Homeless youth is a serious problem that requires further investigation. For our research, we have chosen to employ qualitative design, namely, narration inquiry, Qualitative design is exploratory: by studying people’s thoughts and opinions, it provides researchers with an opportunity to gain meaningful insights into the nature of various phenomena. Narrative inquiry is a developing subfield within qualitative research that was initially employed in higher education but eventually expanded to other sciences. Within the present study design, an interviewee is seen as both a unique human being with a set of authentic life experiences and a representative of a social group. Even though each individual exists in a cultural context that shapes his or her life to a certain extent, their perception may vary considerably, which finds its reflection in an interview.
We believe that narrative inquiry is a good fit for researching the phenomenon of youth homelessness. As of now, the available data on the issue is mostly numerical. It is argued that the research of homeless youth needs to have a human face. Each young person that finds him- or herself in the streets is not another figure in the handbook but a complex individual with a voice that is to be heard.
By applying narrative inquiry, we might be able to gather data on three aspects of homelessness at once: background and events that led to participants’ state, their current challenges, and the consequences of life on the streets. It is expected that in case of success, the study will provide enough data to form an opinion on both effective prevention and intervention. Learning predisposing factors such as family environment, social milieu, and critical life events might help researchers and social workers gain a better understanding of what young people might be at risk. The struggles of those who are already homeless can facilitate developing intervention programs. This essay discusses narrative inquiry design in detail, points out its advantages and disadvantages, and studies the use of software and the application of ethical principles.
Limitations, Benefits, and Challenges
Despite narrative inquiry being a developing subfield, there is an ample body of literature on its benefits, challenges, and limitations. In their meta-analytic review, Wang and Geale (2015) emphasize the power of storytelling that is central to narrative inquiry. The researchers explain the growing popularity of the present design in the medical field through its ability to illuminate the lives of real people in real settings. Even though Wang and Geale (2015) handle the applicability of narrative inquiry to health care, the points that they make are valid for research on social issues as well. Both health practitioners and social workers come in contact with people in moments of utmost vulnerability, and it is imperative that they gain their trust.
Wang and Geale (2015) reason that narrative inquiry makes implicit explicit and hidden seen. No matter how detailed, plain statistics do not display the complexity of each person behind figures and numbers. When it comes to working with homeless youth, dry facts and truths do not let a social worker see the full picture. At times, what really matters is not what happened but what a person made out of it. For instance, two homeless teenagers might have similar backgrounds and experiences living on the street. Yet, the mental and physical consequences of such a lifestyle that they end up facing vary greatly. Not a single quantitative method can explain such a discrepancy comprehensively. Narrative inquiry, on the other hand, offers tools such as unconstructed interviews, which allows an interviewer to ask additional questions and, together with a participant, construct an explanatory narration.
Kargillis, Kako, and Gillham (2014) discuss the benefits of storytelling for disaster survivors. In their review paper, they explain the emotional impact of a disaster on an affected individual, which applies to homeless youth as well. Altered landscapes and radical changes such as not having a place to live traumatize a person and make him or her go through a crisis. Kargilis et al. (2014) emphasize the importance of narrative work in exposing the mechanisms of trauma and recovery. A well-structured interview helps a researcher understand a participant’s qualities of resilience and his or her support network.
Narrative inquiry has the potential to deal with homelessness survivors’ loss of trust in governance. Admittedly, the state that they are in gives rise to feelings of self-doubt and powerlessness. By encouraging to share and provide details, a researcher can draw valuable data for policy improvement around recovery. Lastly, Kargilis et al. (2014) make a compelling point claiming that storytelling helps disaster survivors as much as it helps researchers. An interview is a dynamic process that might move them to gain insight and find new meanings in what happened to them, thus, facilitating their healing.
For all its advantages, narrative inquiry design is not devoid of limitations. Butina (2015) argues that the said research design is not apt for studying large numbers of participants. Thus, the implications of the findings might not apply to broader demographics. For instance, in the case of studying homeless youth, the data from in-depth interviews cannot be quite extrapolated, especially given that narrative inquiry emphasizes the uniqueness of every person’s experiences.
