Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis



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SMALL STORIES AS A NEW PERSPECTIVE IN NARRATIVE AND IDENTITY ANALYSIS


Michael Bamberg & Alexandra Georgakopoulou

Clark University King’s College London

Abstract

In this article, we depart from our recent work on ‘small stories’ which we propose as an antidote to canonical narrative studies, a ‘new’ narrative turn that sets out to include certain under-represented activities in the focal concerns of narrative and identity analysis. We are specifically advancing our lines of argumentation by sketching out a five-step analytical operation for tapping into small stories as sites of identity work. The five steps grow out of the model of positioning (as put forward by Bamberg, 1997, and elaborated in Bamberg, 2004a, 2004b; cf. also Georgakopoulou, 2000) that succeeds in navigating between the two extreme ends of fine-grained micro-analysis and macro-accounts. We will work with positioning in the close analysis of a small story event (as part of a moderated group discussion involving 10-year-old boys in an American school) in which we will show how the teller’s announcement of the story, the subsequent withdrawal, and the pre-telling negotiation with the interlocutors are as integral part of our analysis as the actual telling. We will also demonstrate how viewing story content as a function of interactional engagement opens up new insights into identity constructions of sameness in the face of adversative conditions and constant change. (Small Stories, Positioning, Identity Analysis, Author – Animator – Principal, Identity Dilemma)



1. Introduction

Although a diverse endeavour, narrative research in (socio)linguistics and other disciplines (e.g., sociology, psychology) tends to employ specific kinds of data and methodologies which in turn generate a specific analytic vocabulary. In particular, departing from Labov’s (1972) influential model, numerous studies have focused on research or clinical elicitation techniques to pull for narratives that are invariably about non-shared, personal experience, past events. These stories (cf. life stories, autobiographies, short range stories of landmark events) are oft employed as heuristics for the inquiry into tellers’ representations of past events, and how the tellers make sense of themselves in light of these past events; in short, these stories have often been taken as more or less unmediated and transparent representations of the participants’ subjectivities and from there as reflecting back on their identities (for a critique of this view of narrative, see Atkinson & Delamont, 2006). The guiding assumption here is that stories are privileged forms/structures/systems for making sense of self, by bringing the co-ordinates of time, space, and personhood into a unitary frame so that the sources “behind” these representations (such as “author”, “teller”, and “narrator”), can be made empirically visible for further analytical scrutiny in the form of ‘identity analysis.’ The ‘narrative turn’ that has been sweeping through much of the social sciences over the last twenty years has espoused this kind of rationale and has become of major methodological influence in the fields of identity research (see the collection of papers in Bamberg, 2006a; Bamberg & Andrews, 2004; Brockmeier & Carbaugh, 2002; Daiute & Lightfoot, 2004; and de Fina, Schiffrin & Bamberg, 2006a).

Our point of departure in this article is our view that the assumptions, sensibilities and interpretive idiom warranted by this approach to the analysis of narratives (which we will refer to variably as the “autobiographical model”, the “narrative canon”, or simply “big story research”) have filtered down to analytic work on conversational (cf. non-elicited) narratives. As a result, they have informed analysts’ definitions of what constitutes a (tellable) story and/or a story that can be used as a point of entry into identity analysis. There is undoubtedly recognition that the narratives told outside research or clinical interviews depart significantly from the autobiographical model (e.g., Schegloff, 1997; Ochs & Capps, 2001); there are also quite a few studies of conversational storytelling that have taken an interactional approach (i.e., narrative-as-talk-in-interaction, e.g., Goodwin, 1984, 1986; Goodwin, 1990, 1997; Jefferson 1978). Nonetheless, in our view, there is still much scope for documenting the forms and contexts of these ‘other’ a-typical stories; the analytical tools appropriate for them; and last but not least, their consequentiality for narrative cum identity research which is currently a focal concern in the study of narrative in a wide range of social science disciplines.

While it is worthwhile to invest efforts in investigating what narratives are and what they consist of, structurally as well as interactively, our point of departure is more grounded in a functional perspective on narrative and language use in general. In line with a general shift towards narratives as tools of interpretation (de Fina, Schiffrin & Bamberg, 2006a), we are interested in the social actions/functions that narratives perform in the lives of people; in how people actually use stories in every-day, mundane situations in order to create (and perpetuate) a sense of who they are. Narratives, in this kind of approach, are focused upon not as tools for reflecting on (chunks of) lives but as constructive means that are functional in the creation of characters in space and time, which in turn are instrumental for the creation of positions vis-à-vis co-conversationalists. Narratives, in our approach, are aspects of situated language use, employed by speakers/narrators to position a display of situated, contextualized identities. The contribution of small stories then to identity analysis lies in its focus on the action orientation or discursive function that stories serve in these kinds of local and situated accomplishments of identity displays.

