Researching Narratives

Studying the stories that people tell about their lives has become an increasingly popular research approach, and one which has the potential to produce positive social, and personal, change.

At UEL we are leading the way in this area through the work of our Centre for Narrative Research. As the first and leading international centre for narrative research in social science, the Centre undertakes a variety of innovative studies and brings together social scientists from all over the world.

Narrative research involves sourcing and analysing personal accounts such as those found in verbal stories, conversations, autobiographies, journals and visual images, in order to obtain a better understanding of people’s lives and their experiences and to help encourage positive societal change. It requires comprehensive attention to the individual, social and cultural dimensions of language and meaning.

Researchers from UEL's Centre for Narrative Research have been utilising their expertise in this area to address a wide span of issues around gender, sexualities, health and illness, politics, and migration and belonging, and to strengthen understanding of experiences of people who are often under-represented in society.

One such example is that of a long-term investigation into HIV support in the UK and South Africa, led by one of the Centre's co-directors, Professor Corinne Squire.

Around 34 million people are believed to living with HIV worldwide. Greater access to treatment means that many of those people will now live relatively healthy lives of more or less normal length. However, for those who are HIV positive or HIV-affected, many medical, social and personal problems remain.

By interviewing and analysing the narratives of people with HIV and those affected by it, Professor Squire was able to bring to the forefront their personal accounts of experiences such as being diagnosed, receiving treatment and maintaining relationships. Through the narrative structure of those accounts, she could discern how people shape their understandings of such experiences.

The study also provided useful insight into the changing nature of the pandemic’s position in society. The increasing availability of anti-retroviral therapy (ART), and widespread awareness and activism campaigns, have led to the pandemic becoming more 'naturalised', that is, a more comprehensible part of life. Professor Squire argues that this can lead to some HIV positive people feeling 'left behind', especially those who have continuing difficulties while on treatment.

In addition, as Professor Squire explains: "HIV positive people taking ART in the developing world are also now having similar experiences of living long-term with HIV medication to people in developed-world countries. However, in the developing world, this group continues to live alongside large numbers of people who need but who cannot access ART, as well as large numbers of people newly infected each year."

Professor Squire's studies reveal strong implications for effective health education and have been published widely in academic journals and textbooks. She joins fellow co-directors Professor Molly Andrews and Dr Maria Tamboukou as an internationally renowned expert in narrative research.

"Mapping significant changes in the stories people tell about themselves can inform important discussions in public policy, for example on issues such as how people use health services, how they experience education, how they manage their lives during the contemporary recession, and how they engage politically", says Professor Squire.

Remembering East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution

Website link.

In 1992, Molly Andrews conducted interviews with 40 East Germans, most of whom had been leading critics of the East German government, and had played an important role in contributing to the bloodless revolution of 1989.  They included artists, actors, religious leaders, scientists, and politicians, but also official employees and informal informants of the Stasi, as well as academics, writers and politicians who were members of the Communist Party up until 1989. Twenty years later, she conducted a follow-up study with fifteen of the original forty participants, predominantly with those who had been dissidents in 1989.

Based on this longitudinal study, there were two exhibitions which were organized, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall: the first was in London, at the German Historical Institute (31 October 2014 - 31 January 2015), and the second in Berlin at the Wissenschaftszentrum (12 November 2014 - 31 March 2015).  When looking back on East Germany's peaceful revolution of 1989 many recall the great speed of events -  the rigged election, the 40th anniversary of the birth of the country, the Monday night vigils,  the huge demonstrations, the exodus across the borders, the opening of the wall, and less than 12 months later, the formal reunification of Germany - days and weeks which altered the face of the political world forever. The focus of this project has been to explore the meaning of living through these momentous changes, in conversations carried out over two decades.

The exhibitions were organized around four themes which featured in the interviews:

  • the intersection of biographical and historical change ("Generations");
  • the role of the past in the present ("Representation of East German History");
  • the meaning of being from East Germany ("East German Identity"); and finally
  • memories of the night the Berlin Wall was opened, and subsequent anniversaries of that event ("November 9th").

The exhibition at the German Historical Institute London (GHIL) was preceded by a half-day symposium focused on the personal testimonies of three people who had been key activists in the events leading up to the opening of the wall: nuclear physicist Sebastian Pflugbeil, architect and green activist Reinhard Weisshuhn, and psychoanalyst and writer Annette Simon. There were two panels organised around the themes of the representation of East German history (chaired by historian Dorothee Wierling) and cultural memory (chaired by psychologist Jens Brockmeier). The website includes recordings from the two panels.

The exhibition at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB) was organized around portraits of the fifteen project participants which Molly Andrews commissioned from photographer Vaughan Melzer, which were displayed along with photographs of the individuals taken twenty+ years earlier - some by the Stasi - sourced along with original sound recordings from the Robert Havemann Gesellschaft, the archives of the East German citizens' movement.