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Review of  Learning and Teaching Narrative Inquiry

Reviewer: Kara Johnson
Book Title: Learning and Teaching Narrative Inquiry
Book Author: Sheila Trahar
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 23.697

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EDITOR: Sheila Trahar
TITLE: Learning and Teaching Narrative Inquiry
SUBTITLE: Travelling in the Borderlands
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2011

Kara Johnson, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA


Sheila Trahar’s “Learning and Teaching Narrative Inquiry” is an edited volume
that is a story in itself of various journeys in narrative inquiry as it is
practiced and taught in various places around the world. She identifies that
there is only one other text (Josselson et al., 2003) about “teaching
narrative,” which focuses on the North American context, and as such, this
volume contributes to conversations on narrative inquiry as it is viewed and
realized in other contexts. This volume could serve as a useful text for
entering the conversation as a researcher or a teacher, and although Trahar
makes no claims that it will teach how to teach narrative inquiry, some
contributing authors offer reviews of their methods of teaching it at their

In her introduction chapter, Trahar identifies that her goal in seeking writers
for each chapter was not to be able to compile a volume on teaching narrative
inquiry but rather to allow each writer to “engage in critiques of narrative as
well as [extol] its virtues” (p. 2) in order for others to learn from their
process. As such, she sought contributors from various parts of the world using
narrative inquiring in many different contexts. She reflects that the subtitle
of her volume, “Travelling in the Borderlands,” reflects the tensions found in
this journey of narrative inquiry around the globe, and then she summarizes and
explains the chapters as a journey around the globe for conversations of
narrative inquiry encountered along the way.

Chapter 2, “Interfaces in teaching narratives,” is co-authored by Molly Andrews,
Corinne Squire, and Maria Tamboudou, three directors for the Centre for
Narrative Research at the University of East London. Each author writes a
section from a different perspective. Andrews relates the challenge of drawing
students into thinking about narrative, or drawing them into the messy world of
stories that “do something…have a point, a function” (p. 19). Squire digs into
the value of helping students find their own path in determining what narrative
research is, giving the starting point of Labov’s discussions (1972; 1997) and
his contested definition that it “involve[s] stories told in the first person
about particular events by a narrator who experienced it him/herself” (p. 23).
She relates how students are then led through other perspectives, including
understandings of selves and hearers’ interpretations (Ricoeur, 1991) and
interviews and co-performances of identities (Riessman, 2008). Tamboukou relates
her work with narrative, which she uses to teach her post-graduate students, and
tells how she has sought to make it rigorous and systematic while recognizing
that it is what she calls “narrative phenomena” (p. 26). From her perspective,
narratives do something and narrative research is concerned with the production
and interrelated effects of narrative. As a whole, the authors do not seek to
mandate any particular definition of narrative or way to teach narrative, but
they explain how they use philosophical groundings to allow students to explore
and construct their own theories as they practice it. Each author relates her
perspective on narrative and the broader contexts in which she sees it at work.

Chapter 3, “Becoming a narrative inquirer,” is co-authored by D. Jean Clandinin,
Janice Huber, Pam Steeves, and Yi Li. They start the chapter setting their
perspective from a Deweyan theory of experience (Dewey, 1938), not necessarily
based on teaching narrative inquiry, but rather on “learning to think with
stories” (p. 34). The chapter is structured as experiences from a typical class,
narrated to illustrate the instructors’—Clandinin, Huber, and Steeves’—method of
leading their students into this perspective. Li contributes a narrative
works-in-progress to illustrate one of the key components, an autobiographical
narrative inquiry from the perspective of a former graduate student. The
chapter’s authors discuss how this autobiographical activity helps shape a space
that encourages students to be attentive to what they feel, imagine, or
remember, and thus create an inner dialogue that resonates with the stories. The
authors conclude by emphasizing that this process of growing as narrative
inquirers involves being attentive to the dialogue in narrative and not taking
the view of being an expert or critic.

