In studying narrative inquiry as part of my Qualitative Research Methods class, I was struck by some similarities with my training in communication/public relations. The shared essence is storytelling.
The qualitative researcher seeks out the narrative, which may be oral or written and may be elicited or heard during fieldwork, an interview, or a naturally occurring conversation, according to Susan E. Chase, writing in Denzin and Lincoln’s Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (2008).
Chase says a narrative may be a short topical story about a particular event or specific characters such as an encounter with a friend, supervisor, or physician, or it may be an extended story about a significant aspect of one’s life like schooling, work, marriage, divorce, childbirth, illness/injury, war, etc. Or, narrative can be on a person’s entire life.
Throughout my career, I have embraced the concept of “communicator as storyteller.” For example, if the employee communicator is trying to explain why safety on the job is important to both employees and to the organization, then one of the best ways is to find a person who is actively engaged in safe operation of equipment and let him or her tell the story.
In this example, the narrative is crucial to credibility and, I believe, readability as well.
My valued textbook Public Relations Writing (2008) by Thomas H. Bivens, discusses the information strategies of exposition and entertainment. Bivens says two of the most-used forms of exposition are narration and description. As Bivens explains, narration is simply storytelling. Storytelling is useful for both informational and persuasive strategies.
But is there a difference between how the qualitative researcher gathers and uses narrative inquiry and how the communicator gathers and uses stories for organizational media?
Chase views contemporary narrative inquiry through five analytic lenses:
First, the researcher treats narrative, either oral or written, as a distinct form of discourse. It is retrospective in making meaning, for it shapes and orders past experience.
Second, researchers see in narratives verbal action, as in doing or accomplishing something.
Third, stories are both enabled and constrained by a range of social resources and circumstances.
Fourth, researchers treat narratives as socially situated interactive performances that are produced in a particular setting for a particular audience and a particular purpose.
Fifth, the qualitative researcher using narrative inquiry views herself or himself as narrator developing interpretations and seeking ways to present and publish the narratives studied.
This is instructive for the communicator as well. The communicator frequently seeks out a narrative that is retrospective, such as how an employee learned to operate equipment safely over a period of years. This is, as number two above says, verbal action of how the employee accomplished safe operation.
Are stories in the workplace constrained by a range of social resources and circumstances as stated above? You bet they are. In using the narrative of an employee, the communicator might find out that the culture of the organization, and the resources it provides, are not conducive to safe operation of equipment.
Workplace stories are indeed interactive performances of time and place and audience, as in number four above. The employee narrative is a snapshot in time and can have tremendous value to the organizational communication audience.
Finally, the communicator definitely interprets the collected narratives in order to edit them and publish them in organizational media. Here the organizational communicator has an advantage over the qualitative researcher — the communicator often is responsible for his/her own media and has full authority to publish, whereas the researcher must seek publishers.
To me, the efforts of both the qualitative researcher using narrative inquiry and the organizational communicator using storytelling are similar. I believe that each can learn from the other, making each practice that much stronger.