Norman Denzin Autoethnography Dissertation

Volume 4, No. 2, Art. 39 – May 2003

The Write of Passage: Reflections on Writing a Dissertation in Narrative Methodology

Chaim Noy

Abstract: In this essay I explore, reflect upon and theorize my experiences as a doctoral student writing a dissertation in the field of narrative studies. The inquiry concentrates on the problematic tensions that are unique to academic writing in qualitative disciplines, tensions with which I dealt and grappled extensively during my work. I wish to reflect, through the writing of a theoretically informed autoethnography, on the space inscribed between the proposal and the dissertation, and thus on the young scholar's initiation journey through a constructed, narrative-in-becoming space, and on the relationship between the backpackers' narratives of identity and change, which I researched, and my own. In doing so I will evocatively problematize the epitome of the academic rite-of-passage, i.e. the writing of a modern dissertation, in times of post-modern inquiry and writing.

The discussion is informed by the experience of travel and journey which took place between the interviewees' travel narratives and my own (in the form of a dissertation writing); between "field" and "office"; between positivist and interpretive paradigms; between proposal and dissertation, between paternal and maternal sources of writing, and between academic/scientific and poetic expression. The essay offers contributions to the inquiry into reflexivity and subjectivity within the growing paradigm of qualitative methodology, to the inquiry of rites-of-passage into communities and institutions, and it problematizes the possibility that narrative can contain and convey the post-modern, overwhelmed and fractured self.

Key words: narrative, identity, autoethnography, rite-of-passage, writing, dissertation, modern, post-modern

Table of Contents

1. Prelude: Where Does a Journey Begin?

2. The Journey from Proposal to Dissertation: How the Doctorate "Broke Free"

2.1 The proposal

2.2 Rethinking the proposal

3. Dissertation Writing

3.1 Authorship issues: Why not write the dissertation with a little help from my friends?

3.2 Forms of presenting writing: Norms of transcribing and editing

4. Mirroring Reflections: Backpacking in Academia

5. Epilogue







1. Prelude: Where Does a Journey Begin?

I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle,

that it is eight-thirty in the morning.

ROBER PIRSIG, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

Where does a journey begin?

With a Quest(tion)?

As this one?

With its Writing?

Narrative as a journey.

When you come to think of it, it is difficult to pinpoint when or where a journey begins. Do the backpackers, who I researched in my dissertation, begin their journey upon their arrival in Cuzco or in Katmandu? Or when, on their way there, they make a stop in New York or Tokyo for a few months in order to work and earn additional funding for the extended trip? Or, maybe when they embark on the plane leaving their homeland; or maybe before that, when they typically gather to hear adventure and travel stories of veteran backpackers, and thus are inscribed in the inner circle of backpackers-to-be, as their stories of identity are cast into a communal travel? [1]

And when does the journey of the dissertation begin?1) When one travels, "ethnographically speaking" (BOCHNER and ELLIS 2002), and enters the "field"? Or prior to that, when one's dissertation proposal is "accepted" (a minute rite-of-passage) and the way to travel is charted? Or when one is accepted to a graduate program? Or before that, when one embarks on his academic journey and enrolls as an undergraduate? Or even earlier, when one's father is a professor of Jewish folklore and one's mother an archeologist, and some nebulous and vague narrative dream is crafted during latency years, to be awakened and pursued years later?

I remember playing with my father's endless stacks of draft papers, rough, worn, on their blank, clear side. All retrieved from a large and dark space that laid between two platforms of thick, dark wood, that formed my fathers' timeless desk.

I was always generously permitted access to this abundant supply of draft papers. I don't remember what specifically I wrote, nor what were the many words written on the back of the used papers (probably correspondences in Yiddish, drafts of publications hammered into the paper by a typewriter, corrected papers his students' handed in, and the like). I just remember it was there, on the backside, a presence. Signifying something else. Raising my head I would see a fading picture on the windowsill. His parents. Overlooking the writing desk. Overlooking the writing. The background is not clear (in my memory?) Kolomia, Galicia. The twenties or thirties.2) [2]

