The Lived Experience: A PhD student’s journey through the TQ2014 Workshop – Day 4

TQ Blog Entry #4 

Written By: Christina Grant

Christina Grant is a U of A instructor who will begin her PhD studies in Secondary Education under supervisor Dr. Olenka Bilash in fall, 2014.  A longtime journalist, she is keen to start her mixed methods longitudinal dissertation project exploring writing studies knowledge transfer in ESL learners who take WRS 101—Exploring Writing, a U of A course unique in Canada. Each night for the next five days, Christina will post a blog entry that captures snippets of thoughts and ideas from the TQ workshop.

Thursday, June 19: Today I heard some stories…about stories!

A participant in the Narrative Inquiry session tells the story of how an artifact resonated for her as session leaders Christina Murray and Sylvia Barton look on,

A participant in the Narrative Inquiry session tells the story of how an artifact resonated for her as session leaders Christina Murray and Sylvia Barton look on,

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

~Thomas King

I fell into the vastness of this quotation in a Canadian Literature course at MacEwan University in 2003, and it’s been ringing in my ears ever since. Why? Because it’s so completely true.

I’ve lived my own life, in large part, as a journalist capturing and relaying others’ stories, so I get how powerful and fundamental narratives are to the human organism. Today though, storytelling gained a new and different shape in the hands of Christina Murray of the School of Nursing in PEI and her U of A doctoral supervisor Dr. Sylvia Barton in their session, “Introduction to Narrative Enquiry: Walking in the Midst of Storied Lives.”

Figuring out exactly how to do this “relational methodology,” which is less well known and understood than other research approaches such as phenomenology and case study, is each researcher’s responsibility, and it will be heavily influenced by both the philosophical approach and the context. “You can’t pick up an article and read about how to do it,” Sylvia said, “so you don’t start with the literature. You start with the stories and stay with the stories. You build on them.”

And now, some stories…

Christina Murray’s story: “Coming and Going: A Narrative Inquiry into Women’s Stories of a Partner’s Temporary Interprovincial Labour Migration”

Christina is from PEI, a tranquil island in Eastern Canada beleaguered by low employment due to the collapse of the fisheries and other local industries. As an inhabitant, nurse, and scholar, she noticed that in a particular kindergarten class, “over half the children had fathers that had left” to make money in other places. “Wow,” she said to herself, “this is a very interesting phenomenon.” She wondered how all those women at home alone for weeks and months at a time, coped. She voiced her musings, and “the women said, ‘You should do research on this.’ So, she did. She found four women (narrative enquiries always have small numbers due to the volumes of data they generate) with young kids still at home and whose husbands had been going away to work—such as to the oilsands in Fort McMurray—for between six and 12 years.  (A telling footnote: they always thought it would be ‘temporary,’ but the flow of money, four times as much as they could make in PEI, was hard to resist—especially when the economy dipped.)

Christina’s goal for her study was to “build awareness and increase understanding” of the things these women were going through. Period. She had three broad questions, such as who they were and who they were becoming and what their stories revealed, but told the women, “how we get there is up to you.”

“I met each woman six times,” she relayed. “At the first meeting I said,  ‘this is your story. What do you want to talk about?’” And then Christina listened, and empathized, and laughed (but never cried) with those women over coffee and cinnamon buns at either their place (1) or hers (the rest), getting it all down, making room for it all to come out through largely unguided, natural conversation. Sometimes, “artifacts” like photos of children (hers or theirs) prompted the stories, but mostly just her genuine interest in what they had to say kept them talking. “The ball was always in their court,” Christina emphasized.

And what came out, sometimes shocked her. One woman told her about the day when her husband, who had picked up a cocaine habit in Fort McMurray, was home, a local dealer burst into the house, beat him up in front of her and the kids, and ran off with the keys to his truck as payment for drugs.

She found that while each story was different, some remarkable through lines emerged: “I was so struck; their husbands were home only 40 to 60 days a year. It gave me goosebumps how they were using the same phrasing the same language: ‘I’m juggling all these balls in the air all the time,’ and ‘I did not get married to be a single mother.’ While the media reported mostly on issues of wages in PEI, Christina’s narrative enquiry shouted “the importance of families.”


Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.

~Ben Okri—Nigerian storyteller


Sylvia Barton’s story: Spirit Winds: A Narrative Inquiry into the Aboriginal Stories of Diabetes

Sylvia has always been drawn to northern communities and the complex issues of First Nations peoples. Connections with a Bella Coola physician led her to do her study there. Like Christina, she had four participants, in this case, three women and one men, living with diabetes in a residential home. “They had phenomenal life narratives,” she said, and despite residential school and other traumas they were “all contributing to the revitalization of their communities. Ididn’t make appointments; if you are there, things just kind of unfold.” She visited them each six times, completing her work with each one before moving on to the next. The result of the recorded conversations was “125 pages of transcript per participant—that’s the nature of this work in eliciting narratives.”

Then came the task of “selecting out the stories” and setting them into four separate chapters, for “there is no generalization in this qualitative work, but it can be transferable.” She also integrated theory and reflection into her final writings.

So, at the end of the day, what did the narrative enquiry work of Christina and Sylvia (who went on to do a second Bella Coola study on children) accomplish? They both said their interviewees gained volumes from being able to talk about their experiences. For example, one of the Fort McMurray women realized that she’d had enough, told her husband, and he quit his rich oil job to rejoin his family in PEI.  One of Sylvia’s participants glowed over “having something written about his life to leave behind.” Further, their studies had larger impacts such as new health promotion tools in schools and changes to institutional policies.

This “co-participatory” enterprise, observed Sylvia, “can be life transforming for participants and for the narrative researcher.” However, she added that “a lot of researchers wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.” They prefer the safer territory of “Get your data, analyze it, give them a copy and you’re on your way. “ Narrative enquiry “involves a different kind of social obligation.”

A final slide in the Narrative Enquiry session

A final slide in the Narrative Inquiry session

Wow. What a way to enable un- and under-heard voices and change the world, one person and one community at a time.  It’s kind of like journalism, but with a different kind of stick-to-itiveness and focus. I’m in. Somehow and someday, elements of what I learned today will surface in my work.


“My friends have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges.”

~Helen Keller


About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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