Chapter 4, “The circle game: Narrative inquiry as a way of life in ACE,” is
co-authored by Ariela Gidro, Bobbie Turniansky, Smadar Tuval, Ruth Mansur, and
Judith Barak. They write from the perspective of teacher educators in Israel who
make narrative inquiry a way of life rather than as teachers of narrative
inquiry as a subject for students to learn. They also base their perspective on
Deweyan principles (Dewey, 1938), specifically, those of interaction and
continuity “that together help define the complexity of the experience” and “the
theoretical stance that people are storytellers by nature” (p. 54). They relate
how students take the following workshops as part of the teacher education
program with foci that involve using storytelling to shape the students’ way of
life in the program: a workshop on cultural identity and cultural sensitivity, a
workshop that accompanies the students’ field of practice, and a workshop that
accompanies their teaching experience and is designed to help them examine their
personal beliefs and assumptions. The authors discuss that this process in their
program is for the purpose of professional development and helps students
de-construct their images of the ideal teacher while seeing the complexity of

Chapter 5, “Teaching narrative inquiry in the Chinese community: A Hong Kong
perspective,” is co-authored by Yu Wai Min and Lau Chun Kwok. They also share a
perspective of using narrative inquiry in teacher education, but they look at
its development in Chinese contexts, which they note are different between
Taiwan, Mainland China, and Hong Kong due to reasons such as language barriers
for research and publication as well as the differing number of tertiary
institutions between the three contexts. They use narrative inquiry in three
ways: as a research tool, as a medium for professional development, and as a
strategy of teaching. For each use, they describe how they teach it for that
purpose, while also identifying the intentions and limitations of their
practice. They conclude the chapter by saying that while there are activities,
methods, and steps that can be used in teaching narrative inquiry, teaching it
as a way of thinking is the most important result. They note that as a research
methodology, narrative inquiry is still developing and often marginalized, and
that some researchers (Clandinin & Murphy, 2007) have recommended that not only
is extensive life experience needed to gain the personal qualities necessary to
build quality research from narrative methods, but that researchers should have
a broad basis in other methods as well.

Chapter 6, “Multicultural and cross-cultural narrative inquiry: Conversations
between advisor and advisee,” is co-authored by JoAnn Phillion and Yuxian Wang.
Phillion starts with a narrative from her perspective of finding “a critical
perspective and a social justice orientation” (p. 87) in narrative approaches
that she felt had previously been missing but was essential for her and her
students’ inquiries. She felt that this orientation allowed her and her students
to better explore and understand the experiences of marginalized groups that are
not the majority population and are in a cross-cultural position in relation to
the majority population researcher. Wang then narrates from his perspective as a
majority population Chinese researcher who is discovering the challenges of
narrative inquiry in a cross-cultural context. Following that, in an interview
format, the authors address issues of the role of the researcher, the impact of
context, the role of theory, and how to represent findings, with Wang answering
questions from his in depth narrative study of three students in a Chinese
minority situation. Phillion and Wang conclude with a reflection on the
experience and a discussion of the issues involved, such as critical
self-examination, rigorous methods, and careful interpretation and
representation in conducting a multicultural, cross-cultural narrative inquiry,
as with any other narrative inquiry.

Chapter 7, “Scrapbooks and messy texts: Notes towards sustaining critical and
artful narrative inquiry,” is co-authored by Malcom Reed and Jane Speedy.
Throughout the chapter, they, as authors, highlight the differences in their
perspectives and approaches, part of which are ascribed to narrative inquiry
being an art. Their chapter reflects on their journey exploring the values and
approaches they use in their doctoral teaching in the UK. They discuss their
intention in the doctoral programme in Narrative Inquiry of establishing a space
for researchers to work in Clandinin’s three dimensions (Clandinin et al., 2006)
while being mindful “from the outset of the demands, complexities and tension of
this form of inquiry” (p. 110). Instead of a tidy conclusion, they end by noting
that issues of time, and context and relationships of those involved, are
confusing and messy but that they are all part of the nature of being engaged in
the rigorous and “artful” process of narrative inquiry at the University of Bristol.

