chapter  6
Narrative
Pages 24

The term ‘narrative’ has become ubiquitous in oral history in recent years. We speak increasingly of narrators instead of interviewees or respondents, and of narratives instead of answers or responses. This chapter aims to clarify what is meant by narrative and narrative analysis as formulated by linguists and literary scholars and then employed by oral historians. Narrative is one of the ways by which people make sense of experience

and communicate it to others.1 A narrative is an ordered account created out of disordered material or experience. In theorist Hayden White’s words: ‘So natural is the impulse to narrate, that the form [narrative] is almost inevitable for any report of how things happened, a solution to the problem of how to translate knowing into telling.’2 Narrative is fundamental to the ways we recall the experience of our lives, including to ourselves. For Barbara Hardy narrative is all-encompassing: ‘We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.’3 Like everybody else, oral history respondents speak in narratives, and it is important for the researcher to approach testimony alert to the issues. Narrative analysis identifies and then explains the ways in which people

create and use stories to interpret the world. When we experience something in our daily life, we place it in a story. The result is that our past is ‘storied’, with each memory packaged within a story or narrative.4 And these stories are part of everyday life. When we communicate with friends and family, when we visit the doctor, when we socialise with work colleagues, on each occasion we tell stories. In turn, these stories get reused. Stories circulate in families acting as the glue that maintains relationships (‘do you remember the time when … ?). We use stories to explain ourselves to relative strangers and to keep in contact with friends. We use narrative every day.5