Making Meaning Through Story
At this moment you may not see the glistening of the “r” in research or experience the poetry in prose that tells our stories. Give it time. To awaken truths sleeping in the sidewalk, scoop them up, and hold them out as proclamations to the clouds of what you discovered – can in fact be beautiful. Patterns that dance across lexicons and insights dug out from heaps of data can be eloquent. The intermingling of epistemology and ontology can invite us to see anew.
Throughout this site, you will hear the voices of storytellers, sharing the narratives of lived experiences. As a qualitative researcher, I use story as my primary tool to understand the phenomenon that park for moments or years on our life’s timeline and examine how these quakes are interpreted and shared across communities. A phenomenon is not a neutral occurrence but a representation of how we relate, experience, and internalize an event or construct such as domestic abuse, racism, addiction, or love. Currently, I am studying the phenomenon of workplace bullying and its impact on individual’s propensity to engage in creative work.
Hearing, understanding, and retelling people’s stories is a sacred responsibility and a complex endeavor. To engage in this work, I use five primary methodologies and frameworks that overlap and intersect to form a thick description, offering different versions of the truth, for stories like people contain multitudes (Whitman, 1959). Below is a short explanation of Narrative Inquiry, Arts-Based Research, Autoethnography, Phenomenology, and Feminist Methods.
“In a fractured age,
when cynicism is god,
here is a possible heresy:
we live by stories, we also live in them.
One way or another we are living the stories
planted in us early or along the way,
we are also living the stories we planted –
knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves.
We live the stories that either give our lives meaning,
or negate it with meaninglessness.
If we change the stories we live by,
quite possibly we change or lives.”
(Clandinin, 2013, as cited in Okri, 1997, p.46)
Stories are full of duplicities, serving as both frameworks for thinking and methodologies for seeking to understand. “Humans are storytelling organisms who individually and collectively lead storied lives. Thus, the study of narrative is the study of the ways humans experience the world” (Connelly and Clandinin, 1990, p.2). The process is both recursive and reflective, starting in the community listening to the story of its people, moving to field notes which are rewritten in story format to include plots and characters, and culminating in a collaborative research text. Narrative Inquiry reflects the multilayered complexity of people’s lived lives by inviting tellings that utilize diverse genres and mediums to include but not limited to metaphors, poetry, and textual collages (Clandinin and Huber, 2010).
As emerging researchers, we were told to keep a D I S T A N C E from the work, so as not to inject ourselves into the creases of the stories we were studying. Yet, even when we claim our omission, our thoughts are strained through our cultural experiences. In other words, we are always there, standing in the center of what we learn and think. There is, in fact, no neutrality inside human existence. Narrative Inquiry offers our playbook of devotions, biases, and blind spots up for the reader to digest as opposed to proclaiming impossible impartiality.
“As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.
Sometimes there are no rules.”
(Oliver, 2017, p. 48)
I am a watcher and a feeler, intuiting the world around me, relying more on what I sense then what I see and hear. As a young girl, I spent my days with horses, preferring the quiet of the fields to the bustle of schoolyard chatter. Animals taught me how to discover what lives in the cracks of the in-between. Later, I found that same comfort in the blending of color onto canvas. So much of my meaning, then and now, is formed through aesthetics. The world’s rhythms, intonation, and cadence is best captured across diverse genres, producing a richer telling than what is possible inside the reduction and simplification of linear texts.
Method is often driven by empiricist researchers, tempted by the promise of one truth. “Yet, ironically, so much of what is prescribed leads to a reduction in methodological innovation, rather than an expansion” (Barone and Eisner, 2011, p. 2). Art Based Research, or ABR, offers a different way of thinking and being, requiring us to live amidst a larger landscape. The story of the work is told across genres, each one selected because its qualities fit the emotions, intentions, and truth of what was discovered. Barone and Eisner (2011), describe it this way, “… arts-based research is not a literal description of a state of affairs; it is an evocative and emotionally drenched expression that makes it possible to know how others feel. In the pursuit of such an aim, metaphor will be appealed to, analogies will be drawn, cadence and tempo of the language will be controlled, innuendo will be employed, simile will be used to illustrate meaning, and other such devices will be used to create the expressive form we mentioned earlier” (p. 8-9). In this sense, ABR is creative, dramatic, and sometimes playful, creating room for the reader to experience the ambiguities, paradoxes, and emotions of the work through diverse and artistic form (Faulkner, 2009).
“When researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”
(Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2010, p. 10)
Throughout my research, I intentionally “hold up the mirror” to my own experiences and reflect on how they situate and contextualize my understandings of the experience of others. In Autoethnography, “graphy” derives from graphia, meaning to write. It then joins hands with “auto” which denotes self. Autoethnography begins with an autobiographical sketch and then deposits the picture into the culture we claim as our own in tandem with the one we are attempting to understand (Chang, 2008, Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). As readers engage with an Autoethnography text, they are moved by the writer’s willingness to be vulnerable.
Autoethnographies often detail with epiphanies garnered inside fragile moments of struggle that birth transformation and inspire action (Denzin, 2014). Pelias (2011) writes, “Today I want to write my way out of this history, and this is why I write my version of performance autoethnography. I want to push back, intervene, be vulnerable, tell another story. I want to contest what happened” (p.12). Autoethnography, in this sense, is an invitation to reclaim our power (Zaner, 2004).
“Phenomenology aims at gaining a deeper understanding of the nature or meaning of our everyday experiences . . . [it] does not offer us the possibility of effective theory with which we can now explain and/or control the world, but rather it offers us the possibility of plausible insights that bring us in more direct contact with the world.”