Chapter 8, “Many more than two of us: Denaturalizing the positions of speech and
writing in a narrative constructionist research workshop,” is authored by
Veronica Larrain. Larrain narrates from her perspective of teaching a workshop
introducing Narrative Constructionist Research (Sparkes & Smith, 2008) as part
of a series on research methodology at the University of Barcelona. Her approach
within the course has students placing themselves in the role of “storyteller”
(i.e. narrative inquirer) as well as collaborator (i.e. informant), or the
person telling his/her own experience. In describing the activities she uses,
she draws out the complexities and naturally occurring fears related to identity
and relationships that occur in oral narratives and testimonies, as well as the
ideological expectations of narrative conventions. She concludes with a set of
questions that call for narrative inquirers to reflect on the tensions, subtext,
beliefs and suppositions that they, the “storytellers,” bring to the
relationship and use to make choices regarding how to create stories from the
research relationship.

Chapter 9, “‘Burt’s story reminded me of my grandmother’: Using a reflecting
team to facilitate learning about narrative data analysis,” is authored by
Sheila Trahar. Trahar relates her experience using a reflecting team activity as
a method for teaching narrative analysis that challenges dominant knowledge and
values knowledge that emerges in the process. She notes that little has been
written about using this practice to teach narrative analysis but that the
activity is prominent in therapeutic practice (Andersen, 1991), has been used in
anthropological studies (Myerhoff, 1980), and has been introduced in management
education (Griffith, 1999). Using a teaching experience with a group of students
and her own teacher reflections, combined with two students who participated in
the activity, she analyzes the responses from her and her students for what
contributed to the learning experience and what was a drawback to it. She
concludes that the method is innovative in education and allows opportunities
for students to engage in “performance/dialogic way of data analysis” (p. 155),
which she felt afforded students who chose to use it a greater level of
sophistication in understanding the process.

Chapter 10, “Negotiating intercultural academic careers: A narrative analysis of
two senior university lecturers,” is authored by Meeri Hellstén and Katrin
Goldstein-Kyaga. They identify that their intent is to suggest new practices for
teaching and learning narrative inquiry and to raise a discourse around the
professional challenges involved. To do this, they illustrate two life
narratives, which they analyze for the “ontological,” “public,” “conceptual,”
and “meta-narrativity” dimensions of narrativity, as well as a fifth dimension
of cultural, national or personal space. They suggest that the pedagogical uses
of such life narratives can be employed in undergraduate courses, through
teaching issues of global identity construction, and also in graduate level
courses, by having students personally explore key concepts that are being
taught theoretically, such as “culture” or “ethnicity.” They highlight this use
of analysis of life narratives as an important method of engaging both teacher
and student in a self-reflective process that integrates theory with personal
development in key scholarly domains.


This volume functions as an excellent introduction and overview of narrative
analysis as it is viewed, taught, and applied by various scholars throughout the
world, which to date has been missing from the literature. Some chapters are
more heavily focused on the current theories and significance of using narrative
in research and teaching, and other chapters offer activities and analyses that
can give practical applications, benefits, and drawbacks for teachers or
researchers wishing to begin to engage in narrative inquiry or transform their
practices. Considering that narrative analysis is not an easily defined field,
this edited volume has done a remarkable job of gathering authors who can offer
different perspectives and approaches, while still allowing readers to draw
their own conclusions and applications.

A chapter that has an excellent combination of theory and practice is Chapter 6,
“Multicultural and cross-cultural narrative inquiry,” by Phillion and Wang. In
this chapter, they relate the use of narrative inquiry to the research of
marginalized populations in multicultural contexts, and as an author, Phillion
tells her perspective as a faculty advisor seeking to teach and use a “critical
perspective and social justice orientation” (p. 87) in her narrative inquiry
research. Wang’s contribution from the perspective of a developing researcher
who was actively conducting a study with minority Chinese students adds a
practical layer to the chapter for readers who may be considering teaching
practical issues that may arise from such a multicultural study. Both authors
add historical and political contextual background that affected the study, and
they support their key issues and methods with relevant theory. Their writing
style of questions and answers regarding the challenges, as well as the use of
advisor’s and advisee’s perspectives, made the fusion of theory and practice
clear. For a researcher or teacher considering issues of an inquiry with
multicultural or marginalized populations, this chapter will be invaluable.