With narrative, wondering where does it all begin is intelligible. But, how to start writing? That is, how to write—and how to read—one's reflections on oneself in a theoretically rich and informed fashion. Autoethnography is a genre that suggests innovatively that in some cases, writing about and through oneself, is scholarly illuminating. The writer addresses herself or himself ("auto"), as a subject of a larger social or cultural inquiry ("ethno"), vis-à-vis evocative and revealing writing ("graphy") (ELLIS 1993 1999). The work tells of those constitutive dimensions that in ordinary, conventional scientific language are erased or play a backstage role. These include personal, lived experience and voice, relationship between researchers and their work, processes (rather than results or products), etc. (RICHARDSON 1997). [3]

There is no recipe, or one, correct way of writing an autoethnography. For example, in a few of the works in the field theoretical issues are either entirely implicit, or they are referred to scarcely (DENT 2002; RONAI 1999). In such cases the contribution revolves around the writers' intimate knowledge of the subject matter, and the texts' complex articulation of it and its innovativeness. In other cases the theoretical and the personal perspectives or voices are both explicitly presented, sometimes separately (ELLIS 1993), and sometimes in an intertwined way, where they are in dialogue throughout the text, and where this dialogue is what weaves the fabric of the text (GUREVITCH 2000; JONES 1998, 2002). Presently, I found the latter to be the most suitable possibility, conveying my own struggles throughout my work. In all cases, and in this one as well, the text articulates an evocative personal narrative, as it wishes to touch and move its readers in ways that are not only metaphorical; it is indeed, a heartfull writing (ELLIS 1997, 1999). [4]

And it is precisely from the perspective of narrative research (specifically within psychology) that I wish to touch on and to problematize a few mainstream notions about narrative. According to some scholars people's lived experiences and life stories are conceived as carrying such qualities as, "unity," "purpose," "direction," "followability" and etc., as they "convey" an inner psychic reality (McADAMS 1993, 1997; McADAMS & BOWMAN 2001). While writing the following it become clear to me that it might be modern scientific research that frames stories of lives and of lived experiences in terms of coherency and progression, while post-modern narrative may be perceived as a less coherent and more fractured genre, and as a genre that does not only convey or reflect upon ones' identity, as it evokes, performs and constitutes it in the event of narration. In stressing the texts' polysemy and multiplicity, I am inspired by Umberto ECO's work, and particularly by ideas proposed in the Open Work (Opera aperta, ECO 1962/1989). The complementary notions of "ambiguity," on the one hand, and "openness," on the other hand, suggest quite a different hermeneutic frame for narrative inquiry: a combination/contamination of genres that continuously evolve, and inspire new meanings, between writer and reader, teller and interlocutor. [5]

2. The Journey from Proposal to Dissertation: How the Doctorate "Broke Free"

"It is by now something of commonplace within the theory of travel writing to acknowledge the ways in which travel is a form of writing and writing is a form of travel."
Susan STEWART, Crimes of Writing (1991)

2.1 The proposal

Looking back now at my doctorate proposal, dated July 22, 1997, I find that, interestingly enough, its title has nothing to do with my proposed research. It is rather a statement concerning the formal status of the document, signed five years ago: "A research program submitted for approval as a dissertation plan." The title is followed by strings of little letters, to which I never seem to pay any real attention, running my eyes across them quickly, dismissing their potential trouble as "mere bureaucracy." Towards the bottom of the page the title of my work is printed: "The Great Journey: Narrative Analysis of Israeli Trekking Stories." And by its side are my advisors' and my own printed names, accompanied by handwritten signatures: lively blue and pink—Amia's pen—ink, conventionally signifying authenticity/singularity (DERRIDA 1988). The next occasion anyone would be signing anything will be four years later, on the cover of the bound dissertation monograph. Regrettably, these are the only two occasions of handwriting, of that "track of the body" (STEWART 1993, p.14). Atop the proposal and the submitted dissertation, atop the outsides and bounds of the work, seals confirming authenticity. Rather than inside, within, embodying the text, breaking, even slightly, with printing conventions. [6]

