Small stories, big dilemmas: some thoughts on method

In my last post I touched on the concept of ‘small stories’, the brief, fragmented, conversational narratives that arise naturally in our everyday interactions. Small stories are everywhere: doctor-patient encounters, business meetings, phone calls, talk in the car, and conversations between friends are just some of the interactional contexts where small stories emerge. The question that continues to pulse is how to capture these spontaneous and fleeting snippets of talk in action.

One issue with collecting small stories is the inevitable influence of the researcher’s involvement. For data to be considered ‘naturally-occurring’, Potter (1996, p.135) says that it must pass the ‘dead social scientist test’: that is, the data used should be based on an interaction that “would have taken place in the form that it did had the researcher not been born or if the researcher had got run over on the way to the university that morning”. But the ethical requirement that one must first obtain the informed consent of participants makes it hard to see how any data could be collected had the researcher “not been born”.

The famous sociolinguist William Labov used the term “observer’s paradox” to describe the difficulties of obtaining natural speech in research situations. As he puts it: “The aim of linguistic research in the community must be to find out how people talk when they are not being systematically observed; yet we can only obtain this data by systematic observation” (1972, p.209). While it is widely accepted that the observer’s paradox can never be completely overcome, researchers across the social sciences have sought to obtain data that is as close to naturally-occurring as possible (Gordon 2012). To do this, they have used research methods such as audio or video recordings and participant observation of some form or other. But for those of us who are narrative inquirers, gatherers of, and listeners to stories, these methods set off all sorts of alarm bells.

Narrative inquiry is a relational inquiry. Clandinin and Connelly (2000, p.189) tell us that “relationship is key to what it is that narrative inquirers do”. As narrative inquirers, we do research with rather than on our participants. We step out from behind the bushes and walk alongside them. We treat stories as gifts that are shared with us through the generosity of those whom we want to learn more about. It is precisely for these reasons that the thought of using recording devices or mechanically observing interactions troubles me. Like Blix (2016, p.29), I worry about becoming an “academic parasite”, intruding into people’s lives only to extract their stories away from them and scramble out post data collection.

I ask you, then, how do we approach studying small stories narratively? What kinds of methods should we use if we are to maintain a relational ethical stance in small story research? I’m drawn to Ron Pelias’ (2011) description of leaning in during everyday life encounters as a way to think about the study of small stories. Is it possible to “lean in” as Pelias suggests, to engage in the everyday life worlds of our participants without creating a sense of surveillance and eavesdropping?

One might say that I am caught in what Derrida (1993, p.12) calls aporias, moments of “not knowing where to go”. But as Caine (2010) reminds us, narrative inquiry is a fluid form of investigation; it is like travelling to and within unfamiliar landscapes without a map. What compels me to think carefully and critically about my choice of methods is that the participants I will be working alongside are in a vulnerable space. I will be entering the lives of families at a time of great disruption when serious illness calls forth important and sometimes difficult stories. This kind of research demands methods that build the highest level of sensitivity into their core.


Blix, BH 2016, ‘The Importance of Untold and Unheard Stories in Narrative Gerontology: Reflections on a Field Still in the Making from a Narrative Gerontologist in the Making’, Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations & Interventions, vol.6, no.2, pp.28-49.

Caine, V 2010, ‘Narrative Beginnings: Traveling To and Within Unfamiliar Landscapes’, Qualitative Health Research, vol.20, no.9, pp.1304-1311.

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

Derrida, J 1993, Aporias: Dying – Awaiting (one Another at) the “Limits of Truth”, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Gordon, C 2012, ‘Beyond the observer’s paradox: the audio-recorder as a resource for the display of identity’, Qualitative Research, vol.13, no.3, pp.299-317.

Labov, W 1972, Sociolinguistic patterns, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Pelias, R 2011, Leaning: A poetics of personal relations, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Potter, J 1996, ‘Discourse analysis and constructionist approaches: Theoretical background’, in J Richardson (ed.), Handbook of qualitative research methods for psychology and the social sciences, BPS Books, Leicester, pp.125-40.


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?


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.