Narrative in Social and Organizational Research

Adapted from Rhodes, C., & Brown, A. D. 2005. Narrative, organizations and research. International Journal of Management Reviews, 7(3): 167-188.

The development of narrative approaches is one symptom of the ‘linguistic turn’ that has occurred not just in organization studies but in the social sciences generally (Alvesson and Karreman, 2000; Deetz, 2003). Narratological concerns have been raised in disciplines as distinct as sociology (Ezzy, 1998; Maines, 1993; Somers, 1994), history (Carr, 1986; White, 1987), various branches of psychology (Sarbin, 1986; Rappaport, 2000; White and Epston, 1990), communication studies (Cooren, 1999; Fisher, 1984), folklore (Georges, 1969; Robinson, 1981), anthropology (Geertz, 1988; Levi-Strauss, 1963) and philosophy (Ricoeur, 1983).
In organization theory in particular it has been suggested that “[o]rganizational story and storytelling research has produced a rich body of knowledge unavailable through other methods of analysis” (Stutts and Barker, 1999: 213), that the adoption of a narrative approach “may increase the relevance of organizational knowledge produced by academics” (Ng and de Cock, 2002: 25) and that the use of narrative approaches might encourage organization theory “to reinvigorate itself” (Czarniawska, 1998: 13; cf. Brown & Jones, 1998). Boje (2001) has distinguished narratologies as distinct as living story, realism, formalism, pragmatism, social constructionism, post structuralism, critical theory, and postmodernism, each with its own preferred research agenda and constitutive assumptions. Yet, while the community for which narrative is a legitimate means of analyzing and representing human relations is in some ways disparate (Riessman, 1993: 16-17), it is cohered by a shared interest in work that “is informed by or centers on narrativity” (Fisher, 1985: 347), and research assumptions that favor pluralism, relativism and subjectivity (Lieblish, Tuval-Masiach and Zilber, 1998: 2; Rhodes & Brown, 2005). As Currie (1998) has argued, there is discernible “an abstract pool of resources drawn eclectically from different narratological histories” (p.14) that forms “a single body” (p.27) which “has converged into an increasingly shared vocabulary with increasingly similar objectives” (p.135).
The history of narrative in organization research is relatively brief, and the diverse understandings and deployment of narrative in organization theory noted above a very recent occurrence. The earliest explicit uses of narrative approaches to inform research methodology in management and organization theory date from the 1970s (e.g. Clark, 1972; Mitroff and Killman, 1976, 1978). Most commonly such studies took as their methodological position that stories, myths, sagas and other forms of narrative were an overlooked yet valuable source of data for research in organizations. For example, in their 1976 study, Mitroff and Killman noted that, at the time, there had been little systematic study of organizational myths and stories as this was not considered to be the “proper focus of studies of the social sciences” (p. 191). Working against this dominant logic, they devised a research project which gathered short stories written by managers to express their concept of an ideal organization and compared it to the results of a short personality test based on a Jungian personality typology. Their methodological position was that stories gave the researcher access to the unconscious yet projective images of what the organization meant to the managers.
As the research focus on organizational culture and symbolism grew in the 1980s and 1990s so did the use of narratives to explore the meaning of organizational experience. Researchers recognized that story-telling was an important means through which managers acquired knowledge at work and suggested that stories be taken as a credible source of knowledge by scholars (Hummell, 1991). The emerging issue was how to use stories as “devices which peer into human desires, wishes, hopes and fears … [where] … the best stories are those which stir people’s minds, hearts and souls and by doing so give them new insights into themselves, their problems and their human condition. The challenge is to develop a human science that more fully serves this aim” (Mitroff and Kilmann, 1978). Building on arguments such as these, researchers sought new ways to incorporate stories into research. Often located within a social constructivist framework (Boyce, 1996), the use of narratives as data enabled researchers to examine emotional and symbolic lives within organizations (Van Buskirk and McGrath, 1992; Gabriel, 1998).
Complementing the idea that people in organizations are storytellers and that their stories constituted valid empirical materials for research, a related methodological position soon began to be articulated which recognized that researchers too are storytellers. As well as pioneering new ways of using narratives as empirical materials, researchers have also developed new methodological positions in terms of the narrative nature of research itself. In reviewing case studies in organization and management theory, Dyer and Wilkins (1991) made the observation that such studies gain their power from their narrative elements rather than just their abstract concepts. They suggested that these stories use the theory as a plot and are highly effective and persuasive means of communicating research (especially in contrast to statistical demonstrations of theory). What was recognized was that disciplines in the social sciences ranging from sociology to ethnography and to organization studies had long been founded on the ability to tell a good story (Clegg, 1993) such that although not traditionally a trademark of scientific texts, narrative is always present in them (Czarniawska, 1999). Research tended to use the term ‘story’ rather than ‘narrative’, to treat organizational stories as in vivo artifacts, and to emphasize that their importance derived from the insights they provided on other aspects of organization, such as how control is exercised (Wilkins, 1983) and organizational distinctiveness claimed (Martin, et. al., 1983).
Today, the story is much more multi-faceted – narratives are recognized not only as a form of data (Mitroff and Killman, 1976), but also as a theoretical lens (Pentland, 1999), a methodological approach (Boje, 2001), and various combinations of these (Humphreys & Brown, 2002a,b). Narrative, and its near conceptual neighbours such as story (Boje, 1995), fantasy (Gabriel, 1995), saga (Clark, 1972) and myth (Kaye, 1995) have been implicated in studies of processes of socialization (Brown, 1982), learning (Tenkasi and Bolman, 1993) strategic individuality (Harfield and Hamilton, 1997), the exercise of power and control (Mumby, 1987), sensemaking (Brown, 1986), culture formation (Jordan, 1996), collective centering (Boyce, 1996), community mediation (Cobb, 1993), IT implementation (Brown, 1998), nostalgia (Brown & Humphreys, 2003), and even the policy decisions of academic journals (Boje, Fitzgibbons and Steingard, 1996). This wealth of work from those who collect stories told in organizations (Martin et al., 1983), tell stories about organizations (Van Maanen, 1988), define organizations as storytelling systems (Boje, 1991; Currie and Brown, 2003; Brown, Stacey & Nandhakumar, 2008), and conceptualize organization studies as a set of storytelling practices (Clegg, 1993; Czarniawska, 1999; Hatch, 1996) is both indicative and constitutive of narrative’s impact.
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