The dissertation's proposal, I realize, is written as a contract, as a legal binding document. It describes what task the researcher takes on her/himself, and how s/he is going to carry it out. The language is authoritative, conveying the author's supposed knowledge of the field and of the genres constituting it. As the italicized "proposal" suggests, it is a contract which is written in future tense—it is a prospective program depicting a trajectory of the "theorology" (theory-and-methodology) along which the researcher will travel in order to reach the sought after "scientific" destinations. The theoretical discussion should rationally lead to the methodological procedures, and these should systematically lead to the presumed "findings." While in positivistic and post-positivistic research some room is left for what the results might be, the structure leading to the outcome, i.e. the journey, the narrative, is not negotiable. It is a convention, not a conversation; and the proposal is the journey's schedule or itinerary, which is agreed upon at the outset. [7]

In discussing a new and more creative framework for writing proposals for narrative dissertations in psychology, JOSSELSON and LIEBLICH (2002, p.260) offer what seems something more general and applicable to a variety of qualitative fields:

"In that narrative research is a voyage of discovery—a discovery of meanings that both constitute the individual participant and are co-constructed in the research process—researchers cannot know at the outset what they will find ... In most psychology graduate programs, the structure of thesis or dissertation proposals is dictated by the paradigm of quantitative, positivist research. Hypotheses to be tested are set out and located within the research tradition or theory from which they emerge. Methods are employed to test the defined hypotheses. Statistical analyses that will be conducted are specified ... Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion." [8]

In my dissertation journey I set out to inquire into a collective social phenomenon in Israel, that of an extended backpacking trip to faraway destinations normatively undertaken by young, Jewish, middle class, Israelis, soon after they complete their mandatory service in the military. The main body of the proposal, the "theoretical background," included three parts addressing three discrete, yet converging conceptual perspectives: the backpackers as pilgrims, as tourists, and the specific cohort of young adult backpackers. [9]

When I submitted the proposal for approval, in late July of 1997, I honestly thought these were the main theoretical issues I would and should be concerned with and researching in the following years. A comprehensive, systematic and tiered research was suggested, approaching the field of backpacking tourism through broad inquiry drawing upon the three different theoretical viewpoints. [10]

Such was my idea at the outset. [11]

However, following JOSSELSON and LIEBLICH (above), and considering that in a field where process and hermeneutics are part and parcel of our work—a field defined by "a series of tensions, contradictions and hesitations," (DENZIN & LINCOLN 1994, p.ix)—it can hardly be imagined that such a work would (or should) develop precisely or even approximately along the proposed lines. And so, slowly but surely, the dissertation began drifting away from its proposal. To my protests and growing anxiety I realized that if someone would have looked at these two documents—the earlier, preceding and binding one (the proposal) and its consequence or result—only a loose connection, if any, could be found linking the two. [12]

The dissertation consisted of two large chapters that, again, as if against my will, were each some two hundred pages long. Not something that I planned for, nor that I would have wished for, and neither of which dealt with the three topics I had described and committed to in the proposal. [13]

The first chapter reviewed the voices in the stories backpackers repeatedly tell and hear. "Where did that come from?" I continually asked myself. From semiotics to conversation analysis, and from socio-linguistics to narrative analysis I unintentionally wrote an essay about how backpackers construct an intertextual canon and how they quote and voice it in their narratives. The second chapter was an inquiry into the body as a social site, and was informed by feminist and by sociological theories. The embodied narratives I found unfolding were presented mainly by women backpackers—women engaged in an activity culturally constructed as masculine and macho—demanded different reading, interpretation and presentation, one that was itself embodied. [14]

"Up in my head" I knew that such narratives of personal experience suggest and open a nearly endless variety of readings which creatively envelop, as a result of the encounter between the material and the researcher, the literature and ideas he is exposed to, and so on. This composes the researcher's journey. But this knowing did not ease my emotional unrest. I was trapped. I felt quite bad about the directions things took. I felt, and I must admit it sounds harsh, that I was deceiving and not being reliable (but to whom?). I felt I was doing something wrong. In addition, and as a consequence, I also felt I was letting someone down, someone important, perhaps an imagined "anonymous reviewer" of my work. I had promised something that I failed to deliver, and I delivered something that was not asked for (and might have not received approval to begin with). It is not that I compromised one proposed perspective or another, but that I simply took an entirely different direction (or it took me...). Looked at narrowly, one large conceptual step or phase was missing between the initial proposal and the final dissertation; seen more broadly, what evolved was simply a different work altogether. [15]

As I write these lines now I ponder: Doesn't a "different work" amount to a "different researcher?" Isn't writing a becoming? (MINH-HA 1989; RICHARDSON 1997).3) Are we not in writing ourselves changing, transforming? (FLEMOS & GREEN 2002). Could we understand the dissertation as a journal, as a scholarly diary of sorts? If so, was I different? Did the Chaim of '97 differ from the Chaim of '01? Did Chaim of '01 adhere to the expectations, programs and promises of the former Chaim? [16]

Should have I done so? Did I go astray? [17]

But somewhere in my body it was clear: The further the better. The further the dissertation breaks free and drifts away, the further it journeys, the more generative and creative the processes that occur. The further the better.

