Narrative Research

The following essay is a modified version of chapter two of my PhD dissertation.

Narrative as a Critical Tool for Research Methodology


To facilitate the movement from novice teacher to expert teacher, the employment of a narrative methodology to analyze various teachers’ differing theories and practices of pedagogy that results in a phenomenological description of patterns is described. More specifically, a narrative methodology can answer the following question: What patterns and implications can be discerned from different discourse communities concerning pedagogy? A narrative methodology facilitates reflection and praxis for expert teachers.

Dr. Sandy Smith entered her first year introductory course ready to continue Unit 16. After her usual opening remarks, Dr. Smith noticed JT beginning to take notes. It was not unusual for students to take notes, but it was the first time for JT. Dr. Smith, without hesitation and with little awareness, changed her direction and class objectives. She adeptly drew JT into a discussion. JT, for the first time, became engaged in his own learning. Was there a particular formula or pedagogical law she followed? What separates Dr. Smith from a novice? Could Dr. Smith even articulate to others why and how she did what she did? Through narrative research, Dr. Smith could differentiate and articulate her pedagogical practice.

Sternberg and Hovarth’s (1995) expert prototype distinguishes expert teachers from novices in three primary areas: knowledge, efficiency, and insight. Experts possess a broader knowledge base, which they can negotiate through problems more efficiently than can novices. This knowledge is of three types: 1) content knowledge – subject area knowledge; 2) pedagogical knowledge – knowledge of how to teach, and 3) pedagogical/content knowledge – knowledge on explaining concepts, demonstrating and rationalizing procedures, and correcting student misinformation. This knowledge includes tacit knowledge that comes by years of experience, trial and error, and training. Experts are also more efficient in solving problems. Experts will do more in less time because of the automaticity that has developed in their tasks. Efficiency also comes by being resource independent. Finally, experts have keener insights and arrive at solutions to problems more quickly and creatively than do novices. Experts possess metacognitive skills, allowing them to analyze their own thinking processes.[1]

Berliner’s (1988) five-stage model explores the movement from novice to expert.

(1) Novices engage in inflexible, rational teaching and purposeful concentration. They concern themselves with class control, content mastery, and self-image focusing more on performance and frustrating situations. (2) Advanced beginners recognize similarities across content areas and develop strategic knowledge. (3) Competent teachers make conscious choices about teaching decisions and classroom actions, and can determine the effectiveness of instruction based on prior experience. (4) Proficient teachers can rely on intuition to guide their instruction. They view classroom elements holistically. Instruction becomes effortless as teachers can make predictions about student needs and performance. (5) The expert stage, which is not reached by all teachers, is characterized by an intuitional understanding of teaching behaviors. Teaching performance is effortless and not deliberate.

Expert teachers are reflective in their practice. Reflective teachers use experience as a basis for assessing and revising existing theories of action to develop more effective action strategies. Henderson (1992) also identifies reflective thinkers as holding to a value orientation of caring. Operating under the ethic of caring, the reflective teacher, is bound to understand students, and does so through confirmation, dialogue, and cooperative practice. Reflective teachers embrace a constructive approach to teaching, which is reflected in a reliance on student-centered activities. Teachers view learning as a complex interaction between students and subject matter. Reflective teachers are artistic problem-solvers, using student experiences and interests to engage young learners.

To facilitate the movement from novice to expert, the employment of a narrative methodology to analyze various professors’ differing theories and practices of pedagogy that results in a phenomenological description of patterns could be utilized. More specifically, a narrative methodology can answer the following question: What patterns and implications can be discerned from different discourse communities concerning pedagogy? A narrative methodology facilitates reflection for expert teachers.

Narrative as Theory Building

The debate between qualitative researchers and quantitative researchers has been well documented in the literature (Kleinman & Copp, 1993; Lather, 1986). Ornstein (1995) notes how quantitative methods miss the complexity of the teaching event by focusing on isolated behaviors, methods, and processes while ignoring the larger patterns and relationships of teaching and learning. Therefore, Ornstein proposes narrative as a vehicle for new understanding and explanation of the teaching-learning process. N. Postman (1995) defines narrative research as follows:

The purpose of a narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically. The measure of a narrative’s ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ is in its consequences: Does it provide people with a sense of personal identity, or sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct explanations of that which cannot be known? (p. 7)

Through narrative, a researcher can explore the ways teachers come to know and practice their craft in tacit and unmeasurable ways. Overhearing someone’s life story is one way novice teachers are able to incorporate expert knowledge about teaching. Narrative research reflects on this tacit knowledge and translates it into explicit knowledge allowing it to be integrated with other perspectives (Ornstein, 1995).

