The Qualitative Researcher as a Narrator: What can Welfare Practitioners Learn from Social Science Conceived as a Form of Art?
The qualitative researcher may be a narrator (a) when he/she elaborates a narration of his/her quest, i.e. a narration of how, in the course of the quest, and only through encountering and coping with particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions, the goal of the quest is finally understood (Alastair MacIntyre), and (b) when he/she, confronted with the need to expose some results, creates a product (a research report, a book) where narratives are paramount. Narratives can be either “thick descriptions” of cases or events the author witnessed, or fictional stories (research-informed or inspired), aimed at working as thought experiments. Qualitative research, so conceived, has important parallels with art, literature included (Elliot W. Eisner). The paper defends and gives examples of each of these two options against (a) those who do not find it appropriate to show both the process and its contingencies, nor the personal commitment, concerns and aspirations of the researcher, and (b) those for whom the use of narratives exacerbates the deficiencies of some academics’ concern for style, tone, rhetoric, figurative language and appeal to emotion. In their view, academic writing must be frugal and propositional. Narratives do not offer evidence or argument. In addition, they recycle truisms that readers already know (Noël Carroll). Although of general interest, the paper is especially addressed to welfare practitioners. It presumes that social research products can aim to affect situations and transform readers, making them more reflective and imaginative. The narration of the quest can evoke some forms of thinking and understanding which are relevant for re-framing welfare practitioners’ conception of what they are trying to accomplish. Narratives operate as arguments. They are not a device for reaching empirical discoveries but for excavating conceptual refinements and relationships. Narratives offer complexity and respect for particulars; they depict human activity as involved in conflict, in purpose, in change. Narratives “break the frame”: they are a means for overcoming the limitations which any single system of thought and classification poses to practitioners. Narratives, in sum, can be thought of as “equipment for practice” (Kenneth Burke).
Keywords: Qualitative Research, Narratives, Practice, Social Work
Dr. Rafael Aliena
University of Valencia