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NARRATIVE ANALYSIS

Human beings are natural story tellers. You can ask people anything about their personal experience, from the extraordinary—like what it’s like to survive hand-to-hand combat—to the mundane—like how they make breakfast, and you’ll get a narrative. Narrative analysis is the search for regularities in how people, within and across cultures, tell stories.

One major genre of narratives involves recounting an event: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? What was the result? The object is to discover themes and recurring structures. Robert Rubinstein, for example, asked 103 middle-class, married women in Philadelphia, ages 40-62, to describe how they reacted to the recent death of their widowed mothers. In the lengthy interviews, one question that Rubinstein asked was: ‘‘Can you tell me the story of your mother’s death? What happened? How did she die?’’ (1995:259).

The stories of these women ranged from short, chronological sequences (mostly from women who had light or no care-giving duties during their mother’s terminal illness or whose mother died suddenly or who lived at least 2 hours away from their mother by car) to long, complex stories about their mothers’ illness and death (mostly from women who had heavy care-giving responsibilities and whose mother’s terminal illness lasted more than 6 months).

Despite the differences in story length, Rubinstein (1995) found strong structural regularities. Most informants began their stories with what Rubinstein calls a ‘‘medical preamble” (p. 262) and a ‘‘narrative of decline element’’ (p. 263):

And she even began to notice, you know, something wasn’t quite right. All the testing they had done, they said, you know, her mental ability isn’t that impaired. And I kinda laughed because in January they had said that she was kinda, like, not too bad for a woman who had seen multiple decline in systems. And I kinda laughed because I wanted to come [back for testing] this year. And they said, ‘‘Well, bring her back next year and we’ll, you know, assess her. This will be a relative point from which we can determine how gradual her decline is becoming.’’ [So] I call them a year later to say she’s dead.

Most women ‘‘medicalized the stories of their mothers’ deaths’’ (Rubinstein 1995:263), with details about visits to emergency rooms and about decisions to have surgery, for example. Most informants also mentioned their mother’s personality traits:

So, we didn’t push her to move in [with me]. You know, we let her make the decision. And then in May she, uh, we closed up her apartment. She never actually went back and she liked it that way. Yeah, she liked leaving there when she was able to walk [out]. [There’s some people for whom] it’s almost an insult to their dignity and their independence to be seen that way [starting to physically slide downhill], you know to end up being carted out in a wheel chair. You know, people were noticing that she [mother] wasn’t herself, and she was a pretty forceful individual, very dominant, very independent, very outspoken, and her mental abilities had begun to slip a little, but her physical decline was becoming more noticeable. (p. 268)

Notice the transcription. The author selectively uses ‘‘kinda’’ instead of ‘‘kind of’’ to convey the conversational tone of the story, but he also inserts brackets to indicate things that were implied, but not said, in the narrative. There is only the barest attempt to include the kind of detailed information about false starts and tokens (like umm and uhh) that are required in transcriptions for conversation analysis (coming up in chapter 19).

Finally, if women were present at their mother’s death, they often described the death scene. Here are two contrasting scenes that Rubinstein (1995) counts as similar parts of these narratives:

  • 1. . . . And she kept on talking. And a lot of it was about things from the past. But whatever it was, even when my brother and sister got there, we couldn’t, umm, none of us got through to her. Her eyes were just moving around . . . and she even suffered to the very end, I mean, in her own way. It wasn’t a peaceful death, really. (p. 270)
  • 2. Most of the family was there, and my mother was having more difficulty breathing and I had her in my arms trying to talk to her, reassuring her that I loved her and one thing and another. And she died. . . . Yes, right in my arms, which was a beautiful way to die. It was like my mother’s gift of peace to me, knowing that I could not have been any closer. (p. 271)

Rubinstein’s analysis, in the best tradition of narrative analysis, focuses on the stories themselves, on the themes—like the medicalization of death, the impossible dilemmas that arise in deciding on medical care for the terminally ill, the emotional pain for daughters of not being able to find the “mother-who-was” in mothers who were demented— and on how themes are combined and ordered in predictable ways (Further Reading: narrative analysis).

 
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