Casey (1995) identifies three strands of narrative research, namely, autobiographical reflection, collective subjective, and plastic identities. The link that holds these new qualitative approaches together is their common interests in the ways that human beings make meaning through language. How do we organize meaning, order experience, and construct reality? These new approaches are based on the speaker’s understanding of self and the rediscovery of self. From the narrative of self-perspective, another perspective is given voice that had gone unheard by positivist approaches to research. Other common elements in these post-positivist perspectives is a recognition of one’s subjectivity as a researcher and the making visible one’s social background, pre-understandings, and relationships.

Researchers rooted in an Enlightenment perspective maintain the myth of objective, however, value-neutral research is unrealizable, self-deceptive, and value laden. Correct method does not guarantee true results but only correct guesses. Narrative research is about a different way of knowing. Knowledge is socially constructed, historically embedded, and valuationally based. Olson (1995) roots “narrative authority” in Dewey’s notion that knowledge is constructed through experience. Teachers have personal knowledge of education theory and practice as they interact within their individual contexts. The self is an evolving entity that changes constantly through social forces and self-reflection. The self is contextualized in so far as an individual’s identity is tied to community, family, economic and social consideration.

Research as praxis is a viable alternative to generate social knowledge that is not empirical. In contrast to the more positivist sciences, narrative research does not seek theory first. Rather theory enlightens prior practice that follows a time of reflection. Theory that follows practice then can assist in developing greater awareness. Therefore, narrative research as praxis, the daily lives of teachers in the classroom and their self-understanding of what they do gives rise to theory. Research as praxis generates theory from the data and seeks to minimize hypothesis and researcher imposed definitions and limitations. Subsequently, greater possibilities for applications in the field and the generation of new knowledge emerge.

Dialectical theory arises from contextual situations rather than from an abstract theoretical framework (Lather, 1986). The study of human science must be built upon a different foundation than exists for studying objects. The theory ‘grows out of the context-embedded data,’ not from a preconceived notion of the researcher (Lather, 1986, p. 267). Theory comes only after reflection (Van Manen, 1990). By collecting narratives, lived experiences are collected and considered. Interpretation of lived experience points to meaning. The process is both descriptive and interpretive. Such an interpretation is validated when lived experiences are confirmed by lived experiences. Van Manen names this as ‘the validating circle of inquiry’ (p. 27).

The concern for reciprocity during research as praxis is addressed early in the process. The researcher and the researched need to be in mutual relationship so there is a shared understanding of meaning and power. The researched need to know how this project benefits them. Furthermore, Lather (1986) identifies that research from praxis comes forth from contextual situations. Life has the evocative power to generate theory. This encourages the researcher to maintain an open frame of reference and the possibility of new and unexpected discoveries. Primarily, this critical inquiry focuses on the needs of people so that practical and liberating possibilities are made known in their world. Finally, Lather encourages practices that insure the trustworthiness of the data. Trustworthiness of the data or validity concerns are discussed below. In short, self-corrective techniques need to be formalized so that credibility of the data is maintained and personal bias minimized.

Van Manen (1990) lists seven aspects of story relevant to this study.

  1. Story provides us with possible human experiences.
  2. Story enables us to experience life situations, feelings, emotions, and events that we would not normally experience.
  3. Story allows us to broaden the horizons of our normal existential landscape by creating possible worlds.
  4. Story tends to appeal and involve us in a personal way.
  5. Story is an artistic device that lets us turn back to life as lived experience.
  6. Story evokes the quality of vividness in detailing unique and particular aspects of a life that could be my life or your life.
  7. Stories transcend the particularity of their plots and protagonists, etc., which makes them subject to thematic analysis and criticism. (p. 70)

Furthermore, stories express the multiplicity of meaning and the interconnectedness of phenomenon that resist reduction and singular interpretations. Stories accommodate ambiguity and inconsistency found in everyday experience (Carter, 1993).

Riessman (1993) sees narratives as representations. Since all researchers are interpreting their firsthand experiences, the essence of authentic experience cannot be captured by any methodology. Narrative research in teaching is an alternative way of knowing. Individual life stories embody ideologies and theories that are woven with educational practices. What we tell and how we tell it is a revelation of what we believe and what we do. People construct their narratives. They decide what is included and what is excluded in their stories. They plot their stories and add interpretive clues. The narratives are shaped also by the relationship that exists between the teller and the hearer. As a representation, narratives fashion identities. Riessman sees the narratives in an ontological way since she notes how narratives have deep structures about the nature of life itself.

People tell narratives in such a way as to make sense of life and experience. Whether they represent actual events or ‘truths’ is not key to this methodology. Actual events are not what is being sought in this research. The representation, the construction of reality, is the focus of the research. How people tell their story and with what message they desire their story to contain is key. Actual events cannot be exactly ‘recovered.’ Our memories ‘selectively reconstruct’ the past. Even as events are occurring, we are actively making interpretations and reinterpretations for the purpose of coherence. Riessman emphasizes how language functions as constituting reality. Stories, therefore, do not mirror the world. Stories are constructed, creatively authored, with rhetorical assumptions, and interpretations (Riessman 1993).

