Sociological approaches and social constructivist perspectives

Perspectives on narrative methods in social work researchijsw_672 272..280

Larsson S, Sjöblom Y. Perspectives on narrative methods in social work research Int J Soc Welfare 2010: 19: 272–280 © 2009 The Author, Journal compilation © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and the International Journal of Social Welfare.

The narrative turn has entered many different academic dis- ciplines and is now also emerging in social work. This article focuses on a discussion of the possibilities and limitations of doing narrative research in social work, including a scrutiny of definitions and of a number of theoretical and methodological arguments often used by some of the leading narrative researchers.

Sam Larsson, Yvonne Sjöblom Department of Social Work, Stockholm University

Key words: narrative inquiry, narrative methods, narrative research in social work, psychology-based approach, sociology-based approach

Sam Larsson, Department of Social Work, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden E-mail:

Accepted for publication April 25, 2009


Narrative research is a very promising approach for gaining an in-depth understanding of people’s lives (Josselson, 1995; Josselson & Lieblich, 1999; Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach & Zilber, 1998; Riessman & Quinney, 2005). However, when adopting a narrative strategy in the field of social work, there are many methodological questions and theoretical issues that need to be addressed. The aim of this article is to present a pre- liminary theoretical and methodological discussion of how narrative methods may be used as a research strat- egy in social work, where some of the possibilities and limitations encountered will be explored with particular focus on psychological and sociological approaches to doing narrative research.


In order to discuss how narrative methods can be used in social work research and to examine the possibilities and limitations of narrative perspectives in this field, two major theoretical and methodological positions in narrative research are critically examined from the aspects of relevance and implications for narrative research strategies in social work.

One of the positions studied is narrative methods grounded in a psychology-based approach, including humanistic and psychodynamic perspectives (see Crossley, 2000; Josselson & Lieblich, 1995, 1999; Lieblich & Josselson, 1994; Lieblich et al., 1998). The other position represents a sociology-based approach grounded in social constructivism and postmodernism (Crossley, 2000; Riessman, 2002, 2003). Textbooks

and scientific articles written by psychology-based narrative researchers such as Josselson and Lieblich (1995, 1999; Lieblich and Josselson, 1994), as well as by sociology-based narrative researchers such as Riessman (2002, 2003) and Quinney (Riessman & Quinney, 2005), have been studied.

The selection of narrative researchers was guided by the purpose of finding authors who have published extensively over a long period of time. Researchers in the field of narrative psychology, such as Josselson and Lieblich (1995, 1999; Lieblich & Josselson, 1994), who edited six volumes on narrative methods in The Narra- tive Study of Lives Series, represent one important source of knowledge. Others are Atkinson and Delamont (2006) who have edited four volumes on the same topic, and the sociology-based researcher Catherine Riessman who has contributed numerous important articles on narrative methods over the years (see e.g. Riessman, 1993, 2002, 2003; Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

Narrative methods in social work research

Narrative methods can be used as a methodological tool when carrying out investigation and evaluation in social work practice (Martin, 1995, 1999; Payne, 2005; Ruckdeschel, 1999; Shaw & Lishman, 1999). Narrative methods can also be applied as a treatment method in helping clients to consider a reconstruction of their life story that may help them to cope with their life situation in a better way. There are narrative psychotherapeutic strategies based on psychodynamic, cognitive and con- structivist approaches that may be suitable for social work practice (see McLeod, 1997; Miller, 2006; Payne,

DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2009.00672.x Int J Soc Welfare 2010: 19: 272–280



© 2009 The Author(s) Journal compilation © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and the International Journal of Social Welfare.

