Narrative analysis and research

Narrative research is part of human sciences and describes the process of collecting and analyzing stories people are telling about their experiences. Moreover, this qualitative analysis helps to interpret the collected narrative data.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Narrative research and narrative analysis
  2. Narrative research
  3. Types of narrative research
  4. Research methods for a narrative analysis
  5. Narrative analysis
  6. Considerations for narrative research

Narrative research and narrative analysis

Find out about narrative research, its place in qualitative research.

Figure 1: Collecting narrative data means focusing on individual research participants to understand particular ways of thinking.


Let's look at the basics of narrative research, then examine the process of conducting a narrative inquiry, and finally how ATLAS.ti can help you conduct a narrative analysis.

  • Narrative research
  • Types of narrative research
  • Research methods
  • Narrative analysis
  • Considerations for narrative research

Narrative research

People associate qualitative research with methods like surveys and interviews designed to sample the perspectives and opinions of multiple people. Other methods like observations are aimed at understanding a cultural context and its practices and rituals. In other words, the goal of many qualitative research inquiries is to develop a general or universal understanding of social structures and social phenomena.

Narrative research, on the other hand, involves a qualitative analysis of one person's perspective and worldview. The narrative method focuses on a deeper understanding of the world from an individual person to give us a sense of how the world interacts with and is interpreted by that person.

In a sense, analysis of a coherent narrative ultimately contributes to theories in the social sciences as it can identify or justify research inquiries at scale. When we get a sense of the way that people interact with and perceive the world around them, we can employ other qualitative methods to confirm and develop our intuitions into theories at scale.

The value of narrative research

To understand the value of personal narratives in research, consider other qualitative methods that examine groups of research participants. When applied to higher education contexts, we can see that surveys can give us a demographic makeup of students and their attitudes about college, while observations can show us how teachers and students interact with each other in a dynamic classroom environment.

While these are useful research methods, they may not adequately capture the perspectives of students of color or students with special needs, particularly if they do not make up a significant portion of the student body. If you are involved with program development for inclusive teacher education in a university setting, qualitative studies employing research methods at scale may not adequately capture the data you're looking for.

Among other things, the narrative turn acknowledges the need to fill in the blanks left by other research methods.

Narrative research for discourse analysis

The narratives that people tell are also a useful object of inquiry in qualitative research. Analyzing narrative construction is an important aspect in communication research and cultural studies to give researchers a sense of how past experiences are told and retold to convey new and different knowledge.

Think about how children apologize to their parents when they break something. Do they apologize right away or do they tell a story about what they were doing at the time to explain their actions? The different ways that children can construct a narrative gives us insights regarding their value systems and the larger culture around them instilling those values.

Researchers often examine the ways in which their participants tell stories in semi-structured interviews or observed experiences (e.g., talking with friends, giving a speech). The narrative method that any given storyteller employs can offer context about how that person constructs knowledge and conveys meaning to others. A comprehensive understanding of that context can be a powerful tool for understanding cultural practices of communication among people.

Examples of narrative research

The word research often evokes images of laboratory experiments or surveys. However, the main requirement of any research is the collection of data. To conduct narrative analysis, you will need some story to analyze.

A quick search of qualitative studies that employ a narrative analysis produces the following examples for reasons why researchers collect narratives:

  • Identifying ways that university faculty members support students
  • Assessing the needs of women and children in conflict zones
  • Understanding suffering in patients undergoing palliative care
  • Observing how depression is perceived by psychiatric patients

As you look at these different topics, you may be hard-pressed to come up with an experimental design or a survey that can adequately capture the phenomena described here. Instead, researchers rely on qualitative methods like narrative research to gain knowledge about phenomena that perhaps would be inappropriate to study at scale. Presenting and analyzing narratives on these topics can open up new lines of inquiry that further research can address.

Types of narrative research

Qualitative inquiry has distinguished between various forms of narrative research with the acknowledgment that these distinct approaches all employ perspectival data as the means for contributing to theory.


A biography is the most straightforward form of narrative research. Data collection for a biography generally involves summarizing the main points of an individual's life, or at least the part of their history involved with events that a researcher wants to examine. In the general domain, the goal of a biography is to provide a more complete record of an individual person's life in a manner that might dispel any myths or inaccuracies that exist in popular thought.

The purpose of biographies as a function of narrative inquiry is to shed light on the lived experience of a particular person that a more casual examination of someone's life might overlook. Newspaper articles and online posts might give someone an overview of information about any individual, while a more involved survey can provide sufficiently comprehensive knowledge about a person useful for narrative analysis and theoretical development.