Riessman’s theory begins with primary experience. The first encounter is prelinguistic (image, color, light, noise, sensations, without analysis). But then the individual attends to the experience. Certain features are made discrete through reflection and memory. Language names observations. Phenomenon is given meaning. Choices are made that determine perception of reality. Next, the experience is told or re-presented in a narrative that already contains an interpretation. The telling moves from an oral stage to a written stage when the experience is transcribed on paper. The experience is now fixed in time and form. The order and style of the telling can now be analyzed. The narrative is now subject to different viewpoints. Decisions are made about why the narrative was told this way. The metanarrative takes shape.

Finally, a reader one day comes to the newsstand and reads the narrative making his/her own interpretations. Different readers in different situations may make different observations. The same reader may interpret the same narrative differently depending upon various factors involved in his/her context. By the final level, there is a transformation of the primary experience. Now, there is no direct access to the primary experience. Each step involves both an expansion and a reduction due to the choices made in the selection process. The whole has been selectively represented. These selections have been interpreted. The partial narrative of the primary experience imperfectly reflects the whole. The dynamic experience becomes a frozen text. The readers of the text will usually only have access to the published version. Therefore, Riessman concludes that narratives are but interpretations embedded in language and culture (embedded in many elements besides the ‘truth’).

Riessman notes how fully formed narratives have six elements: (1) abstract (summary of the substance); (2) orientation (time, place, situation, participants); (3) complicating action (sequence of events); (4) evaluation (significance and meaning of the action, attitude of the narrator); (5) resolution (what finally happened); and (6) coda (returns the perspective to the present).

Casey’s (1993) theory of narrative centers on her conscious belief that meaning comes from people making sense of their own situations. So much research imposes meaning on others. Casey desires to listen to how others make sense of their experiences. Narratives give the voice a place in time. The perspective of the past is woven into the future to give shape to the present. Propositions are flat and lifeless. Narratives are dynamic. Narratives do something. Sometimes narratives do more than is anticipated.

Casey anchors her theory in two frameworks: The Popular Memory Group and Bakhtin. The former guided her collection of the narratives while the latter guided her analysis. Narrative, language, and rhetoric is owned and shaped by both individuals and community. Words have meaning only in context. Narratives place words in their context. Therefore, individual narratives must be interpreted in relationship with the community from which it arises and not in isolation. The community context of language is often not understood. Casey allows each of the three groups she interviews to use their language and metaphors to shape their identity. The languages are distinct yet similar. By locating patterns (Van Manen’s ‘themes’) and particulars, understanding and coherence arises. The patterns in language of a particular community allow the researcher to adopt a method described as ‘group biography.’ The key concept for narrative theory is ‘relationships.’ By examining relationships and ‘slippage,’ then concepts of reality (how reality is presented) can be understood at a level that positivist methods cannot. Bullough & Stokes (1994) quoting Olney state, ‘To tell a story is to create a purposeful coherence of meanings, to impose a pattern that, despite inevitable ambiguity, enables consistency of interpretation and action.’

Data Collection

Data collection and analysis techniques should be appropriate to, and, in fact, driven by the research questions. Teachers are perceived as persons capable of theorizing their own practices and as sources of rich, albeit tacit, knowledge about teaching (Casey 1995). Contributing to a particular teacher’s theory and practice are the factors of culture, ethnicity, personality, and life experiences that are brought to light through narratives.

Casey (1993) desires to be inclusive in the gathering of a narrative. By allowing narrative to be as open ended as possible, Casey limited her own interference. Her inclusive stance included respect for the participants as persons rather than subjects. She maintained the interpersonal character of her research throughout the project. Although Casey asked open-ended questions unaware of the journey before her, she chose her subjects for the purpose of pursuing a political discourse about social change.

Riessman (1993) also suggests that the researcher use open-ended questions so that the listener is able to ‘construct answers’ without unnecessary prodding (p. 54). Open-ended interviews permit teachers to speak for teachers and about teachers so that their knowledge, experiences, and practices can be translated into ‘professional’ knowledge (Ornstein, 1995). The lack of a researcher-structured agenda creates a relaxed, conversational atmosphere necessary for eliciting narratives.

