“There are always stories.”

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This week I met with an academic researcher who uses digital storytelling as a research methodology in participatory research involving youth who have a parent with a mental illness. My primary goals for this interview were to better understand the nature of narrative research, elaborate on how narrative research is different from storytelling and understand this researcher’s position as someone who facilitates other people’s storytelling.

We started our conversation by discussing “narrative research”. Before we met, she noted that she is not a narrative researcher per se, even though she understands what it entails and teaches about it in a qualitative research course. Her perspective was that the term “narrative research” could apply to two things:

  1. Using narrative as an approach to research whereby the researcher uses narrative structure (e.g., beginning of a story, middle, end, etc.) to direct various research processes such as interviewing; or
  2. Analysis of an existing narrative.

After clearing that up, we delved into her current research project which utilizes digital storytelling – a term that was new to me – as a research methodology. It is however, exactly what it sounds like: telling personal life stories using digital media, typically short films with still images such as photographs, a musical soundtrack and narrated by the author(s). She explained that digital storytelling as a research methodology is usually grounded in community development and is pretty big in California. In her current project, participants met over the course of a weekend in ‘story circles’ to tell and refine their personal stories around the research question before working to translate that story into digital media. This part of the process is guided by the seven elements of digital storytelling. Some of these will not be applicable to my project but others certainly will. In particular, I intend to pay attention to:

    1. The author’s point of view
    2. A dramatic question
    3. Emotional content
    4. My voice (i.e., my unique point of view in relation to the story and its author)

I was particularly interested in whether or not she considered herself to be a storyteller. She took some time to answer this question, at first saying that she wasn’t sure and then going on to say that while she doesn’t necessarily consider herself a storyteller “There are always stories” and she considers her work to be a sort of “research story” about people. She noted that this research story, which adds to scientific evidence, is not the same as the stories about the participants’ lives. In this way, I think there are parallels in how we view our roles: I see my role in this project as a story-collector, translating the stories about each of my family member’s lives into a cohesive collection. She was also careful to state that while she admires storytellers for their art, especially since her culture has a strong oral storytelling tradition, she doesn’t believe that she is particularly gifted in this regard.

We then moved on to discuss some practical issues regarding the facilitation of other people’s storytelling. As a researcher, she employs a reflexive practice throughout the research process. She continually thinks about her social position in relation to the storytellers and their stories (this links nicely with #4 in the list above). During sessions, she takes field notes to record her personal thoughts as the research participants are talking and after data collection, she again records personal impressions in an “out of field diary”. She also mentioned that for her current project, she began the entire process by doing a scholarly presentation to the youth which placed them and the research question in the context of “the bigger story”. My final question was about maintaining the integrity of the stories as they are repackaged or translated by her as the researcher. In particular, I was interested in the translation from oral storytelling to the written word. I don’t believe we got to any kind of conclusive answer about this so the search continues. However, she did leave me with the thought that at the end of the day, we – as storytelling facilitators – are looking for and refining a thematic thread. In my case, this thematic thread is perhaps how each story contributes to my bigger Family Story.

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