In the previous blog I drew on my own experiences of action research but in writing this blog I am grateful to Lee Schaefer. It is Lee’s lived experiences and storied knowledge of narrative inquiry that have allow me to reflect on narrative inquiry in this piece.

I am also grateful to Andy Vasily and Wyatt Franz who have engaged with this blog series in a way that brings it to life for me and makes real the approaches I’m writing about. I have tried to bring their discussions from the previous blog forwards into my thinking in this blog but encourage everyone to visit the action research blog (Published March 9th 2018) and consider their insights first hand. 

So what is narrative inquiry? And what isn’t narrative inquiry?

Narrative inquiry isn’t narrative research. While both allow the practitioner researcher to think about stories, narrative inquiry goes further and helps us to think with stories. In short:

People shape their daily lives by stories of who they are and others are and as they interpret their past in terms of these stories. Story, in the current idiom, is the portal through which a person enters the world by which their experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful. Narrative inquiry, a study of experience as story, then, is first and foremost a way of thinking about experience. (Connelly & Clandidnin, 2006, p. 375)

Narrative inquiry allows us to study both the narratives themselves and consider how the same stories allow us to better understand our experience as they are lived. That said, narrative inquiry cannot be boiled down just to stories. The experience cannot be stripped out and a fireside story told. The experience itself knocks up against the experiences of the listener/reader, the social environment and the place. The story offers us a window into how an individual understands their own experiences, how we understand those experiences as listeners and readers and, in turn, how these experiences make up people’s lives.

In talking to Lee, and re-reading his chapter in our book, I am drawn to the value and ability (for want of a better word) that he saw in narrative inquiry to pay attention to what research participants were saying, to value this in its own right (and not ‘paint over it’ with theory’) and provide an authentic representation of participants’ voices. He reflects on how teachers’ knowledge mattered and how they were considered to be knowledge holders. In his words, “narrative inquiry represents a particular view of the world that values and upholds the knowledge that participants bring to the research endeavour.” 

It’s important to note that narrative inquiry didn’t emerge out of nothing. Its philosophical underpinnings speak of a commitment to experience. It holds that what you see (and hear, feel, think, love, taste, despise, fear, etc.) is what you get. That is all we ultimately have in which to ground our understanding. And that is all we need. Narrative inquirers argue that knowledge and understanding reside in the eye of the beholder - the teacher, the professional - rather than the eye of the expert or authority. Narrative inquiry draws on John Dewey’s understanding of experience as both continuous (i.e. shaped by time and written over the top of past experience to shape future experience) and interactive (i.e. experience intermingles with the social cultural environments and places in which we live). Narrative inquirers believe that while our individual experiences are continuous, there are also constantly interacting with the places, people, and social environments within which we live.

To explain this, narrative inquirers have develop what they call the ‘three dimensional narrative inquiry space’. These are three commonplaces where narrative inquirers engage with stories and ask questions which explore personal feels and hopes: (1) the common place of temporality (i.e. experience always has a past, present and future), (2) the common place of sociality (i.e. while our own experiences are continuous, they are constantly interacting with the social conditions to which we belong) and, (3) the common place of place (quite literally the place in which the experience happens impacts on that experience).

Narrative inquiry holds that our experience is something that we can interact with, i.e. in thinking about our past experiences we can see how they mesh present experiences and how they might shape future experiences (temporality). If, as Lee recalled, you have felt marginalised as a physical education teacher this marginalisation means less if you don’t appreciate the position of physical education as a subject that is seen as ‘less than’. Lee’s experience of feeling marginalised are better comprehend if you understand who he was and who he was becoming as a teacher (Sociality). Finally, narrative inquiry ask the listener/reader to understand the places that become storied. If part of Lee’s story of marginalisation is set in a gymnasium, then it is important to understand how that space may have shaped the experience of marginalisation (place).

In his reflections on the last blog, Andy told us about the experiences of a music teacher in his school. If we reconsider this story through narrative inquiry (and I am making this up as I go along so this should be treated purely hypothetically) we might see the development of the lesson temporality i.e. past experience of teaching this lesson or this type of lesson informed the development/teaching of this lesson which, in turn will change (did change) the teaching of a similar class in the future. If we view this socially then we need to understand the teacher in both local and larger social contexts. We need to understand the position of the subject in the school, in the community, in the county (both the country in which it is being taught and the context in which the teacher learnt about music and music teaching). If we view the lesson as a place then we need to consider the geography of the room, the equipment, the seating of the kids, the position of their friends in relation to the instrument they want to use, their confidence to read music or improvise. In short, how did this particular space shape the experience?

When using, or choosing to use, narrative inquiry it is important that you find a personal justification for its use. In narrative inquiry terms this often means situating yourself in the study. So Wyatt might position himself as an experimental innovator who takes his time to come to better answers. Andy, in turn, might take into account the temporality, sociality and place of his own experiences (as a physical education teacher, musician, Canadian, former quarterback etc.) as they relate to his colleague’s teaching.

It is important that the narrative inquirer has a practical justification for the study. By asking questions about how your research will change practice you might consider ways that you can story your experiences to help others shift their own practices. Finally, the narrative inquirer might consider a social justification for a study and, in doing so, think about how the study will help us to better understand a particular phenomenon. Is it, for example, something that is emancipatory and focuses on positive social change or is it something else?

Narrative inquiry, with its focus on experience, gives value to the practitioner researcher’s voice. It includes them in the research in meaningful ways and, perhaps, offers new ways to bring about different and deep understanding of teaching and learning going forwards. The change, as I found in ‘doing’ narrative inquiry, is seeing our experiences not as stories to think about but as stories to think with.



Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.  

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (2006). Narrative inquiry. In J. L. Green, G. Camilli, P. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods in education research (3rd ed., pp. 477 - 487). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.