Quantz (1992) describes the process of data collection as follows:

This “emic” approach requires the interviewer to eliminate as much as possible the urge to apply external structure to the interview. Instead of a formal interview schedule which has all the questions planned ahead of time, the interpretive interview must be a process which is flexible enough to follow the lead of the interviewee while not losing sight of the object. The typical interview might begin with what Spradley and McCurdy (1972) call the “grand tour” question. Such questions are designed to be directive enough to require concrete and precise responses, yet open enough to allow the interviewee to go in any direction. … Such questions allow the interviewees … to recall anything they think might be important or amusing. On the basis of their usually very lengthy response to this initial question, the interviewer should have a wealth of material to begin more specific questioning. In this way, a typical interview has been structured by the interviewee, but is clarified by the follow-up questioning of the interviewer. (p. 189)

Lather (1986) encourages the researcher to gather sequential interviews to facilitate collaboration and deepen the probing process affirming the notion that single narratives may tend to become paradigmatic and consequently dogmatic. Although it may be assumed that people follow the same basic patterns when retelling their stories, Lather’s desire to demonstrate coherence in the research encourages researchers to consider subsequent interviews of the participants. Asking, ‘Does the transcript appropriately record and interpret your narrative?’ could accomplish this objective. However, tapping in on the belief that people speak and tell their stories in pattern ways, most narrative researchers only gather one narrative from each participant. This approach is based on the commonly held assumption that folks tell their stories generally the same way on different days. People have consistent perspectives, use common metaphors, and maintain the same identity throughout time. Various episodes may be recounted on different days, but the patterns of identity remain. The question of what lens the participant is using while telling their story can be determined by comparing their story to a larger collective subjective in which they belong (Casey, 1996).

Narrative Research in Practice

I have implemented narrative methodologies in three different settings, namely, the classroom, research, and personal development as a teacher of preaching.[2] In the classroom, BIBM 656, Supervised Practice of Ministry, I asked students to collect narratives from practitioners that they consider vocational role models. Upon completion of the data collection phase of the assignment, students were grouped according to vocational aspirations. They coded their interviews, sought for emerging patterns and themes, and reflected upon incongruencies.  Their final report depicted metaphors that emerged that described their practitioners and a summary of a philosophy of work that clarified this particular vocational practice.

Secondly, I applied a narrative methodology to complete a grant studying the preaching lives of African-American preachers (Sensing, 2003). I interviewed seventeen African-American preachers who studied with either G. P. Bowser or Marshall Keeble. I framed our conversation by stating, ‘I’m collecting narratives about how preachers learn to preach. In the framework of learning to preach, tell me the story of your life.’ I followed their narratives with appropriate questions such as: ‘Where did your values about preaching come from?’ ‘Tell me more about that.’ ‘What was that experience like?’ ‘Give me some examples of that.’ Their stories needed to be heard and preserved. My primary conclusion described a pedagogy of imitation that allowed these expert teachers to tacitly pass on the tradition of preaching through a series of apprenticeships and mentoring relationships.

Finally, and explained in much more detail, I interviewed professors of preaching asking them to tell me stories about teaching preaching (Sensing, 1998). I framed our conversation by stating, ‘I’m collecting narratives from teachers of preaching. Would you tell me your life story?’ I remained silent throughout the conversation until the teacher reached the denouement of his/her life story. I followed their narratives with appropriate responses such as: ‘Where did your values about preaching come from?’ ‘Tell me more about how you learned to preach.’ ‘What was that experience like?’ ‘Give me some examples of…’ I was seeking to answer the following questions:

  1. What constitutes the discourse(s) of selected professors and what implications do these perceptions have for the instructional practice of a novice professor?
  2. How do these professors identify themselves within a larger interpretive community?
  3. What metaphors do these discourse communities use to describe teachers and teaching?
  4. What are some of the patterns, slippages, and silences, found within an intra- and inter-textual analysis of these discourses?

Therefore, in each case, we talked about their metaphors for preachers and preaching. Metaphors embody a large part of self-understanding. Metaphors are useful in narratives by lending form and structure to stories and by simplifying, clarifying, and summarizing our lives at a high level of abstraction (Bullough and Stokes, 1994). Further, ‘a change in metaphor may indicate a change in how the world of teaching is conceived, a change in the evolving story of self’ (Bullough and Stokes, 1994, p. 200). Identifying metaphors contributes to the reflection needed to better understand the constructs that form identities. Similarly, by using the narrative research methodology, I can identify themes and patterns in the discourse of these teachers, giving me rich data for detailed reflection and interpretation.

Kleinman & Copp’s (1993) purpose is to legitimize the field. Their primary encouragement to researchers is to understand their field notes as data. They encourage that this data set be understood as sense making and encourages greater use of analytical note taking and reflective thinking during the process of data collection. The narratives collected from the preaching professors functioned as my complete data set.

