Narrative Matters

Research Master students from Sociology of Culture, Media & the Arts (EUR) decided to ask assistant professor Jacomijne Prins some questions on her PhD-research (on narrative identity constructions among Moroccan-Dutch youth) and narrative methods. Here is how she responded. Starting research

  • Could you tell me what motivated you to pursue this research from a personal viewpoint? (for example in terms of personal experiences, professional goals, social or political contexts)

I have an MA in literary studies from Leiden University. My MA-thesis was on the relation between narratology (the art of telling) and identity construction in a Cuban story. After my MA, I remained interested in the relation between identity construction and storytelling. For the VU, I started to explore stories of Moroccan-Dutch youths in the Netherlands as part of a project on media use. Based upon my experiences, I drafted a proposal for a PhD.

  • How did your theoretical framework emerge? (for example, did you adjust your theory when conducting the research, did you consider any other theoretical perspectives?)

Narrative methods were always part of my theoretical framework, and remained so throughout. As you know, there is a huge amount of literature indicating that stories and lives are connected. What changed is the way I conceptualized stories. Students studying literature learn that stories are structured according to similar structures and actors (see for example Greimas 1966). I still think this is true, but this view isn’t very helpful to study storytelling in everyday life where stories are sometimes multi-authored, incomplete or ambiguous in point. Above all, literary theory regarding storytelling emphasizing structure generally disregards context, which I found to be very important in my own work.

Collecting Data

  • Did you experience any specific challenges or advantages in your research design, particularly the qualitative approach and use of focus groups?

Disadvantages: As you know, qualitative research is people business, and people behave unpredictably. My design was quite demanding (interviewing the same people in different contexts), and it was difficult to keep people motivated to cooperate. Also,  I came to realize that my design may have been a bit too demanding and I started to see ethical objections. Also, social reality is unpredictable: I planned a lot of my focus groups in the winter, and found that participants could not or would not come because of the cold and/ or the snow.

Advantages of focus groups are plenty, they offer a wonderful insight in how topics are discussed among peers. At the same time, you must always keep in mind that people were convened to discuss these topics, and that context should be part of your analysis.

  • How did focus group leaders open up discussion in a neutral way? (for example, how do you think the Moroccan-Dutch descent of the group leaders influenced the focus group?)

We actually didn’t open in a neutral way. We were always open about what we came to discuss: the image of Moroccan-Dutch young adults in the Dutch public debate, and how people experienced their identity. By talking about their experiences as part of the Moroccan, the Dutch and the Muslim community, I learned which parts of this image penetrated in their collective beliefs about who Moroccan-Dutch young adults are as a group.

I was sometimes questioned or criticized for this direct approach, but always felt it was justified considering the continuing public debate surrounding Moroccan-Dutch youths. The setting of the focus groups with all Moroccan-Dutch young adults, I felt, also made talking about this topic inevitable. People were free to express disagreement with the framing of the focus groups. Some people indicated not to be influenced by this image, other people indicated they didn’t see the point of discussing the issue. Discussing these viewpoints in the group made for fruitful conversations. A lot of participants indicated afterwards that they had learned a lot from the focus groups and that participating had influenced the way they perceived themselves and the group.

Moderators always influence the focus group. I used Moroccan-Dutch moderators as I expected the distance between them and the respondents to be smaller. Which was sometimes true, and sometimes not, for example when Moroccan-Dutch female participants in lower educational training indicated that they didn’t feel comfortable to be interviewed by a Moroccan-Dutch man with such a high status (university student).

Analyzing Data

  • Why do you prefer narrative analysis over other analytical approaches? (for example, discourse analysis)

When people recount their experiences, you will find that they will always tell some kind of story, big or small. In my dissertation I develop a way of analyzing storytelling which takes both content structure and context into account. A focus on storytelling lays bare how people experience events, and how they give meaning to them in cooperation with others, in different contexts. It allows to distinguish when people give contradictory meanings, or are ambiguous as how to understand a certain event. Of course, I am biased towards this method, and I cannot possibly say that other methods will not yield equally important insights.

Did you experience any difficulties with this method of analysis?

Certainly. The question what a story actually is (how it should be conceptualized), and how it should be analyzed troubled me throughout the first two years of my project. I learned that there is not one way of analyzing stories, and that you have to figure out your own way of handling narrative data. I found my own methods were very insightful to study the Moroccan-Dutch identity as a relational identity, an identity that was always contrasted with other identities. For my current research, I focus on a different type of story, for which I will have to develop new methods.

  • How did you ensure the trustworthiness of the research? (for example, what strategies did you employ to ensure the reliability and validity of the research?)

I thought the use of Moroccan-Dutch interviewers would help ensure the internal validity of the research (see my earlier remark). In the end, what helped most in ensuring the trustworthiness of my analyses, was my prolonged presence in the field, my continuing conversations with participants (who participated in several focus group and interview sessions) and with Moroccan-Dutch student-assistants who were or became friends along the way.

Reflection:

  • Would you recommend your methods of data collection and analysis to future researchers, or do you have any advice on how to do it differently?

I would recommend narrative analysis to everyone, this should be clear by now, but everyone has to figure out for themselves which is the best exact approach considering the topic under study. In general, my advice would be that whether you are pursuing a thematic, structural or contextual approach to storytelling, one cannot go without the other: researchers interested in content should also address context and vice versa.

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