Kargilis et al. (2014) claim that it makes sense to apply narrative inquire on a case-to-case basis. For instance, in the context of their study, storytelling and unstructured interviews were said to be valuable tools for developing policies after specific disasters such as the Black Saturday bushfires in Australia. Hence, the findings of a study in homeless youth that employs narrative inquiry cannot and should not be claimed to be inferential. Instead, the scope of their potential impact might be limited to the community under investigation.
The greatest challenge is probably the process of questioning itself. Wang and Geale (2015) argue that the interviewer has to play two roles at once: the one of a professional and the one of a confidant or a close friend. A researcher cannot put aside his or her professional ethics; neither can they shift the focus from the objective of their study. However, if they do not deepen the connection between them and the interviewee, the latter might not feel safe and comfortable enough to share, especially if the topic is as sensitive as homelessness.
According to Butina (2015), moderating the process and handling information is also challenging. The author is convinced that both holding back and oversharing might pose a threat to the robustness and integrity of a study. Failing to provide enough information accounts for weak evidence, but sharing too much might compromise the principles of confidentiality. If a researcher decides to put large pieces of direct speech in the body of their paper, especially if unedited, the identity of a participant might be divulged.
Choosing appropriate software is essential for enhancing descriptive validity. When it comes to qualitative study designs, namely narrative interviews, researchers often have to handle ample volumes of data. If they fail to store it adequately and ensure that others have access, processing can become reasonably time-consuming. Whiffin, Bailey, Ellis-Hill, and Jarrett (2014) outline the main challenges of choosing software for a project based on the narrative inquiry method. The authors point out the lack of prescriptions as to how qualitative data needs to be processed.
There are three stages to analyzing information: transcription, coding, and interpretation (Silver & Lewins, 2014). While theoretically, the end goal of each of them is exhaustively clear, deciding what needs to be done for a specific study can be daunting (Whiffin et al., 2014). The same interview can be transcribed in different ways depending on the study objectives. Coding and interpreting are even more subjective: researchers have the freedom to choose which parts of information are the most relevant and what meaning could be attributed to them. Lastly, Whiffin et al. (2014) argue that it is easy to “drown in data” when it comes to qualitative research (p. 20). The ability to keeping notes and recordings in order is what good software needs to offer.
For this research, we have chosen NVivo, a program falling under the category of CAQDAS (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software) (Zamawe, 2015). In her review, Zamawe (2015) provides a comprehensive description of the program’s functionality. NVivo includes such features as character-based coding, rich text, and multimedia sharing. In addition, NVivo allows for giving people from different geographical areas access to documents so that they can simultaneously work on the project.
NVivo accommodates different methods and is compatible with a broad range of qualitative research designs: discourse analysis, phenomenology, autoethnography, and conversation analysis. The chosen software grants researchers full freedom of choice as to how they want to go about data analysis, which is consistent with the particularities of the narrative inquiry design. Admittedly, NVivo will not help a researcher overcome the challenges mentioned above as it cannot evaluate the relevance of particular pieces of the information, nor can it assist with in-depth text analysis. However, it makes qualitative data management much more comfortable and automatizes many processes.
According to both Zamawe (2015) and Sotiriadou, Brouwers, and Le (2014), NVivo is particularly useful when it comes to the second stage of qualitative data analysis, coding. For instance, Zamawe (2015) reports that it took her three hours to select a certain type of participant profiles while NVivo completed the same task in a matter of a few seconds. In both articles, NVivo is praised for its ability to code the transcripts: find repetitive words, and connect concepts. However, as opposed to some other programs such as Leximancer, the user needs to develop themes and categories on their own. Sotiriadou et al. (2014) claim that this particularity is both a strength and a weakness: while categorizing concepts is time-consuming, partly manual processing accounts for more authentic engagement. Both Zamawe (2015) and Sotiriadou et al. (2014) criticize NVivo for its complicated interface that is different to comprehend even with the help of tutorials. Becoming familiar with the program takes a lot of time, which might have been devoted to enhancing the rigor of the study.