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2006; White & Epstone, 1990). However, in this article the focus is on narrative methods in the area of social work research, of which there are many examples (Froggett & Chamberlayne, 2004; Poindexter, 2002; Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

Social work practice and social work research are often based on talk and social interaction with clients. A central area in narrative research is human interaction, which in turn is also the core of social work. An important part of both narrative methods and social work practice is the focus on clients’ stories and giving voice to marginalised groups through listening to their stories. Consequently, narrative methods can be of great importance when conducting social work research (Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

A narrative strategy in the research process may be considered a type of case-centred strategy (see Elliott, 2005; Lieblich et al., 1998; Martin, 1995, 1999). For example, narrative methods may be relevant when trying to understand social workers’ interaction pro- cesses with their clients and their talk about those clients with other professionals. But it may also be helpful when studying identities, life stories and stories told by minority and excluded groups in society (Halberstam, 2005; Riessman, 2002). Narra- tive methods are particularly useful when trying to gain an in-depth understanding of the individual (Hollway, Lucey & Phoenix, 2007; Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

Riessman and Quinney (2005) have reviewed how the concept of narrative has entered social work over the past 15 years with special emphasis on research applications. They found that there were few studies of ‘good enough’ quality on narrative research in the field of social work, in contrast to the volume of narrative research in other academic fields such as nursing, edu- cation and other practicing professions (Riessman & Quinney, 2005). A trend reflected in their review is that practice knowledge from narrative theory is more developed than the application of narrative methods in social work research. According to Riessman, social work has embraced narrative concepts in research applications to only a limited degree (Riessman, 2008; Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

Riessman and Quinney (2005) give several tenta- tive suggestions as to how we may understand these findings. They consider different explanations. Narra- tive inquiry is cross-disciplinary and based on different epistemologies, theories and methods. The research is time-consuming and the ethical questions involved complicated. One conclusion from their review seems to be that narrative research opens up for creative collaborative research. However, narrative methods represent a challenge in social work research because of the great amount of theory, methodology and epistemology involved that typically lies outside

the usual professional canon (see Riessman & Quinney, 2005).

Definitions and perspectives on social work and the connection to narrative methods

In 2007, the International Federation of Social Workers adopted the following definition of social work:

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environ- ments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamentals of social work (IFSW, 2000, cited in Wilson, Ruch, Lymbery & Cooper, 2008: 49).

According to the influential researcher Elizabeth Hutchison (2008), social work is multidimensional and involves the complex analysis of the personal, environmental and time dimensions of human behav- iour. Hutchison points out the need to consider both psychological and sociological perspectives in order to analyse the multifaceted interaction between the per- sonal and situational factors involved in the different psychosocial problems found in the field of social work. However, these dimensions are not to be seen in terms of a causal relationship; instead, they are embedded in each other and reveal many possible analyses in social work practice and research (Hutchison, 2008). According to Hutchison, all of us are engaged in a process of constructing a personal narrative that determines our understanding of our- selves. However, Hutchison considers narrative theory a relatively new approach in social work practice and the meaning of narrative methods for social work is not considered in any detail.

An important source in the field of social work is the influential text by Malcolm Payne, Modern Social Work Theory (2005). Payne also argues for a multidimen- sional perspective when defining and analysing the social work field, pointing out the need to consider both psychological and sociological theories in the under- standing of social work. He also argues for the impor- tance of listening to histories and narratives from people seeking help and that narratives are a focus for understanding and changing people’s social identities, roles and social constructions (p. 162). Treatment inter- ventions may reconstruct narratives towards the change construction of future social events (p. 173). Payne points at important links between the understanding of social work and the use of narrative methods. However, the narrative principles for social work are discussed

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only to a limited extent and in general terms, and their implications for doing research is not discussed at all (Payne, 2005).

Definitions of narrative

The term ‘narrative’ carries many meanings and is used in a variety of ways by different disciplines, but often it is synonymous with ‘story’. As in all stories, multiple voices and identities come into play. Narrative accounts give us access to the identity constructions of individu- als and can be a good strategy for giving voice to minority and/or discriminated groups (Elliott, 2005; Halberstam, 2005; Josselson & Lieblich 1995; Riessman, 2002, 2003). However, although Riessman shared the goal of giving voice to unheard groups, she recommended the researcher to be cautious, emphasis- ing that ‘we cannot give voice, but we do hear voices that we record and interpret’ (Riessman, 2002: 220).