I briefly explained the purpose of my project before each interview. ‘I am doing a study where I am collecting life stories of teachers teaching preaching. I am using a narrative research methodology. I’m only planning to ask you one question, namely, ‘Tell me the story of your life.’ Although I am seeking their story in the framework of being a professor of homiletics and I want them to construct their narrative so they tell me what they deem to be most important about their personal story and its relationship with being a professor of homiletics. In various pilot studies, it was discovered that a narrow framing of the question reduced the richness of the story. In the pilot studies, the teachers focused upon the specifics of the question thus narrowing their responses to meet their perception of my expectations. Their narratives were also filtered through the context in which I explained my project. I gave too much explanation, which included my expectations. Even explaining my narrative methodology seemed to guide the teachers down my path instead of allowing their narratives to arise naturally. The narrative was reduced to an essay; complex issues, patterns, and themes became obscure. Therefore, only after the primary life story was presented did I follow with more specific questions (noted above) designed to draw from the narrative richer descriptions related to my particular research questions. During the interview, I took notes to remind myself of points that I wished the participants to later elaborate and clarify. Notes allowed me to revisit specific sections of the narrative without interrupting the participants’ associational logic, patterns, and themes.

Data Analysis

Casey’s (1993) analysis is structured around the patterns she identified within the various narratives. She defines discourses as ‘a consistent system of controlling metaphors, notions, categories, and norms which develops and delimits its speakers’ conceptions of personal, work, and social relations’ (p. 31). I primarily identified the discourse of participants by locating patterns clustered around the common metaphors employed in their life stories. Sometimes a particular metaphor is not used by the participant, but only the concept of the metaphor. These patterns and metaphors are made explicit by the interpretation of the researcher.

Casey (1993) uses the language theories of Bakhtin. Interpretive communities share a common discourse. Casey analyzed the patterns in the various discourses collected and discovered various intersections among the different groups. The patterns, intersections, and metaphors, however, were not random creations. Casey located a body of literature that supported her analysis (e.g., Gates (1988) on signifying as a means to understand African-American rhetoric in the life stories of politically active teachers).

Every individual is unique and separate having various experiences and differing stories. At the same time, every individual is part of a whole and in relationship with other individuals. These shared relationships and experiences place everyone into larger discourse communities. The voice of an interpretive community represents that community’s construction of knowledge. In order to be part of a community, individuals shape their voice in relationship with others in order to express ideas and to be understood (Olson, 1995). Olson continues, ‘While we each construct and reconstruct knowledge in different ways, certain authorized versions of what counts as knowledge are constructed and consensus is reached among individual voices’ (p. 127). Narrative research restores the possibility of hearing the single voice again thus bringing clarity and understanding to a larger discourse community.

Intertextuality of heteroglossic texts seeks to bring together different texts from different frameworks so that intersections are seen across linguistic and ideological boundaries. It becomes a critical interpretive act to learn to read complex utterances and voices of different passages in a way that hears them interact with one another so that deeper social, political, philosophical, or religious processes are revealed. Patterns and intersections of discourse are similar to Van Manen’s (1990) themes.

My analysis follows Casey’s (1995) view that narratives are constructed around a ‘cultural framework of meaning and shaped by particular patterns of inclusion, omission, and disparity’ (p. 24). She continues, ‘The principle value of narrative is that its information comes complete with evaluations, explanations, and theories and with selectivities, silences, and slippages that are intrinsic to its representations of reality.’

The teachers interviewed were encouraged to construct their narrative and give meaning to their life within the boundaries of the question asked. Since a broad frame was cast, the teachers were allowed to present their life as they deem fit. I discovered what I could not have imagined to ask. Due to time limitations, only small portions of their stories are recounted. Each teacher selectively shares what s/he wants to tell or what s/he thinks I want to hear. Gaps occur in their stories. The significance of these silences is a subject for interpretation. Why did they tell this story this way? How did they plot their story? What did they include or exclude? These questions guide my process. In retrospect, collection issues shape and influence analysis.

The life stories collected become my data set. These texts are a resource for developing a deeper understanding of human experience by reflecting on central themes, which characterize the phenomenon. My analysis makes explicit the structures of meaning of the various lived experiences. The distillation of themes always falls short of the goal and is at best a simplification or a reduction of the deeper meanings embedded in the texts. Formulating themes and patterns is just one way of capturing, make sense of, and communicating the phenomenon being analyzed.

Van Manen (1990) offers three approaches for identifying themes: (1) Find the phrase that communicates the fundamental meaning of the text as a whole. (2) Select the statements that are particularly essential and revealing about the phenomenon being described. (3) Examine every sentence’ contribution to the phenomenon being described. The identified themes need to remain true to the essential quality of the experience described. If the phenomenon would change by deleting a theme from the experience, then we know that such a theme is essential to the meaning of the phenomenon described.

