Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Narrative analysis

core definition

Narrative analysis is the examination of how people make sense of their world through the stories they tell.

explanatory context

At core, narrative analyses presumes that people understand the world through the stories (or narratives) they construct.


It has been argued that narrative analysis has grown in popularity through the 1990s in the social and political sciences.


Narrative analysis essentially involves an interpretive approach although there is no single method for narrative analysis nor rules about what constitutes narrative analysis. Both form and content of narrative is of concern to analysts.


However, most narrative analysis focuses on texts (in its broadest sense) and is concerned with the social origins of narrative.This requires examining the narrative in its broader social context: thus who is telling the story, to whom, where, when and for what purpose. Narrative analysis does not treat the stories as though they are true, that is, it does not treat the content as fact. It views narrative as social products that people use to represent themselves and their worlds to themselves and to others.


Structuralists have also analysed narrative, for example Labov (1973) and Propp (1968); the latter analysed fairytales and claimed that fairytales involve a narrative form that is central to all story-telling and that fairytales are structured not by the nature of the characters but by the (relatively small number of) functions they play in the plot, for example a dragon represents evil, a king's daughter a loved one, and so on.

analytical review

Heffernan (undated) explained that narrative analyis:

is a form of analysis used for chronologically told stories. It focuses on how elements are sequenced, why some elements are evaluated differently from others and how the past shapes perceptions of the present and how the present shapes perceptions of the past and of course, how both shape perceptions of the future. It is especially used in feminist research.

Under the heading 'Narrative Analysis', the University of Manchester (undated) posts:

Narrative research refers to any study that analyses narrative materials, which can range from ‘naturally occurring’ narratives to oral life stories collected for research purposes to written narratives found in the private, public or political realms. One of the main stated reasons for why so many social scientists are interested in studying narratives is because narrative is a basic human way of making sense of the world. Narrative analysis mainly focuses on written or oral texts, but can also be used to analyse photographs, films or even dance performances. Because narrative analysis is inherently interdisciplinary, the field is relatively disparate and there is no one single method of analysis that narrative researchers use.

The current popularity of narrative analysis is largely due to the ‘narrative’ or ‘linguistic’ turn in the social sciences. This has brought about a renewed interest in the role that language plays in social interaction and society: language is not neutral but rather is a means to accomplish social ends and is thus implicated in structures of power. Such an interpretive approach does not seek to analyse narratives in order to access underlying events but rather focuses on meaning making. Much of narrative analysis is based on the notion that how experiences are reconstructed and interpreted is important in itself.

Griffin (undated) provides some 'Definitions':

Narrative can be characterised by:
· Accounts which contain an element of transformation (ie. change over time)
· Accounts containing some kind of action and characters
· That are brought together in a plot line
· narratives have a temporal dimension
· characters and actions can be imaginary/fantasy
· ‘emplotment’ is a process through which narratives are produced: many disparate elements go together to make up one story (eg. digressions, sub-plots etc.)
· Narratives must have a point (a ‘so what?’ factor), which often takes the form of a moral message
Research Methods and Narrative Analysis
Research that focuses on the role of narrative:
· Usually adopts a qualitative approach, using semi-structured interviews rather than questionnaires
· Usually the researcher says very little, acting primarily as an attentive listener, but …
· All narratives are always co-constructed, even if the audience is oneself or an imaginary other, or if the story is told to oneself in the form of a daydream.


Sarah Earthy and Ann Cronin (2008) also provide a set of related definitions that relate to analysis of interview narration:

Account: a general term for the overall report or description given by an interviewee during a research interview. An account may include a variety of different forms of talk and represents the interviewee's perceptions, understanding and experiences of the issue(s) being researched.

Narrative: a term widely used in social theory and social research to describe either: (a) a tale or story; or (b) a form of talk or writing that aims to tell a story and may be structured according to classical ideas of plot.

Narrative analysis: an approach taken to interview data that is concerned with understanding how and why people talk about their lives as a story or a series of stories. This inevitably includes issues of identity and the interaction between the narrator and audience(s).

Story: the description of an event or series of events in a manner that conveys meaning as well as factual information. Traditional stories or myths serve a number of purposes including entertainment, instruction and the formation of a collective worldview. When research participants tell a story or a series of stories, the researcher will want to consider what purpose the story serves and why the interviewee has chosen to present their account in this way.


Lamb, B., undated, has the following in his Glossary:

Narrative. A constructed story, usually in a novel, film, radio drama or television program.

Narrative possibilities. As audiences engage with narratives, they consider the direction the narrative might take. Narrative possibilities, therefore, refers to the audience's understanding of what might happen in a film based on what they have viewed so far as well as their understanding of the genre or any other knowledge of the film.

Narrative progression. In VCE Media, 'narrative progression' is a story element that refers to the development of the narrative, including the opening sequence and closure of the narrative.


The NHS Health News Glossary, (NHS, undated) refers to narrative review:

A narrative review discusses and summarises the literature on a particular topic, without generating any pooled summary figures through meta-analysis. This type of review usually gives a comprehensive overview of a topic, rather than addressing a specific question, such as how effective a treatment is for a particular condition. Narrative reviews don't often report on how the search for literature was carried out or how it was decided which studies were relevant to include. Therefore, they're not classified as systematic reviews.




associated issues


related areas

See also

discourse analysis



Researching the Real World Section 6.8


Earthy, S. and Cronin, A., 2008, 'Narrative analysis', in N. Gilbert, N. (Ed.) Researching Social Life, third edition, Chapter 21. London, Sage
Griffin, C., undated, 'Narrative analysis', available at, accessed 20 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

Heffernan, C. , undated, 'Document analysis', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

Labov, W. 1973, Sociolinguistic Patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lamb, B., undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 1 June 2019.

NHS, undated, Health News Glossary, available at, accessed 1 June 2019.

Propp, V.A. 1968, Morphology of the Folktale, Austin, University of Texas Press.

University of Manchester (undated) 'Narrative Analysis' available at, accessed 20 March 2013; page no longer available 30 November 2016.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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