Important questions related to definitions of ‘nar- rative’ are: What is a narrative? What are its defining features and which of its attributes explain its appeal to social scientists? (Elliott, 2005). Narrative analysis typically takes the perspective of the teller. When telling a story, the teller takes the listener to past times, recapitulating what happened then, and there is always the making of a moral point in the telling of the story. In comparison with a qualitative interview, most of the talk is not narrative but question-and- answer exchanges, arguments and other forms of dis- courses (Riessman, 2002). If one defines the narrative as a story with a beginning, middle and an end that reveals an individual’s experiences, then narratives can take many forms (Manning & Cullum-Swan, 1994). In the literature of narrative research, there is considerable variation in how different researchers define the concept of the narrative. Riessman (2002) pointed out that the definitions of narrative often reflect the academic disciplinary background of the researcher.

In social history and anthropology, the narrative is often defined in terms of a life story approach. In the sociolinguistic tradition, narrative research has often been grounded in Labov’s work (1982), where the nar- rative concept refers to specific, discrete stories that are organised around character, setting and plot. Another approach, often used in psychology and sociology, defines narratives as large sections of talk that are pro- duced in interviews and include the interaction between the teller and the interviewer. This kind of narrative approach is often characterised by detailed transcripts of interviews. The analysis of the structure of the talk in its context takes into account the co-production of the talk between the interviewer and the participant (Riessman 2002, 2003; Riessman & Quinney, 2005). Riessman (2002) gave an example of this approach

from Eliot Mishler’s work on identity development among a group of artists or craftspeople (see Mishler, 2000). This approach is important for research in social work because it often deals with long sections of talk between social workers and clients or between researchers and informants.

Yet despite these differences, there are some common key features in how narratives are defined. One is that they are looked upon as discourses with a sequential order, i.e. they are chronological, meaningful and social (Elliott, 2005). For some researchers, the term ‘histories’ is used as an umbrella to define life stories, family stories, oral histories, biographies, memories, narratives and the like (Martin, 1999).

Many researchers also agree that narrative stories refer to ‘discourses with a clear sequential order that connect events in a meaningful way’ (Hinchman & Hinchman, 1997: xvi) and that they also ‘offer insights about the world and/or people’s experiences of it’ (Elliott, 2005: 3). According to Riessman (2002), nar- ration is distinguished by ordering and sequence. This means that one action is viewed as consequential for the next. Narrators create plots from their experiences. They structure their tales temporally and spatially. But narratives can also be organised thematically and epi- sodically. Narrators use particular linguistic devices to communicate the meaning in their narrative construc- tions to their listeners (Ben-Ari, 1995; Riessman, 2002).

Narrative methods and the understanding of the self

Telling a story is a way of telling someone else about the self, but also about the teller’s identity construc- tions (Lieblich et al., 1998). Stories convey meanings both about the teller and his or her identity, and about the social context of which the teller is a part (Crossley, 2000; Wetherell & Maybin, 1996). A person telling a story to a researcher is not only reporting on a set of events in a simple way, but also imparting knowledge about how the story evolved. The researcher and the person participating in the research can be seen as doing a narrative co-production, i.e. they are involved in a dialogic exchange producing a story that evolves through the interaction process (Riessman, 2002, 2003).

When eliciting stories about identity in interviews, it is important to ask the right questions, which in turn requires sound theoretical knowledge about the self (Crossley, 2000; Hollway et al., 2007; Josselson & Lieblich, 1999; Riessman, 2003). Narrative methods can be seen as a special method of doing research on identity constructions or identity switches in different situations (see Josselson & Lieblich 1995, 1999; Lieblich et al., 1998; Mishler, 1986; Riessman 2002, 2003).

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In the literature of narrative research, narrative methods are often described as very good strategies to provide access to different identities of individuals or how they experience their inner self. According to Lieblich et al. (1998: 7), ‘personal narratives, in both facets of content and form, are people’s identities’. Personal narratives are not only a way of telling someone about one’s life, ‘they are the means by which identities may be fashioned’ (Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992: 1). The psychological research literature describes how the self contains different voices or sub-identities (see e.g. Rowan & Cooper, 1999). According to several narrative researchers, the self is dialogic and contains many voices and different self-experiences (Crossley, 2000; Josselson, 1995; Riessman, 2002, 2003).