I practice a pacifist form of a martial art called Aikido, a relational social practice. I have learned much about my work and myself through the Oriental concept of Tao, the Way, or the Japanese Do—as in JuDo, Karate-Do, and flower arrangement kaDo (ikebana). Interestingly, Do is translated as either "The Way of ..." or "The Art of ..." In my practice I conceive of the "Way" as referring to the systematic, arduous, and painstaking dimensions. It involves the whole of the living person and is not confined to the mental or intellectual life. At the same time, Do is also an "Art." In this sense it conveys the creative, that which is not planned, linear, and progressive. It has to do with generativity, innovativeness and spontaneity.

During the years of researching and writing the dissertation, I have humorously referred to myself as a Do-ctorate student. The dissertation was for me both a "Way" of practicing and at the same time an "Art" of exploring, each complementing the other. [18]

It was only later, in hindsight, that it dawned on me that the change and development of my interests and research was closely related to other work I was doing at the same time, other theoretical investigations that I pursued intensely. That change, or shift, I began to see, was a natural consequence of intellectual and scholarly growth, and it unfolded within social, organizational and research contexts (RICHARDSON 1997). But at the time of writing I could not validate or justify what was happening. I was more than bewildered with my intense interest in voices and bodies in the backpackers' narratives, and with the shape and size it assumed in my work. The shape and size, and the fact it had not even been mentioned in the proposal, suggested to me that it might be too idiosyncratic. Too much a reflection of "my own" interests, of "my own" agenda, I thought. [19]

2.2 Rethinking the proposal

Thinking about the proposal retrospectively and more theoretically, I have come to feel that the proposal had exhausted the theoretical fields it dealt with at the time it was written. I gradually came to conceive of it not in terms of a legal prospective document, but as a more personal and reflexive chapter in a continuous journal, the journal of my research journey. Rather than excluding it from the body of the work, and defining as contractual the tensions that arise from such exclusion, I wish to think of it more inclusively. The proposal thus might not propose what is ahead, but instead reflect on and convey the current position and state of the researcher in relation to theoretical, methodological and presentational matters. Instead of a binding prospective document, we would arrive at an "academic journal," serving as a significant point of reference for the researcher him/herself, as well as for other readers, such as committee members, allowing all an impression of the researcher's current "place." The proposal in this sense is an "introduction," a "first-step," an open reflexive chapter in a longer track, which it both referentially marks and performatively presents. It is not an obligating, binding program that negates the possibility of surprise, or the open-ended ways in which the research and the researcher could develop. A posing, rather than a proposing. [20]

Indeed, I regret not making more use of the proposal as means to probe inside myself and inquire where I am now, or where I am at currently in regards to the material I am working with. Such inquiry would generate a reflexive, hermeneutic document rather than a positivist one, a document that describes rather than prescribes. This is not to suggest that we omit discussion of theory and literature in the proposal altogether, but that these discussions should not be directed towards the future; instead, they should reflect on the present and the inner.4) [21]

This implicates the dissertation. I do not view it now as a product, an end product located at the end of a stressful manufacturing line, but as a reflection of its own becoming. A reflection of the numerous ("everyday") hesitations, challenges, fallbacks, breakthroughs, frustrations, illuminations, satisfactions, and insecurities that we encounter and which comprise the silent, or silenced, fabric of our work.