Van Manen lists four aspects by which people experience the world, namely, spatiality, corporeality, temporality, and relationality. These four aspects together form a unity of experience. The life stories collected for this study are analyzed through the lens of this relational aspect. The pedagogical relationship the teacher has with the student, the sociological relationship the teacher understands the preacher has with the congregation, and the theological relationship the teacher perceives the preacher has with God contribute to understanding the teacher’s theory of practice. The differing metaphors, themes, and patterns used by the various interpretive communities of teachers interviewed, reveal different ways they have of understanding self and the relationships described above. The rhetorical relationships and perceived roles are different for each of these categories.

Much of this research occurs at Riessman’s (1993) fourth level of analysis. Each level of the narrative transmission involves expansion and reduction of the story. Meta-analysis about form, ordering, style, inclusion, and exclusion comprise the primary discussion of the data. The reader of this project is functioning on Riessman’s fifth level. Van Manen (1990) emphasizes how the central meaning of something is often multi-layered and multi-dimensional which invites continued reflective analysis of the structural and thematic aspects of experience. Therefore, thick description is employed as a point of entry into the layers of meaning that are present within the narratives.

Finally, this analysis seeks to avoid the common pitfalls of seeking precise measurements to determine definitions and ‘linguistic arbitrariness’ (Scriven 1988). Therefore, definitions are loosely defined and not intended to replace complex concepts. Consequently, interpretation involves analogies, paradigmatic examples of what the concepts are and are not, and making plausible generalizations from particular instances employed in the analysis (Scriven).

Key Concepts


Authors of narrative research are often concerned with legitimization and acceptance of a method that is still viewed as second class by the old guard. However, they are also cautious not to present a methodology that becomes sterile, inflexible, and just as arrogant as they perceive has developed among the positivists. Munro as quoted by Thomas (1992) suggests that, as an epistemological concept, validity assumes some absolute, fixed, and verifiable truth. If the methodology is deemed appropriate in relationship to the research questions, data collection procedures, and analysis techniques, then validity questions are subservient to the methodology at hand (Munby, 1995; Howe & Eisenhart, 1990).

Primarily, this task can be accomplished by following careful and effective guidelines for and access to data collection and analysis outlined by the methodology. Furthermore, the researcher needs to demonstrate alertness to and coherence of prior knowledge. However, value constraints are subjective. The reader variously judges internal constraints of ethical conduct of the research and external constraints of value and significance. It is my position that narrative research is the appropriate methodology for the research proposed for it can inform and improve educational practice.

Generalizability claims, however, are limited. A limitation to narrative research must be seen in the recognition of not being able to discover some macro narrative (a more positivist concern). Patterns, metaphors, images, and themes cannot be turned into propositional truths in an attempt to construct utility. Research has the purpose to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. The contribution made in this project is left to the readers to relate the research to their own situation. Or as Bassey states as quoted by Thomas (1992),

To the interpretive researcher the purpose of research is to describe and interpret the phenomena of the world in attempts to get shared meanings with others. … It is a search for perspectives and theoretical insights. It may offer possibilities but no certainties as to what may be the outcomes of future events. (p. 42)

Riessman (1993, pp. 64-68) lists persuasiveness, correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic uses as criteria for the validation of narratives. However, she emphasizes there is no set formula for doing narrative. Nor should there be, for each context may require a new or different set of criteria to effectively reach for understanding. The narrative methods require flexibility. This opens the doors for a host of unscrupulous methods, sloppy work, and invalidated babble to pass as legitimate research. Therefore, Riessman encourages making visible the contexts and methods used in narrative projects so that others may be able to determine for themselves about validity concerns. The reader (face validity) ultimately determines the validation of this research. Is the interpretation persuasive? Does this research have pragmatic uses (catalytic validity)? Is this research believable?


Slippage may occur in the narratives of the teachers interviewed. For further research, one could compare their narratives with student interviews, their own writings, class notes, or their sermons. A further investigation into their sermons may reveal more about how consistently they apply what they claim than any other approach. Intertextual methods within discourse communities also allow for the analysis of slippage by looking for internal coherence, patterns, contrasts, and intersections. The significance of the speakers’ slippages is a subject for later interpretation. A secondary analysis could also be conducted by asking the interviewee to verify the researchers interpretations. Van Manen (1990) uses this conversation as a springboard into a second interview. He encourages continued conversations and interviews until there is silence. However, as reasoned above, many in narrative research are limited to one interview.


Van Manen (1990) states nothing is more silent than that which is taken for granted or self-evident. He notes how silences fall into different categories. Sometimes people just do not speak about something for various reasons. Sometimes silence is part of who we are. Some silences are epistemological. These unspeakable silences are the beginning of interpretation. Epistemological silences may occur because of the linguistic ability of the speaker, the form of the discourse, or the setting and timing of the discourse. Others may be able to give voice to these silences. Maybe, at another time and place, the participant can also give voice to these silences.

