Paper under discussion:

 “Why Am I the Way I Am?” Narrative Work in the Context of Stigmatized Identities

Jake Rance, Rebecca Gray, & Max Hopwood. (2017) Qualitative Health Research, 27(14), 2222-2232.

This month’s article by Rance et al. provides an excellent example of how qualitative interview data can be analysed in different ways. While there are many diverse approaches which can be used to analyse qualitative interview data, most often we see techniques such as thematic analysis employed. Approaches like thematic analysis tend to work with a larger number of interviews to describe and analyse patterns across a qualitative data set, working with fragments of data coded and sorted from different interviews. In this paper, Rance et al. demonstrate the value of taking a narrative approach, using a single case study – one person’s telling of their life story – to explore one participant’s account in-depth to illuminate different understandings. While narrative analysis focusing on a single participant’s story might seem a bit unusual, it is worth remembering that the case study approach is commonly used in other kinds of qualitative research, and indeed has a long history in medical and clinical research (e.g. case reports).

The authors were particularly interested in exploring the ways in which people tell their ‘stories’ in the context of the stigma surrounding injecting drug use. By focusing on how people tell their stories, the authors also importantly reflected on the ways in which the practices of interviewing, interpretation, analysis and write-up are also part of how people’s stories are made and re-told. In this way, the authors critically reflect on their own process in doing this research, emphasising how narrative is co-produced not only between interviewer and participant (in the way we might often think about co-production in an interview encounter) but more than this, how the paper itself might be seen as a co-production which does not simply reveal a pre-existing reality or life story, but rather is integral to the making of that story through its write-up. Given this awareness, this paper is frequently transparent about the process of analysis and write-up (it allows us to get inside the process of doing this research, to better understand how these methodological and analytic processes shape what is written, and the story told). Importantly though, this paper also highlights how the story told is not a free-floating performance but rather firmly connected to the participant’s world and affective state in the interview; the participant (Jimmy) is troubled in the present by something he is still trying to make sense of in his past (“Why am I the way I am”) and the interview, interpretation and write-up become part of this process of sense-making.

What we also found fascinating about this paper is the way in which the narrative approach allows the space to present the contradictions of the story, and explore the complexities of this participant’s account in-depth. By focusing on a single case study, these complexities are not erased or subsumed in other data fragments but rather brought to the fore. That said, the authors also situate this in-depth narrative analysis in the context of the broader study in which this particular interview was generated (the “Staying Safe” study). We encourage you to read some of the other papers arising from the “Stay Safe” study to help think about how interview data can be analysed in many ways, giving rise to different interpretations and understandings (see the Additional Reading list below).

For us, this paper challenges us to consider how we might ‘think in cases’ even when we are doing thematic analysis, allowing participants’ stories and meaning-making to resist our research questions or framings of issues, and recognise our own role as researchers in the making and re-telling of the stories and experiences of people’s lives. This paper reminds us that narrative analysis, done well, can allow participants’ stories to ‘push back’ on our established understandings of phenomena like drug use and risk, if we allow them the space to do so.

The Sydney Reading Group: Kari Lancaster, Alison Marshall, Kev Dertadian, Kenneth Yates and Jake Rance

Additional reading

Friedman, SR, Mateu-Gelabert P, Sandoval M, Hagan H, Des Jarlais DC. (2008). Positive deviance control-case life history: a method to develop grounded hypotheses about successful long-term avoidance of infection. BMC Public Health, 8(94), 1-10.

Harris M, Treloar C, Maher L. (2012). Staying safe from hepatitis C: Engaging with multiple priorities. Qualitative Health Research, 22(1), 31-42.

Harris M, Rhodes T. (2012). Venous access and care: Harnessing pragmatics in harm reduction for people who inject drugs. Addiction, 107(6), 1090-6.


The opinions expressed in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the Society for the Study of Addiction.

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