A Yiddish proverb comes to mind, "Men tracht un Got lacht." (Lit. "men plan and god laughs"). It points to the complicated tensions inherent in perceiving the flow of time and in the primordial human wish to plan what is "yet-to-be" ("avenir"), i.e. to grant it "intelligibility or interpretability" (DERRIDA 1990, p.993). God, so it seems here, does not laugh at humans for no reason, nor does he or she laugh over our troubles or misfortunes. He or she does have a laugh, though, at our attempts to tame time and to control it. Science, as a primarily modern and masculine endeavor of prediction, is embodyingly funny for him or her. [22]

3. Dissertation Writing

While so far I have reflected on the space inscribed between what is proposed and what later materializes, I now discuss some issues concerning writing itself. The first concerns my unfulfilled wish for shared writing, the second stylistic matters of presentation with which I grappled in the dissertation. [23]

3.1 Authorship issues: Why not write the dissertation with a little help from my friends?

Individualism and Enlightenment, and specifically scholarism, developed side by side during the same era not by coincidence. In "Crimes of Writing," STEWART (1991) points to the initial perception of authorship and the right of intellectual assets, such as ideas, as well as the socio-historical circumstances that bred such notions in the eighteenth century. Following FOUCAULT's discussion of Hobbes, STEWART refers to the "conventions of attribution" (p.9), and points out that

"[t]hese concepts set the stage for the seventeenth-century development of the classical liberal principles of intellectual property ... The idea that no one is so much the master of his goods as a man is the master of the products and of the labor of his mind would emerge in a complex figuration regarding the nature of work, materiality and ownership, and, eventually, the relation of these concepts to mental labor and originality ... the idea of personal ownership of words, or certainly personal ownership of the order of words, was not available" (pp.9-10; also RICHARDSON 1997, pp.12-22).5) [24]

Now, there is surely an inclination in academic circles towards single authorship (co-produced publications being exception to the rule), but there is no place in this writing scene where single authorship is so vehemently and orthodoxly observed as in the case of dissertations. Of any other legitimate co-produced kind of work (from a seminar paper to an encyclopedia), the dissertation can hardly be even imagined as co-authored or co-composed. Located at the heart of the academia writing a dissertation and graduating is a form of an institutionalized rite of passage or, better, rite of institution. This rite, which is historically embedded in the age of Enlightenment, constitutes an inherently modern and individualistic rite of passage; it constitutes a modern scholar in a modern institution. [25]

My encounter with the implicit restrictions surrounding single authorship was powerful, since I had both a need and desire to share my ideas and to discuss them with fellow young researchers who have researched Israeli backpackers and written thesis and dissertations (or were researching/writing) on the subject in the last few years.6) That is, I did not want only to discuss these matters and then confine myself to my own solitary, or simply mention my colleagues in the references dubbing them as "personal communication." Instead, I thought these discussions had the potential to inject original ideas, ideas at least as worthy as my own "intellectual products." (STEWART 1991) [26]

Where does it say, I thought, and where is there proof that collecting data, analyzing and interpreting it, and presenting knowledge in a solitary manner is preferable somehow to doing so in collaboration? If I was anyhow daydreaming of having conversations with my colleagues, I wondered why not really (literally) discuss it with them and include these conversations it as an integral part of my piece. [27]

ELLIS and BOCHNER (1996, 2002) suggest, and demonstrate, a dialogic genre in which social knowledge is both created and presented at the same time. Relational social constructivism suggests that this is how knowledge is in fact created (GERGEN 1994, 1999). So why was there no room for this in the dissertation? Furthermore, the work of HANDELMAN (1993, 1994) and RICHARDSON (1997) suggest that it is the institutional structure of our individualistic "careers," and not something else, something "natural" or "essential," that leads us to neglect the voices of those colleagues who we engage. From our work are "absent" (HANDELMAN 1993) the voices of fellow scholars, colleague-friends, and close members of our community—the very community which shares with us—echoing, citing, resonating, amplifying—ideas. [28]

Originally my idea was to send the chapters I wrote to my colleagues and ask for comments and elaboration on my ideas to whatever extent they found suitable. Since those chapters included discussion of their work I wished for a conversation, a mini symposium to take place within the boundaries of my dissertation. A conversation that, undoubtedly, would illuminate the common subject of our research in a valuable way. This way, I thought (and I still do), readers of the work would be exposed to more than one perspective or voice (mine), and would be able to read in the same compendium comments and reflections, even critiques, on both my ideas and the contributors' own previous work. Such a move promised to enrich the piece, to make it polyphonic, even. [29]

