Overview

‘Stories’ provide a powerful means of describing outcomes from participants’ own experiences and viewpoints. Individual stories and testimonials can be combined with other sources of evidence to illustrate typical, interesting or exceptional outcomes. This provides a natural and expressive way of documenting progress and understanding the ways that your project is understood by and impacting on various groups.

The method increases understanding of pertinent issues via the telling and retelling of stories and is very interactive, collaborative, personal and empowering. These approaches usually involve detailed recollections of events or experiences and personal journals and objects.

Conventionally, when written up the stories and testimonies are often anonymous, but it may not always be possible and some people may value being credited for their contribution (with their explicit and informed consent).

Selected methods and techniques

a)    Story telling/life story. Interviewees tell the story of their own life in their own words and at their own pace. Interviewers can help guide the discussion but with limited set questions.

b)    Restorying. The evaluator collects stories through interview, analyses them for the key themes and then recounts the story chronologically with input from the original story tellers to sense check the final account.

c)    Oral history. Concerned with the biographical chronology of an individual’s experiences, oral history is a very in-depth and nuanced approach. In practice, the participant constructs a timeline divided into key events and memories which helps to construct their story.

d)    Memorabilia/ reminiscences. This approach involves the personal photos, objects, newspaper articles etc. These types of items act as conversation and recall stimulus to elicit details about a person’s life.

e)    Autobiographical writing. This involves participants writing instinctively about their own experiences, biography and life events.

 Benefits

  • Enables empathy and reflection
  • Can empower the storyteller
  • Conveys values and emotions
  • Adds greater understanding

Challenges

  • Requires trust and openness in research relationship
  • Will be subjectivity subjective and while this is a strength it may be challenged on the basis of bias
  • Need to be aware that not everyone can use words and alternative techniques may be necessary
  • Needs high levels of ethical and critical engagement
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 Resources

Guides on narrative and story-based methods are often specific to particular techniques, for example introductory materials on Life Story Interviews and Oral History Interviews, both from UK Data Service.

Space Unlimited has produced a more general and practical resource aimed at helping groups of people to gather and work with stories in a systematic way that supports learning and inspires action. 

One of the challenges often encountered is how to make sense of the stories gathered. To aide this you may want to examine the quick start guide by Jessica Dart and Rick Davies,  Most Significant Change, a technique to compile stories of change, collectively deciding on the most significant stories relating to selected outcome areas, and reflecting on, and sharing these stories on an ongoing basis.