Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Life Stories in Development: Thoughts on Narrative Methods with Young People

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Life Stories in Development: Thoughts on Narrative Methods with Young People

Article excerpt


Human beings are natural story-tellers (McAdams & McLean, 2013); we habitually create narratives to give purpose and meanings to our lives, actions and identities. It is also argued that stories serve a variety of social functions, including evaluating past experiences, persuading an audience of a particular point of view or drawing the audience into the experience of the narrator (Reissman, 2008). Although not necessarily used consciously, narratives may nevertheless be viewed as 'strategic, functional and purposeful. Storytelling is selected over non-narrative forms of communication to accomplish certain ends' (Reissman, 2008:8). It is therefore not surprising that narratives have caught the attention of social researchers and that over the past two decades we have seen a decisive 'narrative turn' in qualitative research.

Of course there is huge variation in what 'counts' as narrative and the extent to which stories are developed and sustained (Bamberg, 2006; Phoenix & Sparkes, 2009). In particular, narratives of self and identity tend to differ in complexity and coherence according to age. McAdams (1993) suggests that our personal myths are constantly reworked over the lifecycle, starting with the early creation of story themes and our own personal fables from adolescence. The qualitative methods used with young people to collect their biographical stories must, therefore, reflect their growing sense of 'a life lived' and abilities to make connections between, and derive meaning from, their life experiences. Different methods, of course, may be needed where the research is action-oriented, rather than reflective, and focused on the use of narrative in social interactions to construct identity (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008). In either case research has to engage young people and sustain their interest. To this end, researchers in areas such as youth studies, social geography, anthropology and education have explored innovative methodologies including visual or walking methods, diaries in various media or a combination of these. This article explores examples of such methods and considers their use within criminology. Here we have seen narrative enquiry used with adults (most famously by Shadd Maruna (2001) in Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives) but strikingly little attention to creative methods as a means of eliciting narratives from young people.

The article goes on to examine concerns about the power relations that exist, of course, in all research but are heightened in the case of young people. This is especially so where the research takes place within schools, for example, or where access is negotiated through institutional gatekeepers (Heath et al., 2009; Hopkins, 2010). Furthermore, while creative methodologies can help reduce power differentials between adults and young people, researchers should not assume that this will happen automatically. Close attention to the research process and a reflexive and critical approach is therefore needed throughout (Punch, 2002). The article ends with thoughts on the benefits and potential limitations of creative methods and narrative research generally with young people, and their potential value within criminology.

Emerging life stories

Unlike life history, which has a basis in objective facts, life stories are subjective, fashioned from memories and reflections (Habermas & Bluck, 2000). The ability to construct stories and to make meaning out of events and personal experience develops over childhood and increases during adolescence. Research shows that in mid-adolescence young people typically master a greater range of cognitive skills that better equip them to manage contradictions and paradox both in the world around them and in aspects of their own identities (McAdams & McLean, 2013). Self-stories consequently grow in complexity, linked to the growing capacity for what Habermas and Bluck (2000) term autobiographical reasoning. …

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