Life history

This is probably the most involved form of narrative research as it requires capturing as much of the total human experience of an individual person as possible. While it involves elements of biographical research, constructing a life history also means collecting first-person knowledge from the subject through narrative interviews and observations while also drawing on other forms of data such as field notes and in-depth interviews with other individuals. Even a newspaper article or blog post about the subject can contribute to the contextual meaning informing the life history. The objective of conducting a life history is to construct a complete picture of the subject from past to present in a manner that gives your research audience the means to immerse themselves in the human experience of your subject.

Oral history

While all forms of narrative research rely on narrative interviews with research participants, oral histories begin with and branch out from the individual's point of view as the driving force of data collection.

Major events like wars and natural disasters are often observed and described at scale, but a bird's eye view of such events may not provide a complete story. An oral history can assist researchers in providing a unique and perhaps unexplored perspective from in-depth interviews with a narrator's own words of what happened, how they experienced it, and what reasons they give for their actions. Researchers who collect this sort of information can then help to fill in the gaps that common knowledge may not have grasped.

The objective of an oral history is to provide a perspective built on personal experience. The unique viewpoint that personal narratives can provide has the potential to raise analytical insights that research methods at scale may overlook. Oftentimes as a matter of research, the objective of a narrative analysis of oral histories is primarily focused on illuminating potential inquiries that can be addressed in future studies.

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Research methods for a narrative analysis

To conduct narrative analysis, researchers need a narrative and research questions. A narrative alone might make for an interesting story that instills information, but analyzing a narrative for generating knowledge requires ordering that information to identify patterns, intentions, and effects.

There are several research methods to be considered and narrative methods are one of the most challenging because there is a wide scope for interpretation. In other words, the narrative approaches rely on the written or spoken words or visual representation of individuals. Narrative inquiry observes what and how something is said. Narrative research can be both a research method and an object of research. Narrative methods can be considered "real world measures" to investigate real life problems. In simple terms, the narrative approach encompasses the life story of a person and the meaning of that person's experiences. In most cases, an aggregate of narratives is created that influence each other.

Figure 2: Stories can be found in any number of sources for later analysis.

Designing a research inquiry

Ironically, narrative research is less about the storyteller or the story they are telling than it is about generating knowledge that contributes to a greater understanding of social behavior and cultural practices. While it might be interesting or useful to hear a comedian tell a story that makes their audience laugh, a narrative analysis of that story can identify how the comedian constructs their narrative or what causes the audience to laugh.

As with all research, a narrative inquiry starts with a research question that is tied to existing relevant theory regarding the object of analysis (i.e., the person or event for which the narrative is constructed). If your research question involves studying racial inequalities in university contexts, for example, then the narrative analysis you are seeking might revolve around the lived experiences of students of color. If you are analyzing narratives from children's stories, then your research question might relate to identifying aspects of children's stories that grab the attention of young readers.

The point is that researchers conducting a narrative inquiry do not do so merely to collect more information about their object of inquiry. Ultimately, narrative research is tied to developing a more generalized or contextualized understanding of the social world.

Data collection

Having crafted the appropriate research questions and chosen the appropriate form of narrative research for your study, you can start to collect your data for the eventual narrative analysis.

Figure 3: Narrative analysis requires collecting and analyzing narratives to understand perspectives and ways of thinking.

Needless to say, the key point in narrative research is the narrative. The story is either the unit of analysis or the focal point from which researchers pursue other methods of research. Interviews and observations are great ways to collect narratives. Particularly with biographies and life histories, the best way to study your object of inquiry is to interview them. If you are conducting narrative research for discourse analysis, then observing or recording narratives (e.g., storytelling, audiobooks, podcasts) are ideal for later narrative analysis.

Triangulating data

If you are collecting a life history or an oral history, then you will need to rely on collecting further evidence to support the analysis of the narrative. In research, triangulation is the concept of drawing on multiple methods or sources of data to get a more comprehensive picture of your object of inquiry.

While a narrative inquiry is constructed around the story or its storyteller, assertions that can be made from an analysis of the story can benefit from supporting evidence (or lack thereof) collected by other means.

Even a lack of supporting evidence might be telling. For example, suppose your object of inquiry tells a story about working minimum wage jobs all throughout college to pay for their tuition. Looking for triangulation in this case means searching through records and other forms of information to support the claims being put forth. If it turns out that the storyteller's claims bear further warranting, for example that they were supported by family or scholarships during college, your analysis might uncover new inquiries as to why the story was presented the way it was. Perhaps they are trying to impress their audience or construct a narrative identity about themselves that reinforces their thinking about who they are. The important point here is that triangulation is a necessary component of narrative research when researchers acknowledge that stories cannot be taken at face value.

