Narrative-based Action Research: Phases, Steps, Practices and Tools

In TTDR processes, methods refer to the steps, practices and tools used during the research process for co-producing said systems, target and transformation knowledge. The NAR process (depicted on the process page as a dynamic, iterative process) is inserted into the Jahn framework below as a more linear process — with some defined phases and steps:

Phases & Steps:

I. Planning & Preparation ~ TTDR processes can be initiated by engaging, e.g., in the following contextual, strategic and theoretical activities:

(i) Formative contexts — developing a good grasp – albeit a first stab – of the socio-ecological contexts in which the TTDR processes are embedded. A good starting point for this is to focus on the societal challenges at stake as well as the relevant stakeholders involved – i.e. individuals and groups of people affecting and being affected by the issues at hand — and, therefore, with a vested stake / interest in finding some sustainable solutions;

(ii) Social contracting — approaching the identified stakeholders by focusing explicitly on their needs and interests — what will they gain from participating in the TTDR process (what is in it for them?);

(iii) Dynamic project management — together with the relevant stakeholders, start a dynamic thinking and planning approach which anticipates unexpected consequences to occur during the unfolding research process — in short, allowing for and working with emergence;

(iv) Dynamic epistemic objects — developing some initial / guiding problem statements and research questions — anticipating that these will most likely be changing and changed during the unfolding research process.

II. Designing ~ This phase involves training stakeholder members as co-researchers (field workers) in the NAR approach, by focusing, inter alia, on the following steps:

(a) Co-designing ~ the interpretive meaning-making framework with which to collect narratives (next step in the process);

(b) Appropriate collection tools ~ discuss and decide on context-sensitive narrative collection tools — ranging from pen & paper to online tools (e.g. computers, tablets, smart phones etc.);

(c) Natural places and spaces ~ identifying those social settings where people are already interacting and sharing their stories with each other — as the natural places and spaces for where to conduct the story collections (in the next phase).

In other words, all the activities in the above steps are done prior to going into the field to collect peoples’ lived experiences / stories.

III. Collecting ~ This phase in the research process consists of going into the field to collect peoples’ lived experiences / stories by using the meaning-making framework co-designed in Phase II of the process (above). The length and depth of this phase is entirely context dependent — warranting careful planning and stepping into with the field workers trained during Phase II. However, in order to keep the motivation and interest levels in the unfolding research process as high as possible, it is quite important to deliberately create some positive / reinforcing feedback loops for the research process by providing the field researchers with some ongoing information of both the quantity and quality of the incoming narratives — whilst stressing the emergent nature of this process and the importance of avoiding falling into the trap of premature convergence — i.e. rash interpretations and conclusions.

IV. Analysis & sense-making ~ During this phase researchers and co-researchers start with the interpretive process of analysing and making sense of the incoming and collected stories — both as individual and patterned stories. There are no quick answers for exactly when the previous phase of story collections should stop and this phase of analysis and sense-making should start — simply because it will vary from context to context. The guiding principle here is that more is better — both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking. In other words, working with more varied stories is desirable, because together produce the contextual richness / denseness (= layered contextuality) required for the task at hand of analysis and sense-making.

For extracting narrative patterns from the many different and differing shared experiences / anecdotes the team of co/researchers use appropriate software, specifically designed for this purpose of mass sense-making and visualising of the meaningful narrative patterns emerging from all the collected stories. This, in turn, serves a double purpose of: (a) doing critically important preparatory work for the returning of the stories to the community of original story-tellers in the next phase V of the process and (b) affording researchers with a golden (reflective) opportunity for refining and changing their initial guiding problem statements and research questions — i.e. dynamic epistemic objects focused on co-producing systems knowledge of the current situation, via a better / deeper understanding (Verstehen) of the many different ways and means people are making sense of their current realities.

Another possibility here is coming up with completely different, new problem statements and research questions — i.e. problem statements and research questions which may not necessarily have been addressed in the literature as yet. Critically important in all of this is that the insights and understandings developed from engaging with the emerging narrative patterns are seen and used as legitimate, referenceable source material for doing the necessary theoretical work in this regard.

V. Returning ~ this phase is essentially a logical extension of the previous phase of analysis and sense-making. The only, and very important, difference is that this is now done together with the original story-tellers. The purpose of this phase is also two-fold, namely to: (a) build some shared understanding — around the context-rich emerging narrative patterns — of the current challenges at hand and (b) using the insights and understandings gained from this collaborative sense-making work is to ask the important ‘so what‘ question. In other words, asking the question: what, if any thing, do the emerging narrative patterns actually mean for the current problem situation as seen and experienced by the relevant participants in the research process? Is there indeed a need for changing the current situation? And if so, what kind of change and in which direction should this be undertaken?

VI. Implementing ~ this phase / step in the NAR process is essentially building on what emerged during the previous phase / step — especially figuring out the directionality of any social change expressed in the previous phase. This is done by continuously asking the next step question — in other words, figuring out what can be done in the present to bring about the desired change. By keeping the focus on the next step is also a way of avoiding the trap of becoming overly ‘visionary’ with what can seemingly only be done at some or other deferred point in the distant future. When these are developed and presented as preferred scenarios for the future they tend to become too idealistic — abstract and normative — completely disconnected from the complexities of the current situation in order to be realized in the present. This, however, can be overcome by keeping the research focus squarely on engaging with the emerging narrative patterns. The new insights and understandings that can be gained from this practical / implementation work is, in fact, critical for co-producing said transformation knowledge (see homepage) — which, in turn, offers researchers with yet another golden opportunity for refining, changing their initial guiding problem statements and research questions, or developing new ones.

Vector Monitoring & Evaluation

As soon as the community of story-tellers have embarked upon a certain course of action / pathway of change, the challenge then becomes one of providing them with on-going, real-time feedback in terms of the actual directionality of the unfolding social change process. This can be achieved by eliciting and collecting more lived experiences and narratives of the social change process itself and feeding this back to the community of story-tellers for real-time decision-making on the way forward. The role of the researchers in this is to make this new cycle of story telling and collecting as meaningful and understandable as possible — in so doing, facilitating the social change process by continuously providing data-rich inputs for figuring out the next step(s) on the way forwards or sideways.