education in the autumn?

    The next NM conference will be in spring 2010 so there is plenty of time to prepare. Already I am thinking about two other narrative prospects for myself in addition to the above panel idea. Both may have a research methodology angle as well as a topic explored narratively. The first would be based upon my current narrative online interviews wth lyra-players in Greece, research being conducted under the ‘flag’ of Ethnomusicology. I am currently intrigued by the unhelpfulness in this research endeavour of the authority of expertise / experience distinction (raised above in relation to Josselson). There are things to be teased out here for me regarding my own musical identity and my pre-existing relationships with the musicians concerned and how this creates a particular relational dimension to the research we do together.

    My second idea is a narrative exploration of the developing researcher competence (DRC) of all those (i.e. students and supervisors/examiners) involved in doctoral research. I may say more on this theme soon but, for now, I note that this would build on my existing DRC interests at Masters level as well as on previous narrative research with Leah Davcheva (reported elsewhere in this Doctoral Community space) on the supervisors’ experience of supervision.

    I think that is more than enough reflection for one jet-lagged day.

    Reactions welcome but not required !

  • Eljee Javier

    Hi Everyone!

    My reflections are posted on a separate page under my name since the screen shots don’t seem to appear in this comment box! The page can be found here

    Comments welcome!