(van Manen 2001, p. 9)
Our lives are made up of a series of stories and experiences. Phenomenology is not the study of what happened to us but how we experienced the event, transaction, or relationship. It puts a magnifying glass up to the “in-between” of objective and subjective (Vagle, 2014). Instead of focusing on the experience of one person, the phenomenologist explores the essence of how a group of people experience the same phenomenon within their life-world (Husserl, 1970).
Our life-world encapsulates our everyday expectations of how living unfolds. In the darkest moments, our expectations are so deeply violated that we suffer what sociologists refer to as a “loss of world” – plummeting us into a desperate search for meaning. Some Phenomenological studies examine how a group of people experience a similar loss of world brought on by a shared construct such as workplace bullying, addiction, or domestic violence (Husserl,1977; Merriam, 2009). Instead of residing on the surface of the happening, phenomenologists peer past common interpretation in an effort to unearth the phenomena’s essence.
In Husserl’s (1977) Descriptive Phenomenology, the researcher, “brackets” or suspends judgment and opinions garnered from research and experiences, assuming a neutral stance and opening herself fully to participants’ interpretations (Beech, 1999; Carpenter, 2007). In Dahlberg’s (2006) Reflective Phenomenology, she amends the concept of “bracketing” to “bridling,” a reiterative process where judgement is excavated and analyzed instead of suspended, placing the researcher’s biases on the table for constant reflection. Phenomenological research situates itself in a specific place, at a moment in time, amongst others who too witnessed the phenomenon. By collecting multiple tellings from diverse participants, researchers search for “clusters of meaning” of how the specific event or construct is seen, felt, and internalized by those who walked inside and survived the aftermath, or the essence of the phenomenon (Creswell 2007; Moustakas, 1994; Starks, H., & Trinidad, S.B. 2007).
Feminist Research Methods
“Gender, as it functions today, is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”
(Adichie, 2015, p. 21)
Feminist research is done by, for, and about women. It offers women a voice in topics central to our being, often those stories contest dominant societal narratives. Woodiwiss (2017) shares, “The challenge for feminist researchers is therefore not simply to record the stories women tell, but to explore why and how people (women) might tell the stories they do, and what might constrain the possibilities for telling different stories, and ask what the implications are for telling particular stories” (p.16). How a researcher selects her methodology and approaches her research is a radical act and speaks to how she believes information is created and what counts for knowledge. Feminist research rejects norming against traditional masculinity and removes the hierarchical power dynamic between researcher and researched, compassionately inviting diverse voices to interchange. “It prompts us to ask how the distribution of power in a society influences who can be a legitimate creator of knowledge and how their social position influences what kind of knowledge they can create” (Sprague, 2016, p. 63).
In summary, Narrative Inquiry uses story to explore the lived experience of people. Art-Based Research is threaded throughout each methodology in that it provides the researcher an expanded pallet for telling and understanding stories – valuing the vivid and complex offerings of diverse mediums and genres. Autoethnography excavates the stories inside of ourselves and examines how those stories help us to understand the stories of others. Phenomenology explores how individuals experience their world and how that experience is shared by others who have lived through the same phenomenon. Taking a Feminist lens, charges us to focus on how constructs of power both silence and support diverse telling and how and why these stories are gendered. In short, as a qualitative researcher, I am interested in how stories both empower and at times minimalize tellers, listeners, and participants.
Let’s begin …
Adichie, C. N. (2015). We should all be feminists. Random House.
Barone, T., & Eisner, E. (2011). Arts based research.Sage Publications.
Beech I. (1999). Bracketing in phenomenological research. Nurse Researcher, 6(3): 35-51.
Carpenter, D. R. (2007). Phenomenology as method. In H. J. Streubert & D. R.Carpenter (Eds.), Qualitative research in nursing: Advancing the humanistic imperative (pp. 75- 99). Lippincott.
Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. Left Coast Press.
Clandinin, D. J. (2013). Engaging in narrative inquiry. Left Coast Press.
Clandinin, D. J., & Huber, J. (2010). Narrative inquiry. In B. McGaw, E. Baker, & P. P. Peterson (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (3rd ed.). New York: Elsevier.
Connelly, F. & Clandinin, D. (1990). ‘Stories of Experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14.
Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (2nd ed.). Sage.
Ellis, Carolyn; Adams, Tony E. & Bochner, Arthur P. (2010). Autoethnography: AnOverview [40 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1101108.
Dahlberg, K. (2006). The individual in the world – the world in the individual: towards a human science phenomenology that includes the social world. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 6(Sed-1), 1–9.
Denzin, N.K. (2014). Interpretive autoethnography. Sage.
Faulkner, S. L. (2009). Poetry as method: Reporting research through verse (Ser. Developing qualitative inquiry, v. 6). Left Coast Press.
Husserl, E. 1970 [1900–1901]. Logical investigations, trans. J. N. Findlay. Routledge.
Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Sage.
Okri, B. (1997). A way of being free. Phoenix House.
Oliver, M. (2017). Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver. Penguin Press.
Pelias, R. J. (2011). Learning: A poetics of personal relations. Left Coast Press.
Sprague, J. (2016 second edition). Feminist methodologies for critical researchers: Bridging differences. Rowman & Littlefield.
Starks, H., & Trinidad, S. B. (2007). Choose your method: A comparison of phenomenology, discourse analysis, and grounded theory. Qualitative health research, 17(10), 1372-1380.
Vagle, M. D. (2014). Crafting phenomenological research. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, Inc.
van Manen, M. 2001. Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Althouse Press.
Whitman, W. (1959). Complete poetry and selected prose. Houghton Mifflin.
Woodiwiss, J. (2017). Feminist Narrative Research. Woodiwiss, J., Smith, K, & Lockwood, K. (Eds). London, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zaner, Richard M. (2004). Conversations on the edge: Narratives of ethics and illness. Georgetown University Press.