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Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis - page 3 / 9





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Stories in narrative and identity

1) The first concerns the types of small (sic non-canonical) stories and their interactional features, about which we still have fragmented information and from a small number of studies.1 The lack of an inclusive and coherent paradigm for the analysis of ‘non-canonical’ storytelling is particularly acute in relation to narrative interview research (normally associated with narrative inquiry, as we will see below). There, any narrative data that depart from the aimed at eliciting “life story” tend to be dismissed (they are not stories), seen as analytic nuisance (e.g. as the result of bad interviewing) or subsumed under the focal concerns of the big story (e.g., taken to be instances of incoherent tellings, not yet incorporated into the big story). In the light of the above, we need to know if there is anything systematic about the contexts of occurrence of small stories other than that they frequent ordinary conversations. What are the types of social organisation and local contexts that warrant or equally prohibit small stories?

2) The second question concerns the tools that are appropriate for the analysis of such stories. Documenting and scrutinizing small stories in diverse contexts is the first pressing step but it needs to be pursued further in terms of its consequences for mainstay analytic vocabulary in the area: is there a case for redefining or stretching it?

Last but not least in the tasks for small stories research is their consequentiality for narrative and identity research. Given that the narrative canon has mainly been used as a point of entry for the inquiry into the self, what implications would researching small stories have for the identity project? This question can be pursued as part of the recent re-situating of narrative analysis concerns within sociolinguistics from narratives-in-context to narrative-and-identities. To keep to the waves metaphor, this third wave is intimately linked with “the age of identity [which] is upon us”, as Bucholtz and Hall (2005, p. 608) suggest, not only with reference to sociolinguistics but also to human and social sciences approaches. Importantly, for narrative, it has come with an extra consideration: an increasingly apparent need for the two camps of narrative analysis and narrative inquiry that have more or less happily lived apart to work together and cross-talk. The latter, in Freeman’s terms (2003, p. 338), the expressivists (in my terms, the narrative inquiry scholars), use narrative as a means to an end (in my terms as a method) and on that basis their interest lies in the about, the what and the who of narrative: what stories tell us about the teller’s self. Freeman reserves a rather (unfavourably) biased term (the productivists) for the other camp, the narrative analysts (in my terms), those who prioritise the how of narrative tellings and for whom the study of narrative can be an end in itself. But he is right to point out that this distinction should not be seen as a dichotomy that obscures any intermittent positions. Here, I am extending this argument to claim that it is in effect the increasing importance of identity research for both “camps” that is calling for synergies as well as making boundaries less sharp.

1Conversation analytic studies (e.g., Goodwin, 1984; Jefferson, 1978; Sacks, 1974) have been instrumental in showing order and systematicity in storytelling in conversational contexts, particularly with regard to endpoints: how stories are introduced into and exited from ongoing talk. There is still however scope for a critical mass that will look into the emerging structure of stories, the part in between the story preface and the closing. In addition, the canon of personal experience stories of past events has undoubtedly formed the main data of these studies too. On the other hand, studies in the post-Labovian tradition (i.e., more or less broadly aligning with his model) tend to present conversational stories that depart from Labov’s data as a-typical. The proliferation of names here is suggestive of illegitimacy and other-ness: e.g., diffuse stories (Norrick, 2000), generic stories  (Baynham, 2003) and arguably renders the narrative canon deceptively homogeneous.  

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