An excellent chapter that is more focused on the process of teaching narrative
inquiry is Chapter 4, “The circle game,” by Gidron et al. Their discussion is
from the perspective of teacher educators who are seeking to make narrative
inquiry a way of life in the post-graduate teacher education program in which
they teach. They support their approach to teacher education with theoretical
grounding, and then they explain how their approach, with three main components,
builds the way of life for the students in the program. Excerpts from students
in the program who relate their research process or perspective change help the
reader engage and understand the way of life that the authors have built through
each teaching component. The authors emphasize that narrative inquiry in their
context in teacher education is for the purpose of professional development, and
for this purpose, they explain their process, outcomes, and difficulties well.

The editor, Sheila Trahar, states in her introduction that she does not intend
for the volume to teach narrative inquiry, and from the wide range of
applications and perspectives of narrative inquiry found in the chapters, it is
clear why. It would be simplistic to teach any single pattern for performing
narrative, yet some chapters offer pedagogical activities with analyses that
give practical suggestions and considerations for teaching and using it. Some
authors write from their context of teaching or using it for research, and
others for professional development in teacher education programs. This volume’s
intent and organization can pose a challenge to the reader, researcher, or
teacher who wants to learn about or teach narrative inquiry, but it also
provides an opportunity to engage in the discourse of the narrative inquiry

As a coursebook or reference for a researcher or teacher wishing to engage in a
dialogue on narrative inquiry, this volume gives the tools for generating both
discussion and activities. As a whole, the volume keeps an inclusive tone that
does not promote an ethnocentric or limiting view on the questions and issues
involved in narrative inquiry around the world, and important issues for
engaging academics and teachers in multicultural narrative inquiries are raised.

There is still minimal research published in narrative inquiry, and several
chapters in this volume identify that stories and the demands of narratives are
complex and messy both in theory and in practice. While this volume is an
excellent place to begin engaging in the discourse of narrative inquiry, it is
clear that there is opportunity for further research that can continue to bring
together some of the current threads of research and practice. It may be
particularly useful for researchers and teachers to explore the intersections
between the various contexts and purposes in order to make applying and teaching
narrative inquiry less ambiguous and more accessible.


Andersen, T. (ed.). 1991. The reflecting team: Dialogues and dialogues about the
dialogues. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Clandinin, D. J., & Murphy, S. 2007. Looking ahead: Conversations with Elliot
Mishler, Don Polkinghorne, and Amia Lieblich. In D. J. Clandinin (ed.), Handbook
of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp. 632-650). Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications.

Clandinin, D. J., Huber, J., Murphy, M. S., Murray Orr, A., & Pearce, M. 2006.
Composing diverse identities: Narrative inquiries into the interwoven lives of
children and teachers. London: Routledge.

Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and education. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Griffith, W. 1999. The reflecting team as an alternative case teaching model: A
narrative conversational approach. Management Learning , 30 (3), 343-362.

Josselson, R., Lieblick, A., & McAdams, D. P. (eds.). 2003. Up close and
personal: The teachings and learning of narrative research. Washington, DC:
American Psychological Association.

Labov, W. 1972. Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English
vernacular. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1997. Some further steps in narrative analysis. Journal of Narrative
and Life History , 7 (1-4), 395-415.

Myerhoff, B. 1980. Number our days: Culture and community among elderly Jews in
an American ghetto. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Ricoeur, P. 1991. Life in quest of narrative. In D. Wood (ed.), On Paul Ricoeur:
Narrative and interpretation (pp. 20-33). London: Routledge.

Riessman, C. 2008. Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications.

Sparkes, A. C., & Smith, B. 2008. Narrative constructionist inquiry. In J.
Holstein, & J. Gubrium (eds.), Handbook of constructionist research (pp.
295-314). New York, NY: Guilford.

Kara Johnson is a Ph.D. student in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, and recently defended her dissertation on Chinese EFL students’ peer review process in writing. She also has research interests in intercultural communication and rhetoric, teacher training, materials development, and corpus linguistics.