One challenge for the narrative researcher when trying to understand personal narratives and identities is to get ‘the whole story’ describing all the different parts of the self (Josselson, 1995). According to Mishler (1992: 37), researchers often focus on a ‘part identity’ rather than the individual’s ‘total identity’. Yet to begin with an analysis of part identities may lead to the construction and understanding of the dif- ferent sub-identities and dialogic voices, and also the conflicts and contradictions that may exist between them (Mishler, 1992). Mishler saw these different part identities as unified by some kind of ‘master identity’ that connects the different sub-identities (Mishler, 1992: 37). According to Mishler (1986: 68), the most important aspect of the narrative is that it helps in understanding ‘the quality of mind’. In other words, ‘quality of mind, not plot, is the soul of the narrative’ (Mishler, 1986: 81).

Theoretical and empirical dimensions of narrative research

When carrying out narrative research, there are many challenges that need to be faced, such as trying to show more clearly how different kinds of narrative- theoretical considerations are related to empirical data. There is important literature that discusses both the theoretical and the empirical levels in narrative research (Atkinson & Delamont, 2006; Josselson & Lieblich, 1995, 1999; Lieblich & Josselson, 1994; Lie- blich et al., 1998; Scott & Lyman, 2006). However, the relationship between the theoretical and the empirical levels in narrative research needs to be discussed in more detail, especially for the social work field. Riessman and Quinney (2005) conclude in their critical review of the use of narrative in social work research that there are often methodological problems related to a lack of direct quotations and narrative descriptions of any length.

Hollway et al. (2007), in considering the relationship between theory and narrative methods, discuss a special narrative method called ‘Free Association Nar- rative Interviewing’ and how it was informed by a par- ticular theory of self. Because the theory assumed that individuals are not aware of everything that makes up their identity, this must be taken into account in the production and analysis of concrete narrative data. Crossley (2000) made a similar point when focusing on the complex relationship between theoretical analysis of the self and the use of different narrative methods for the study of the self. In the present authors’ view, the narrative researcher needs to make explicit the kinds of assumptions of the self that guide the narrative meth- odological strategies used.

Psychology-based approaches in narrative research

Josselson and Lieblich (1995, 1999; Lieblich & Jossel- son, 1994) have edited a series of volumes on the nar- rative study of lives that mainly consider psychological perspectives and their impact on narrative methods. The psychology-based approaches focus on understanding ‘the inner life’ and the self or identity constructions of the teller, where both implicit and explicit processes of communicating are of importance. There is not only the matter of trying to extract as rich a phenomenological narrative description from the narrator as possible, but the researcher must also try to apprehend the more or less submerged stories or what is not said in order to get the whole story or a more complex understanding of the history (Chase, 1995; Crossley, 2000; Josselson & Lieblich, 1999; Lieblich et al., 1998). Theories of the self that need to be considered as background to a psychology-based approach to the narrative may be inspired by a humanistic or by a psychodynamic approach (see Crossley, 2000).

Sociological approaches and social constructivist perspectives on the self

Crossley (2000) described the postmodernist approach that sees individuals and the self as enfolded in lan- guage and influenced by postmodernism. According to Crossley (2000), the task of postmodernism is to deconstruct linguistic structures and socio-historical narratives. The postmodern approach is critical towards the ‘inwardness’ of individuals and this connects to their declaration of ‘the death of the subject’, where there is no essential nature of the self to describe (Crossley, 2000: 26–31). In the social constructivist approach, the ‘psyche’, or our ‘inner lives’ is consid- ered to be found, not within ourselves, but in the rela- tional spaces between ourselves and others, where the ‘self’ or ‘identity’ is unstable and of fragmentary nature with constantly shifting boundaries (Crossley, 2000).

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This approach is not interested in how a response from a narrator may mirror the psychological or social reality of events outside the interview context.