Omissions are also silences. The gaps in the story may prove to be the most significant aspect of the narrative. Other silences occur when only one side of a narrative is being told or a narrative is being reinterpreted in such a way as to silence other voices. Bringing the narrative into conversation with other narratives helps fill in the gaps.

Olson (1995) describes silences as what occurs when we tell ‘cover stories.’ A cover story is one we believe will be acceptable to society. We often silence the stories we believe will be unacceptable even when they are deemed more ‘real’ or authentic to our experiences. We discount what experience teaches and tell the cover stories instead.


How do researchers handle their emotions? We may be uncomfortable, feel ambivalent, sad, angry, and/or dislike those we research. Some researchers choose to ignore those feelings. The attempt is to remain ‘objective’ at a distance. Yet, ‘subjective’ feelings may hinder honest interpretation. Researchers who ignore their feelings may not explore all the possibilities available to them for their interpretation. Ignoring feelings may cause the researcher to ignore significant data.

Kleinman and Copp (1993) speak about the two ends of the emotional spectrum in terms of distance (detached concern) and intimacy. Intimacy leads to empathy, closeness, and connectedness with those being researched. Intimacy encourages positive relationships and good will. Researchers do well to maintain a grateful and submissive attitude, for it is the researcher who is the learner. Therefore, possible status and power shifts that may unduly influence the study need to be avoided.

Other researchers may talk themselves into changing their emotions so that they feel the ways they think they are supposed to feel. This may prove to be a trap that only satisfies the researcher’s self-interest. The researcher may be acting deceptively (sometimes self-deceptively). These artificial feelings may lead to cynicism (which is a defense mechanism). The need to identify may lead such a researcher down the path of over-identification.

Kleinman and Copp encourage the researcher to acknowledge their feelings. The clash in feelings may lead to the best questions. When the researchers recognize their emotions, these feelings can be used as a tool to increase analytical interpretation. All researchers have an agenda. Honesty about agenda brings objectivity, or at least an acknowledgment of subjectivity (Peshkin, 1988). Good analysis is produced by the researcher’s interactions with participants, even when the researcher desires to remain distant. Therefore, Kleinman and Copp encourage a practice of recording emotions and reactions that are incorporated in the field notes. Self-awareness helps the researcher bracket personal biases and beliefs systems that otherwise shape the research process. However, the researcher cannot remove nor reduce subjectivity by some method. The relationship with the participants and their narratives becomes an integral part of the data. For Peshkin (1988) all researchers (qualitative and quantitative; consciously or not) assume different identity modes based on the research setting, participants involved, and the researcher’s feelings about the observations.

Casey (1993) is also open about her pre-understandings. She acknowledges her philosophical framework. She recognizes her emotions (especially as she engages these thoughtful and moving narratives). Casey embraces the influence this research has on her. Therefore, the reader is forced to acknowledge a stance. The reader becomes aware of place in the dialogue. Understanding yourself is a precondition to understanding others (Casey, 1995).

Often researchers know too much to make an interpretation. They possess theories, common sense, and presuppositions that predispose them to interpret before they come to grips with the question (Van Manen, 1990). For example, as I looked at teachers through Casey’s lens, I could not adopt another lens without first appreciating and respecting these women as persons. Casey refuses to objectify these narratives forcing me, the reader, to remain human and sympathetic. By recognizing the position of the researcher, preconceptions can be bracketed from the interpretation. Since we believe we already know, we need to recognize and keep at bay our beliefs (Van Manen, 1990). A researcher should not pour data into a preset mold but minimize the distortion of the meanings presented by openly acknowledging the role as researcher (Lather, 1986). Therefore, by acknowledging emotions and perspectives, they can be bracketed from analysis.

My research on preaching professors is a dialogue co-authored by my participants and me. These professors are active agents constructing the meaning and interpretation. This collaboration is ultimately a negotiation of the meaning presented. The researcher, poses questions, probes, and alternative perceptions while considering and reflecting on the text at hand to offer interpretations within a collaborative relationship. Although commenting on their words and selecting what to talk about and not talk about, the researcher does not have the right to ‘unsay’ their words (Lather, 1986, p. 264).


A primary limitation that results from using the narrative method with these participants centers on the nature of who they are as advocates of homiletics in the field. They have a vested interest in presenting their story from a certain perspective. Researchers need to exercise caution when analyzing the data because they may only be hearing the script they have rehearsed several times. Each of the participants has often told their stories as a common homiletical device. Finding the deeper levels of their theory and practice may be subsequently hindered.

