Big vs. small stories: A foot in two camps

While World Cup fans have been obsessing over the age-old Messi-Ronaldo debate, I’ve been immersed in another ongoing debate, one that swelled up in 2006 between three scholars: applied linguist Alexandra Georgakopoulou, narrative psychologist Mark Freeman, and narrative psychologist Michael Bamberg. The debate concerns the pros and cons of, on the one hand, reflective narratives told in interview settings (‘big’ stories) and on the other, stories told in the immediate interactions of everyday life (‘small’ stories).

Bamberg and Georgakopoulou both think that there is something troubling about big story research. Their main concern is that when we confine people to a room with a stranger for a few hours and ask them to tell us their story, we are stepping outside the normal, everyday contexts within which stories are told, and within which they surface. Big stories, then, are said to be somewhat artificial and removed from day-to-day reality; they are renditions of “life ‘on holiday'” (Freeman 2006).

Rather than privileging big stories, as has mostly been the case in narrative research, Bamberg and Georgakopoulou want us to turn our attention to small ones. Small stories are the kinds of stories we tell each other in passing as we go about our everyday lives; stories that “seem to pop up, not necessarily even recognised as stories, and [are] quickly forgotten” (Bamberg 2006). These stories have some kind of immediacy in that they are concerned with the ‘now’, the recent past, or the projected near future. Bamberg believes that small stories are the “‘real’ stories of our lived lives”.

Freeman, however, has hit back in defence of big stories. His argument centres around the idea that reflection is an aspect of life itself and is helpful in research terms. Freeman takes up the position that there is “plenty of meaning to go around”; in other words, there is room enough in the world of narratives for all stories, big and small. But Bamberg remains defiant, describing himself as “skeptical” about whether “small stories and big stories can manage to co-exist peacefully and complement one another”.

What is at issue for me in this debate is which type of story is most useful for studying illness experiences in the context of family life. It seems that there is much to gain from a small story approach that takes narrative “down to size” (Freeman 2006) where we can see what, in their daily lives, people are doing when they tell stories about illness and, therefore, what these stories actually do when they are told. But I am also wary of the practical challenges of trying to ‘catch’ these stories, which Hymes (1996) calls “fleeting moments of narrative orientation to the world”.

In my view, a danger lurking in the small story approach is forgetting about or pushing aside our sensitivity to the relational spaces that bring people together in research relationships. I say this because, for me, the main impulse for turning to narrative research in the first place is its relational orientation; it is a commitment to a form of togetherness in research where meaning-making is collaborative and where the lives of researchers and participants are intertwined (Clandinin 2013). Clandinin and Connelly (2000) help us see narrative inquiry as more than a methodology; it is a way of being in relation. As narrative researchers we attend to difficult stories and experiences, we carry them with us; we dwell alongside participants and hold close their vulnerabilities in our retellings. It is here, in these spaces of coming together where I see the very strength of narrative inquiry.

Ultimately, what seems to underlie the big story/small story debate is a desire to tame narratives, to systematise and pin them down into neatly defined categories. But prising narratives apart and seeing them in binary terms is futile when, in fact, narratives have both small and big story attributes. And here lies the challenge: if we can’t enclose narratives in boxes, fence them, label them, or separate them by their size, how might we, as narrative researchers, begin to embrace working in the borderlands with the nebulous, slippery, bendable, unwieldy nature of our inquiries?

References

Bamberg, M 2006, ‘Stories: Big or small – why do we care?’, Narrative Inquiry, vol.16, no.1, pp.139-147.

Clandinin, DJ 2013, Engaging in narrative inquiry, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Clandinin, DJ & Connelly, FM 2000, Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Freeman, M 2006, ‘Life “on holiday”? In defense of big stories’, Narrative Inquiry, vol.16. no.1, pp.131-138.

Georgakopoulou, A 2006, ‘Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis’, Narrative Inquiry, vol.16, no.1, pp.122-130.

Hymes, D 1996, Ethnography, linguistics, narrative inequality. Toward an understanding of voice, Taylor and Francis, London.

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