In our individual work, we have begun to give voice to and argue for the ‘worthiness’ of stories that are still in the fringes of narrative research and that we call small stories both for literal (these tend to be brief stories) and metaphorical reasons (i.e., in the spirit of a late modern focus on the micro-, fleeting aspects of lived experience). We have identified certain salient types of such small stories in the discourse and social practices of a group of female adolescents that were studied ethnographically in a Greek town: breaking news, projections, references (to stories of shared events), among others (Georgakopoulou, 2005a, b). We have begun to chart the textual/interactional features of such small stories and explored how they can feed into the mainstay analytic vocabulary such as evaluation/ tellability, and the analysis of narrative that links specific linguistic choices with larger social roles and identities (Georgakopoulou, 2006a, b, forthcoming).
We have also documented how it becomes possible to frame the micro-analysis of small stories as a window into the micro-genetic processes of identities as ‘in-the-making’ or ‘coming-into-being’ (cf. Bamberg, 2004a, b, c) forming the background against which identities in life-event or biographic interviews can become foci of investigations within the framework of more traditional narrative methodologies.

Within this type of approach to narrative, our aim is to contribute to a re-conceptualization of the “identity dilemma”, i.e., that we are clinging onto the illusion of staying or actually “being” the same through simultaneously changing all the time: We seem to gain our sense of constancy by way of continuously changing. Conceptualizing narratives-in-interaction (with emphasis on small stories) as the sites of engagement where identities are continuously practised and tested out, we have begun to show how these practices lend themselves to developmental prerequisites that eventually may lead up to the ability to engage in more reflective positions in the form of life stories that are typically elicited in clinical or research settings. It is in the every-day practices as sites of engagement that “identity work” is being conducted, because we believe that such continuous and repetitious engagements ultimately lead to habitus (plural) that become the source for a continuous sense of who we are – a sense of us as ‘same’ in spite of continuous change. The actual “work” that is being conducted by individuals in interactive engagement so-to-speak feeds into a sense of self – in the form of a continuous process within which this sense comes to existence (emerges).

In this article we will advance these lines of argumentation by specifically looking at identity work through small stories in terms of a model of positioning (as put forward by Bamberg, 1997, and elaborated in Bamberg, 2004b; cf. also Georgakopoulou, 2000) that succeeds in navigating between the two extreme ends of fine-grained micro-analysis and macro-accounts. It more specifically allows us to explore self at the level of the talked-about, i.e., as a character within the story, and at the level of tellership in the here-and-now of a storytelling situation. Both of these levels feed into the larger project at work within the global situatedness within which selves are already positioned: that is, with more or less implicit and indirect referencing and orientation to social positions and discourses above and beyond the here-and-now.
This model of positioning affords us with the possibility to view identity constructions as two-fold: We are able to analyze the way the referential world is constructed with characters (such as self and others) in time and space1. Simultaneously, we are able to show how the referential world is constructed as a function of the interactive engagement, where the way the referential world is constructed points to how the teller “wants to be understood”, or more appropriately, to how tellers index a sense of self. It is precisely this groundedness of self and identity in interactive engagement that is at best under-theorized and at worst left out in traditional narrative research.

In particular, we will illustrate identity work through positioning in small stories by turning the tables on a typical interview narrative elicitation scenario (researcher elicits story to explore aspects of the researched self) to see what happens when the researched (in this case, a group of 10-year-old boys in a lower-class East Coast American elementary school talking to each other in the presence of the moderator) engage in identity work that attends to peer-group roles, dynamics and shared interactional history on one hand and to the interview situation (including the moderator) on the other hand. We are consciously choosing to work with a small story that occurred in an interview situation to make tangible our point about the necessity of including small stories in the main agenda of narrative and identity analysis: The strip of discourse activity which we will analyse here routinely gets dismissed by biographical approaches (i.e., it is not seen as a story), is seen as analytic nuisance (i.e., as the result of bad interviewing) or subsumed under the focal concerns of the big story (i.e., viewed as an instance of incoherent telling, not yet incorporated in the life story, etc.).

