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.