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Representing stories

I am now learning how to work with narrative inquiry method. In it, I must create a narrative of my participant’s life story as part of the investigation to situate my participant’s experiences relevant to my topic interest of research. As a first step, I am drafting a participant portrait (Zhao, 2012) for each of the participants who have agreed to take part in the research.

I remember when I started to write DG’s participant portrait* I was very angry at the way she described her trajectory as stumbling through part of her life. I don’t know why I was felt this way, I guess I was judging her and feeling it was irresponsible of her to move this way through life without having a real drive or goal. Once I read through the interview sections where DG stated that she had found her place, I felt much happier, proud and even in awe of her. It struck me afterwards how much emotion I invested in my participants’ story. How much judgement I passed on another human being as I was working with their story. How resistant I felt to just hearing the story. What strikes me as even more odd is that I am a strong proponent of valuing uncertainty as a part of life. It often brings up wonderful opportunities. For instance, in learning, if we already knew everything we had to learn, it would be the most boring and empty learning experience ever! Yet, here I was judging someone else for living the way I advocate is quite normal and healthy in theory. This to me indicates that I was not ready to hear my participants’ story with an open heart (Connelly & Clandinin). It seems such a new-agey thing to say, but it truly is about getting over your own self to be able to honestly see and hear the other.

I feel I did my participant an injustice by betraying these emotions in the way I wrote up her participant portrait. I tried to remain neutral, but I sense that subconsciously I was still passing judgement on DG. We met after I sent her the portrait to do some member checking (Manning, 1997) and talk about some inaccuracies, which was very helpful. And DG revealed that she was not comfortable with the way the portrait presented her story and she did not feel it represented her accurately. She was very gracious about sharing this with me, and accorded me lots of freedom in manipulating her story. She then brought up the issue of representing the participants’ voice ethically and the ownership of data. I felt very defensive about this. Although I speak about being just and respectful in my work, I don’t feel I was successful in this instance if this is what my participant felt. The way I represented her in her participant portrait was somewhat condescending, and because of it DG changed some details about the story and the way that she presented herself during our member checking session. These were details that I had drawn on verbatim from the interview data, I had used some quotes almost word for word. But the way I had framed such details in the story was not respectful to my participant and made her change the details of the story, altering the thrust it had initially taken when DG had accorded me her trust. I think it is entirely understandable and fair for her to have done this, and I regret my mistake.

I am incredibly grateful to DG for her generosity in time and spirit, and our discussion has really made me think about what it really means to work with someone else’s story and the serious responsibility the researcher has in respecting the participant’s dignity. Thank you DG! I want to continue reflecting on the importance of this, and reflecting on the ownership of the data. It is so hard to let go of that ownership in doing out work as researchers, it is not how the system has primed us to work. I can see I still have many things to learn about co-creation and honouring the data. And I am grateful to have such patient participants willing to work with me through these points of tension.

* Details about the participants have been altered to protect their identity.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Manning, K. (1997). Authenticity in constructivist inquiry: Methodological considerations without prescription. Qualitative inquiry, 3(1), 93-115.

Zhao, K. (2012) Internationally educated teachers in Canda: Transition, integration, stress, and coping strategies. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Toronto.

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