Upon further investigation, it turns out that the strengths of narrative inquiry might as well be its greatest weaknesses and pose validity threats. It is true that qualitative research focuses on subjectivity and perceptions more than it does on hard data. Kim (2015) is convinced that in order not to let this particularity get out of hand, a researcher needs to draw a clear line between reality and fiction in narrative work. The author reports that critics tend to reject this research design for its “immaturity and playfulness (Kim, 2015, p. 30).” Often, narrative research is not taken seriously as the accounts that authors provide in their works reminisce of diary entries because of how personal the information they contain is.
Another problem that Kim (2015) outlines is the perspective of the interviewer. He or she can be personally attached to either the topic of their research or the interviewees and, hence, idealize and embellish their stories. To describe this phenomenon, Kim (2015) uses the term “narrative overload.” The interviewer’s fascination with his or her subject might allow for filling the contents of their study with unnecessary detail. He or she might impose their own meaning upon the information provided and skew the picture by interpreting the events the way they see fits.
Even though qualitative data is rarely inferential, it can and should serve some purpose. In the context of research on homeless youth, a biased interviewer might be focusing on personal tragedies and aim for emotional impact. While such stories might help to raise awareness, they are of little use in developing policies and intervention programs.
The problem of translating the study’s highly subjective findings into practice is particularly challenging when it comes to narrative inquiry. Kim (2015) brings in an example of using this study method in psychoanalysis and health care. The author claims that there is a certain discrepancy between narrative truth, a participant’s account of what happened, and historical truth, what actually happened. Thus, perceived experiences in which a respondent involuntarily or deliberately omits some facts might interfere with elaborating comprehensive recovery programs.
Evidently, some validity threats might come from the participants themselves. For a study that deals with people, it is imperative to try and eliminate volunteer bias. Volunteers tend to be more educated, enthusiastic, and socially aware. This tendency might apply to research on homeless youth as well, thus, making the sample homogenous in relation to respondents’ motivation, background, and personality traits. Those individuals who lost their trust in governance, which is a normal consequence of going through a crisis, might abstain from participating.
Morse (2015) recognizes volunteer bias as a significant problem in qualitative research. In her article on scientific rigor, the author offers an interesting way to overcome the said type of bias. Rather than conducting interviews with those who belonged to the core demographic for the study, researchers should expand their sample to include those who might be in possession of so-called shadowed data. Such people do not have relevant experiences themselves, but they can give an account of the behavior of others (Morse, 2015). As much as it might provide researchers with more information, it appears that the proposed solution does not eliminate excessive subjectivity. If anything, it compromises validity further since inviting outsiders makes researchers rely on their perceptions.
Lastly, narrative research might suffer from a lack of descriptive validity. It is essential that researchers record interviews wholly and accurately. To attain that, the use of gadgets needs to be discussed beforehand, and the equipment has to be tested before the beginning of the interview sessions. However, even if the interviewer gains consent to audio or video recording, there is still the issue of interpreting verbal and non-verbal information. Even if both types of signals are caught on tape, each person working on the project might understand the contents differently. Facial expressions, intonation, and body language give complexity and allow for thick, rich data (Morse, 2015). Yet, it is hard to reach a consensus on how to interpret them objectively.
Ethics in Narrative Inquiry
In narrative work, ethics can be characterized as a set of responsibilities that uphold participants’ dignity, privacy, autonomy, and well-being. Each step that a researcher takes should be in alignment with professional ethics. Once invitation letters have been sent and some responses have been received, an interviewer should contact potential participants and provide relevant information before meeting them in person. This is done to gain informed consent: merely expressing willingness to partake without becoming familiar with the particularities of a study suffices not. Each respondent needs to be aware of a study’s objectives, duration of the interview, location, and other activities if applicable (Wange & Geale, 2015). At any point, a person has the right to retrieve his or her consent, thus, exercising their autonomy and free will. After the information has been conveyed, a researcher can send an informed consent form for signature.