Furthermore, a story told to a researcher differs from the stories told to friends. Thomas (1992) cites Grumet as one who cautions the researcher who takes the role of friend. Although friendship may lead to openness, it creates risks, for some stories should remain just between friends. Therefore, Ornstein (1995) endorses stories told to researchers. Although they have a modified character that strips away some of the original meaning and vitality, the order, and patterns brought about by the researcher garners trustworthiness. Carter (1993) suspects stories told by teachers for they tend to be ‘autobiographical, self-serving, and grounded in ego’ (p. 7). Carter finds the stories told to researchers are often told for effect and may not represent the discourse openly.


M. Godelier (1989) states that, human beings do not just live in relationship, they produce relationships to live, thereby producing culture and creating history. Human beings and their identities are neither plastic nor passive. They all have stories existing and being created in a given socio-historical context. Accordingly, our future stories are continuously written and constructed through dialogical human interaction (Harre & Gillet, 1995), and a dialogue of multiple voices—heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1981). Unless this dynamic interactive and interrelational nature of culture is acknowledged, it becomes hegemonic in nature (Witherell & Noddings, 1991; McEwan and Egan, 1995). Because narrative research depends heavily upon the notion of discourse communities, examination of the history and thought relevant to the interviewee is necessary. Silences and slippages become more glaring when a particular narrative differs from the larger story.

Expanding theories of teaching and learning offer a rich resource for homiletical instruction. Prescriptive models of laying out rules and providing examples, traditional methods of lecture and practice sermons, and technical communication theory emphasizing transmission of information will likely continue. New theories of learning, however, call for reevaluation. Active adult learners require instructors to consider more holistic approaches.

Narrative itself becomes a pedagogical tool able to sensitize teachers to the dialogical interactive nature of cultural processes. Narratives foster listening to the multiple voices emanating from ever emerging and developing contexts. Narratives coordinate intersubjective processes. They afford individuals the possibility to construct, co-construct, and reconstruct coherently their identities, and to acknowledge their loyalties, traditions, and inherited roles (MacIntyre, 1981). Narratives facilitate and encourage interpretatively open processes of ‘becoming’ through dialogical and interactive work.

My study began by analyzing various preaching teachers’ differing theories and practices of the pedagogy of preaching using a narrative methodology that would result in a phenomenological description of patterns resulting in a coherent instructional practice. Phenomenology was chosen as the research method because it provided an appropriate lens to investigate the research questions. Phenomenology is the analysis of thoughts and events as they appear in consciousness (Van Manen, 1990). In other words, how do these teachers within their respective discourse communities construct meaning out of their lived experiences?

As a co-author of this research, I provide an analysis of the patterns of lived experienced by my observations and subsequent descriptions through the framing lens of faith seeking understanding, faith relating to one another in community, and faith expressing itself in the classroom. The structured analysis became a retrospective interpretation of what is most common, familiar, and self-evident from the actions, behaviors, intentions, and experiences found in these diverse communities. It is descriptive in that the analysis clarifies what is being expressed. It is interpretive in that the analysis is pointing to meaning concealed within the discourses (Van Manen, 1990). Creswell (1994) states that pattern theory contains an interconnected set of concepts and relationships, but it does not require causal statements. Pattern theory uses metaphor or analogies so that relationship ‘makes sense.’

Finally, as a co-author and interpreter of the instructional patterns identified, these teachers’ influence on my theory and practice is made explicit. The dialogic nature of narrative research is most vividly seen as I enter the conversation and give voice to my curricular theory and practice. My own pedagogical theory has been influenced by the present research as an example of the catalytic validity of the project. My theory has been re-shaped as I overheard and became influenced by the narratives of these teachers. The tacit knowledge of pedagogical practice communicated to me I now articulate using the themes: pedagogy as communal activity, pedagogy as formative activity, pedagogy as critical activity, and pedagogy as public activity.[3]

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_______. (1995). The New Narrative Research in Education. Review of Research in Education 21:1-43.

_______. (1996). Class Notes.

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_______. (1998) Pedagogies of Preaching. Ph. D. diss. University of North Carolina Greensboro.

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[1] Lavely (1986) reports on the developing empirical literature to explain expert teacher behavior. Research is reviewed on chess, games, physics, medicine, etc. Some of the literature focuses on ethnographic studies that focused on public schools and college instruction. See also Farnham-Diggory, S. (1994).

[2] Casey (1993) used a narrative method to research the lives of African-American, Catholic, and Jewish women teachers who have been actively involved in public social transformation. The themes that emerged from her study allowed her to theorize about effective prescriptions for change by diverse individuals who otherwise have been silenced by other hegemonic discourses.

[3] The students who used narrative research methods also found common themes and metaphors that allowed the emergence of a theoretical understanding of vocation. Likewise, my research with African-American preachers engendered descriptions of the their common experiences of being trained by either Marshall Keeble and G. P. Bowser.

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