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Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis

Alexandra Georgakopoulou

King’s College London

Narrative research is frequently described as a rich and diverse enterprise, yet the kinds of narrative data that it bases itself on present a striking consensus: they are autobiographical in kind (i.e., about non-shared, personal experience, single past events). In this paper, I put forth a case for under-represented narrative data which I collectively call (following Bamberg 2004a, b; also Georgakopoulou & Bamberg, 2005) “small stories” (partly literally, partly metaphorically). My aim is to flesh small stories out, to urge for the sort of systematic research that will establish connections between their interactional features and their sites of engagement and finally to consider the implications of their inclusion in narrative research for identity analysis (as the main agenda of much of narrative research). I will thus propose small stories research as a “new” narrative turn that can provide a needed meeting point for narrative analysis and narrative inquiry. (Small Stories, Narrative Analysis, Narrative Inquiry, Narrative and Identities)

Small stories beyond the narrative canon

It is far from controversial (and the contributions to this Special Issue are no exception) to say that narrative remains an elusive, contested and indeterminate concept, variously used as an epistemology, a methodological perspective, an antidote to positivist research, a communication mode, a supra-genre, a text-type. More generally, as a way of making sense of the world, at times equated with experience, time, history and life itself; more modestly, as a specific kind of discourse with conventionalised textual features (see Georgakopoulou & Goutsos, 2000, pp. 64-68). It is nonetheless all too easy to underestimate the kinds of consensus that this richness and diversity tend to mask on what constitutes a story but also and importantly what constitutes a story worthy of analysis for the aim of tapping into human experience.

My autobiographical journey to the stumbling blocks of certain orthodoxy within narrative approaches involved the transition I made from exploring questions of culture-specificity in prototypical narrative data in Greek (in the early ‘90s) to having to claim a place in narrative research for snippets of talk that flouted expectations of the canon. The latter I have come to call small stories, following Bamberg (2004a, b) who has worked with comparable data. By prototypical narrative, I mean personal, past experience stories of non-shared events. As I will show below, small stories on the other hand are employed as an umbrella-term that covers a gamut of under-represented narrative activities, such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events, shared (known) events, but also allusions to tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell. These tellings are typically small when compared to the pages and pages of transcript of interview narratives. On a metaphorical level though, small stories is somewhat of an antidote formulation to a longstanding tradition of big stories (cf. “grand narratives”, Lyotard, 1984): the term locates a level and even an aesthetic for the identification and analysis of narrative: the smallness of talk, where

Requests for further information should be directed to Alexandra Georgakopoulou, Department of Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, School of Humanities, King's College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS, UK. E-Mail: alexandra.georgakopoulou@kcl.ac.uk

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