The personal autonomy of a participant needs to be upheld in the process of interviewing as well. The interviewer needs to understand that the interviewee controls the narrative. While the former moderates the process, the latter has more space for self-expression. Thus, the interviewer should not be too intrusive or dominating (Kirgilis et al., 2014). Instead, active listening would be the best strategy to consider. Stage 3, the narration, is characterized by letting the interviewee speak without the researcher’s interference. The successive stage allows the interviewer to ask further questions for clarification and the elimination of ambiguity.
Another challenge that an interviewer is likely to face in narrative research is ensuring privacy and confidentiality. In the informed consent form, it should be clearly stated what recording devices are going to be used. According to Wange & Geale (2015), it is unethical to demonstrate gadgets at interviews and, thus, surprise the participants. Each respondent has the right to inquire as to who is going to access the information they provide. The researcher, in turn, needs to assure the interviewee that the material will only be distributed among people directly involved in working with the researcher (Wange & Geale, 2015). As for homeless youth, they might be ashamed of what they lived through. Another possible threat is their inadvertent exposure of those who abused or took advantage of them and who can retaliate if they gain access to the materials of the study. For the sake of both dignity and privacy, all names, places, and any other identifying information will be erased or altered in a way that would make the author behind a story unrecognizable.
Participants’ well-being during interviews on sensitive topics is of great importance. Homeless youth might have undergone mental damage and may find sharing their stories emotional (Wange and Geale, 2015). Entering an emotional state that is barely manageable by both the participant and the researcher could pose an ethics risk. To avoid such a situation, the interviewer needs to think his or her steps through beforehand. An appropriate plan can include encouraging the participant to take a break, identify sources of support to help to regain emotional well-being, or stopping the interview altogether.
Clandinin, Caine, and Lessard (2018) go into detail about relational ethics in narrative research. The authors point out three core elements of ethical qualitative design. First, a relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee should be based on mutual respect. Respecting each other is not possible without genuine engagement, which Clandinin et al. (2018) define as the understanding of the other. The interviewer needs to be interested in the interviewee and try to understand his perspective regardless of how different it might be from his or her own. Lastly, the researcher needs to recognize the interdependent environment in which both they and the participant coexist. Social and political climate have shaped each respondent’s personality insofar as he or she impacted and altered his or her milieu. Putting the interviewee’s narrative in a broader context might account for a better understanding of their motives.
Summary/ Future Research
Literature research has shown that there is an extensive body of work on the narrative inquiry design. Close investigation revealed that this method applies to a variety of fields, including education, psychology, sociology, and health care. Interestingly enough, the greatest strengths of design have the potential to turn into its greatest weaknesses if misused. For instance, narrative research allows for illuminating real-life stories and showcasing complex personalities, which is often hidden behind numbers and figures. Yet, some researchers tend to turn a narrative into a fantasy of their own choice: they give it a meaning that they find appropriate while ignoring the actual person giving an account of their experiences.
As a method, the narrative inquiry might be fairly liberating as it does not limit a researcher to a set of steps and measures to undertake. This freedom, however, leaves him or her to their own devices when it comes to coding and interpreting data. The human factor is of great importance in qualitative research, which gives rise to several problems. Safety and confidentiality might be compromised if a researcher fails to protect the identity of the respondent. Participants’ well-being might also be at risk if they overinvest emotionally or if the interviewer behaves unethically and intrusively during the conversation. In summation, there is some uncertainty as to how to process narrative data and follow through with ethical considerations.
The future of narrative inquiry is uncertain: while researchers might be positive about the unyielding popularity of the method, there is likely to be a pluralism of perspectives on how to develop it further. Some scholars might want to give it more structure and make the design more prescriptive. If future research takes this direction, software development will only benefit from its findings as data analysis will become more predictable. Other scholars, on the other hand, might focus on the human factor and capitalize on participants’ autonomy and well-being. In this case, the focus will shift from the positivist to the spiritual view on the process of storytelling, which might account for richer data and more depth to interviews.
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Clandinin, D. J., Caine, V., & Lessard, S. (2018). The relational ethics of narrative inquiry. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.
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