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Narrative analysis

This brings us to the analysis part of narrative research. As explained above, a narrative can be viewed as a straightforward story to understand and internalize. As researchers, however, we have many different approaches available to us for analyzing narrative data depending on our research inquiry.

In this section, we will examine some of the most common forms of analysis while looking at how you can employ tools in ATLAS.ti to analyze your qualitative data.

Thematic analysis

Qualitative research often employs thematic analysis, which is merely a search for commonly occurring themes that appear in the data. The important point of thematic analysis in narrative research is that the themes arise from the data produced by the research participants. In other words, the themes in a narrative study are strongly based on how the research participants see them, rather than focusing on how researchers or existing theory see them.

Nonetheless, conducting a thematic analysis in ATLAS.ti is the same regardless of the qualitative research methods employed. Data in narrative research is summarized through the coding process, where the researcher codes large segments of data with short, descriptive labels that can succinctly describe the data thematically. The emerging patterns among occurring codes in the perspectival data thus inform the identification of themes that arise from the collected narratives.

Structural analysis

The search for structure in a narrative is less about what is conveyed in the narrative and more about how the narrative is told. The differences in narrative forms ultimately tell us something useful about the meaning-making epistemologies and values of the people telling them and the cultures they inhabit.

Just like in thematic analysis, codes in ATLAS.ti can be used to summarize data, except that in this case, codes could be created to specifically examine structure by identifying the particular parts or moves in a narrative (e.g., introduction, conflict, resolution). Code-Document Analysis in ATLAS.ti can then tell you which of your narratives (represented by discrete documents) contain which parts of a common narrative.

It may also be useful to conduct a content analysis of narratives to analyze them structurally. English has many signal words and phrases (e.g., "for example," "as a result," "suddenly") to alert listeners and readers that they are coming to a new step in the narrative.

In this case, both the Text Search and Word Frequencies tools in ATLAS.ti can help you identify the various aspects of the narrative structure (including automatically identifying discrete parts of speech) and the frequency in which they occur across different narratives.

Functional analysis

Whereas a straightforward structural analysis identifies the particular parts of a narrative, a functional analysis looks at what the narrator is trying to accomplish through the content and structure of their narrative. For example, if a research participant telling their narrative asks the interviewer rhetorical questions, they might be doing so to make the interviewer think or adopt the participant's perspective.

A functional analysis often requires the researcher to take notes and reflect on their experiences while collecting data from research participants. ATLAS.ti offers a dedicated space for memos, which can serve to jot down useful contextual information that the researcher can refer to while coding and analyzing data.

Dialogic analysis

There is a nuanced difference between what a narrator tries to accomplish when telling a narrative and how the listener is affected by the narrative. There may be overlap between the two, but the extent to which a narrative might resonate with people can give us useful insights about a culture or society. The topic of humor is one such area that can benefit from dialogic analysis, considering that there are vast differences in how cultures perceive humor in terms of how a joke is constructed or what cultural references are required to understand a joke.

Imagine that you are analyzing a reading of a children's book in front of an audience of children at a library. If it is supposed to be funny, how do you determine what parts of the book are funny and why?

The coding process in ATLAS.ti can help with dialogic analysis of a transcript from that reading. In such an analysis, you can have two sets of codes, one for thematically summarizing the elements of the book reading, and one for marking when the children laugh. The Code Co-Occurrence Analysis tool can then tell you which codes occur during the times that there is laughter, giving you a sense of what parts of a children's narrative might be funny to its audience.

Considerations for narrative research

Narrative analysis and research form a valuable part of social science research. Whether as part of a presentation or as an independent work, narrative research has to be seen as an independent form of research and interpretation in its own right. As every story is embedded in its cultural context, the question might arise about how objective these experiences are. The results of research are influenced by the personal narratives, but by carefully considering your narrative methodology and critically reflecting on your research, you can conduct transparent and rigorous research and avoid potential misunderstandings.

Rather than trying to look at the story "objectively", you want to put it into its sociocultural context. In this way, your analysis can also take several varieties of narrative into consideration and a phenomenon or a story can be viewed from different perspectives. Narrative methodologies are often used in social science following this highly complex process.

Turn to ATLAS.ti for your narrative analysis.

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