24a Princes Avenue London N10 3LR, uk the Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (bnim)


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24a Princes Avenue London N10 3LR, UK

The Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM)-

Shortguide November 2004. version 22

Tom Wengraf, Middlesex University and University of East London


24a Princes Avenue London N10 3LR, UK 1

The Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM)- 1

Shortguide November 2004. version 22 1

Overview 1

The BNIM interview procedure 2

Background for those interested 3

1. The general principles of BNIM interviewing practice 4

The main interview (subsessions one and two) (1-3 hours?) 4

The single-question initial subsession 4

The second subsession: narrative follow-up 4

A second interview (subsession 3) optional 5

The Main Principles of Narrative Interviewing 5

Active Listening 8

2. The general principles of BNIM interpretation 12


Adaptions of BNIM made for particular research studies 16

The term ‘perspective’ and the reality of ‘evoking a mode of experiencing and acting’ 16

3. Bibliographies 17

BNIM bibliography by topic area – short list 17

Bibliography - alphabetical order (different, more inclusive list) 19

Diagrams –

Figure 1 BNIM in the CRQ-TQ structure 0 22

Figure 2 BNIM in the CRQ-IQ structure 2.3 24

Figure 3 Classic SQUIN and the 3 (sub) Sessions.2 26

Figure 4 Curly diagram - topics and subtopics in order2 QRI p.139 28

Figure 5 Nine topic and four subtopics in gestalt order 28

Figure 6 Squin design sheet - menu of possibilities 30

Figure 7 The D-A-R-N-E textsorts 31


This methodology for conducting and analyzing biographic narrative interviews has been used over the past fifteen or more years both in individual PhD projects but also in a variety of collective research projects, either directly (e.g. Rosenthal 1998, Chamberlayne et al 2002, Brannen et al 2004) or in a modified version.
Assuming that “narrative expression” is expressive both of conscious concerns and also of unconscious cultural, societal and individual presuppositions and processes, it is concerned with both the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ worlds of ‘historical person-in-historical situation’; it is both psychodynamic and sociobiographic in approach. The primary focus on the particularity of individual experience in unique historical and societal locations and processes (e.g. the dynamics of such institutions as ‘organisations’ and ‘families’ within such social movements as the Holocaust, migration, and neo-liberal modernisation,) lays the basis for systematic later ‘whole case’ comparision and grounded theorisation.
Collective projects using BNIM so far include: –

  • a research project comparing cross-nationally different regimes of caring and the informal cultures that the regimes give rise to;

  • another comparing the social strategies of disadvantaged groups coping with increasingly risky societies in Europe and of innovative agencies that have tried to measure up to such new challenges;

  • a four-generation 12-family study of work and caring in the UK over the 20th century;

  • a study of professional immigrants to New Zealand.
  • an in-depth study of one innovative agency, a Healthy Living Centre in a deprived multi-ethnic part of East London;

  • another dealing with the interaction between front-line professionals and their clients in agencies dealing with the homeless;

An increasing proportion of the studies using BNIM deal with ‘applied’ issues, exploring how professionals do or don’t intervene effectively with people in ‘difficult situations’ and how policy and practice should be developed accordingly.

The BNIM interview procedure

In each BNIM interview, there are three subsessions (Wengraf 2001, ch.6) . In the first, the interviewer offers only a carefully constructed single narrative question (e.g., “Please tell me the story of your life, all the events and experiences that have been important to you personally; begin wherever you want to begin , I won’t interrupt, I’ll just take some notes for afterwards”).

In the second, sticking strictly to the sequence of topics raised and the words used, the interviewer asks for more narratives about them. A third subsession can follow in which nonnarrative questions can be posed.
The BNIM interpretation procedure

The transcript thus obtained is then processed twice (Wengraf 2001, ch.12) . The strategy reconstructs the experiencing of the “interpreting and acting” subject as he or she interpreted events; lived his or her life; and, in the interview, told his or her story. This strategy requires the analysts to go forward through the events (of the interview, and of the told life) as did the subject: future-blind, moment by moment, not knowing what comes next or later.

First, a chronology of objective life events is identified. “Objective life events” are those that could be checked using official documents, such as records of school and employment and other organizations. Each item (e.g. “failed exams at age 16”), stripped of the subject’s current interpretation, is then presented separately to a research panel, which is asked to consider how this event might have been experienced at the time, and, if that experiential hypothesis were true, what might be expected to occur next or later in the life (following hypotheses). After these are collected and recorded, the next life-event item is presented: Its implications for the previous experiential and following hypotheses are considered, and a new round of hypothesizing commences. A process of imaginative identification and critical understanding is sought, constantly to be corrected and refined by the emergence of future events as they are presented one-by-one.

The transcript is then processed into “segments.” A new segment is said to start when there is a change of speaker, of topic, or of the manner in which a topic is addressed. Again, each segment is presented in turn to a research panel that attempts to imagine how each such interview event and action might have been experienced at that moment of the interview, with subsequent correction and refinement by further segments.
In both series – the chronological lived life; the interview-told story -- separate structural hypotheses are sought; only afterwards are structural hypotheses developed relating the two. A similar future-blind procedure is also carried out for puzzling segments of the verbatim-text (microanalysis). The question about the dynamics of the case can then be addressed: “Why did the people who lived their lives like this, tell their stories like that?” .
Once a number of cases have been analysed (say between three and six), then a systematic procedure for comparing the dynamics of these ‘whole cases’ is used to lay the basis for theorisation (Wengraf 2001: 231-312; 2002)..

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