Sunday, 19 August 2012

Understanding stories as maps: more than pretty pictures

I am in a rewarding, but fairly labour intensive part of my PhD research at the moment. I'm looking at narratives from leaders of early childhood services, and thinking about their connection to the social contexts for their creation and use. The project involves people as active participants, so we create and think about these issues together to some extent. I'm at the 'analysis / interpretation' stage (or at least the first stages of it) which has involved putting all the narratives into categories: references to social interaction, talking about myself (what I call 'first order' narrative) and reflection (what I've called 'second order narrative').

Within the first and second order narrative, I've used NVivo to create about thirty 'themes' from the narratives configured by each participant. This has been carefully and painstakingly done, as I try to remain true to what people have said and my understanding of their meanings. I've got a fairly good idea of this, as we've worked together over four extended sessions each so far, and circled around a set of subjects to do with professional identity.

My interest all along has been to reflect the theory and methodology in how I analyse / interpret. Part of my methodology is to work with visual elements (in this case, cartoons I have created) to interpret and to facilitate further shared thinking. When it came to understanding how these narratives were structured - which would form the foundation of further analysis - I wanted to focus on relationships between the 'parts' and the 'parts and the whole'. This is prompted in part by my use of Ricoeur's approach to hermeneutic analysis, which I've talked about previously. In this particular case, doing this has required patient work, but has also been exciting and rewarding. This week, I've created 'semantic structure maps' (sounds fancy, I know) which illustrate the connections between themes in each narrative. As connections are drawn from each theme to all other related themes, a 'web' of relationships is shown. Looking at it, I'm already thinking about many different ways this 'map' will be useful when I take it back to participants to think about together. For example, we can think about those aspects of their story that seem to be most 'interconnected' or we can pick out particular relationships and discuss or annotate these.

I've just written a research journal note to myself about the next stage (which came to me whilst in the bath, as all good PhD reflections do). This has to do with forming the next set of 'connections': between aspects of participants' narratives and references to social interaction. The reason I'm doing this - as I briefly noted above - is because after understanding the narratives 'in themselves' I want to ask questions about their 'social' origins and applications. This again links to Ricoeur and his mimetic arc.

I've realised that my analysis, as with the methodology generally, has been about establishing patterns and connections, then seeking to understand them. When I have produced these 'semantic maps' I've been challenged to reflect upon their status as analytic / interpretive tools. I'm very aware the basis on which I have 'drawn lines' between one narrative theme and another has been based on intimate knowledge of these texts, and the intentions of the participants. As I've done this, I did experience doubt as I thought about whether I should have created the themes based on the frequency of their mention, or drawn connectors between them based upon some kind of 'scientific' measure. As I have reflected, I remain clear that what I am doing is not some 'objective' analysis in the traditional sense, but the very act of analysis is in itself more interpretation. I am 'seeing' relationships, some I have chosen not to draw because although on the face of it, two terms could be connected but for that person they were not. Although the process of analysis can lead to 'cutting up' narratives into tiny units, I am aware that I don't want to dissolve narratives into simply 'words' which can be made to say anything. So, the process of creating semantic maps has been intensive and has involved careful reflection on the intended meaning of the participant. Still, the maps will still be my reading (or 'configuration') and they will return to participants for verification and further work together.

Any insight generated by production of these 'semantic maps' is only partial. As I have produced them, I have realised that their status needs thinking about because they are also a sort of heuristic tool. Rather than being 'answers' to what the narratives are about (even though the connections do reflect things about the semantic structure of the narratives) they are tools to ask questions with participants, to reflect on patterns and move from a basic structural understanding to a deeper hermeneutic understanding (back to Ricoeur's mimetic arc again). Reflecting has helped me articulate why I am doing things in this way. No one has yet accused me of simply producing 'pretty pictures', but if they do, I am clear about their value as a tool in the hermeneutic arc.