In contrast to this, we hope to be able to show that the in-depth analysis of a particular small story excerpt is more that just the exemplification or illustration of our theoretical entry and methodological inclination. The functionalist orientation vis-à-vis small stories as tools to constitute worlds, and in these worlds a sense of self, captures aspects of how this sense of self is manufactured in particular sites of engagement and of the processes within which selves are ‘under construction.’ Entering narrative identity work from the perspective that selves are constantly changing, we look into concrete sites of engagement in which small stories are negotiated and empirically scrutinize the procedures (repertoires) used by tellers in order to establish a particular sense of self in and through their talk. The analysis which follows will pay particular attention to the formation of a sense of self in the face of different discursive pulls: one toward a strong sense of (un-relational) masculinity according to which it is un-cool to invest in relationships with the other, the other pulling toward a relational stance, according to which it is cool to “have a girlfriend”.

2. Small Stories

As suggested in the introductory section above, the emphasis on full-fledged stories within socially minded linguistic approaches to narrative is partly traceable to Labov’s influential model of narrative analysis that was based on researcher-prompted, personal experience, past events. More generally though, it is undoubtedly the case that the elicitation of interview narratives (life stories or “key” episodes from the teller’s life) as the mainstay qualitative method in social sciences has put big stories firmly on the map (cf. Bamberg, 2006b). It is thus not surprising that, as Ochs and Capps (2001) have pointed out, there is a lingering bias in conventional narrative analysis for narratives with the following qualities: “A coherent temporal progression of events that may be reordered for rhetorical purposes and that is typically located in some past time and place. A plotline that encompasses a beginning, a middle, and an end, conveys a particular perspective and is designed for a particular audience who apprehend and shape its meaning” (p. 57).

In contrast to this, we have been employing ‘small stories’ as an umbrella-term that captures a gamut of under-represented narrative activities, such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events,2 shared (known) events, but also allusions to (previous) tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell. These tellings are typically small when compared to the pages and pages of transcript of interview narratives. On a metaphorical level though, small stories is somewhat of an antidote formulation to a longstanding tradition of big stories (cf. “grand narratives”, Lyotard, 1984): the term locates a level and even an aesthetic for the identification and analysis of narrative: the smallness of talk, where fleeting moments of narrative orientation to the world (Hymes, 1996) can be easily missed out on by an analytical lens which only takes fully-fledged (“big”) stories as the prototype from where the analytic vocabulary is supposed to emerge.
Small stories can be about very recent (‘this morning’, ‘last night’) or still unfolding events3 thus immediately reworking slices of experience and arising out of a need to share what has just happened or seemingly uninteresting titbits. They can be about small incidents that may (or may not) have actually happened, mentioned to back up or elaborate on an argumentative point occurring in an ongoing conversation. Small stories can even be about – colloquially speaking – ‘nothing’; and as such indirectly reflect something about the interactional engagement between the interactants, while for outsiders, the interaction is literally ‘about
nothing’.

In short, placing emphasis on small stories allows for the inclusion in the analysis of a gamut of data more or less connected with the narrative canon. Some of them fulfil prototypical definitional criteria (e.g., temporal ordering of events) but still do not sit well with the canon (e.g., stories of projected events or tellability, given that the emphasis of traditional narrative inquiry has undoubtedly been on past events). Others may fail those criteria but, if the participants themselves orient to what is going on as a story, we argue that they render such criteria superfluous if not problematic. In all cases, we see small stories as not resting exclusively and reductively on prototypical textual criteria but as discourse engagements that engender specific social moments and integrally connect with what gets done on particular occasions and in particular settings. Our claim is that recognizing ‘narrativity’ or a ‘narrative orientation’ in certain activities shows regard for local and situated understandings and decisively makes social consequentiality of discourse activities part of the analysis.

Consequently, it is the action orientation of the participants that forms the basic point of departure for our functionalist-informed approach to small stories; and to a lesser degree what is represented or reflected upon in the stories told. This seems to be what makes our work with small stories crucially different from work with big stories: While we orient ourselves to a view of the person as actively/agentively using language and their stories to constitute worlds and selves, big story research approaches language and stories as representing and reflecting worlds and sequences of events. And as a consequence to this, we are squarely interested in how people use small stories in their interactive engagements to construct a sense of who they are, while big story research analyzes the stories as representations of world and identities. Consequently, the analysis of the construction processes of identities within the small story approach focuses necessarily on the situational and contextual emergence of identity, whereas the analysis of representations of identities (as “behind” the discourse that is used to “represent” them) relies on these identities as given – pre-existent to their occasioning in sites of engagement.



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