But the more excited I grew, the stronger were my hesitations. My early enthusiasm led me to believe that this debate would take place inside the work itself, forming an integral part of it. Gradually, as I came to see that a collaborative doctoral dissertation would by no means be accepted, I considered moving—downgrading—the discussions and conversations to the appendix, that area that lies somewhere at the fringes of personal authorship (where questionnaires are attached, whole transcriptions found, and so on). [30]

However, I must admit that these ideas were not put to the test, and for a few reasons. First, the message I received from my immediate academic surroundings, though subtle, did not convey the usual enthusiasm I enjoyed. By no means was there any outright opposition to the ideas, but rather, they were viewed as a curiosity, an anecdote, a questionable addition that might or might not do any good. One of my mentors actually said, "that's a nice idea, Chaim, but now get on with your work." My enthusiasm over the new venues of knowledge was not shared, and since I constantly felt I was late anyhow in the dissertation schedule, and was anyhow ridden and anxious with my wrongdoing in regards to the proposal (as I mentioned above), it didn't take much to tame my creative enthusiasm. Secondly, I must admit there was also an apprehension on my part, stemming from the fact that I was going to introduce my ideas, in their entirety, still unbounded and "unsigned," to colleagues working in the exact same field. I wasn't too sure about that—would they reciprocate? Would they show openness to my initiative? Would they not call these ideas their own? I was ashamed by some of my thoughts, which reiterated some of the aforementioned ideas of "intellectual ownership" rather then resisted them. And shame, to be sure, did not revitalize my enthusiasm and creativity. [31]

So finally I relapsed and confined myself again to a more traditional format and compromised for a detailed dialogical review of my colleagues' work (see Note 6), which took the shape of a sub-chapter. Indeed, I was its sole author, yet the writing style was not the custom theory-oriented literature review, but more a close and detailed—and "personal" or dialogical—discussion with their voices and works. I felt it gave my fellow researchers more light and space than they would have received if I were to review their work conventionally. [32]

3.2 Forms of presenting writing: Norms of transcribing and editing

The move from the proposal to the dissertation was also a move from the pragmatic or instrumental to the expressive and artful. While the former was a document indicating what the researcher should attain, the latter was the materialized conclusion of the work. However, when writing it, it was clear that the work could not be conveyed in the genre suggested by the proposal. So it was more of a bottom-up kind of process where I tried to fit the right lid on the pot the interviewees—the backpackers—and I had crafted, rather than making a conscious decision that I should write in a different way (engaging, as DENZIN [1999] put it, in a "guerilla warfare against the repressive structures of everyday lives" [p.572]). I thought that if writing is a "mode of thought" (BECKER 1986; RICHARDSON 1997), then I should search for the most appropriate mode of thought for my work. [33]

Trying to give voice to personal experience is quite impossible when it comes to positivist language, which addresses a presumed "universal, passive, unengendered reader" (FRANK 1995; RICHARDSON 1997; SPARKS 2002, p.218). In this case—where I found myself researching bodily experiences that were narrated by women backpackers, I faced the need to compose a new terminology where traditional or conventional terms either did not exist or carried irrelevant associations. I was exploring a language of research and representation, and this creating of language, which was at the onset only instrumental, gradually became a goal in and of itself. Struggling with how to write the experiences of a "lived body in motion," I could not resort to using a traditional type of supposedly neutral writing. The need to give a vivid and tangible feel to the bodily experiences backpackers were narrating was a scholarly responsibility, and an intellectual endeavor and challenge. I have grappled with it on two separate levels: The visual representation of the different voices presented in the work, mainly through forms of transcription, and structural or editorial decisions, pertaining to the adequate presentation of the experience of bodies immersed in adventurous narratives. [34]

The first issue dealt, then, with finding the appropriate visual format for the transcriptions. This was a relatively easy task, as I had whom to learn from: ethnographers and linguists of conversation and storytelling have long grappled with this question, and have fruitfully pointed to ways in which transcribed text can be graphically represented in an evocative and poetic form. The presentational convention according to which the informants'/interviewees' words are represented in a block marked and separated from the text by double space was problematized. TEDLOCK (1983), to mention but one voice, has suggested that the visual formatting of the text represents in fact its interpretation. There is no "neutral" formatting, and the boxed and justified representation of the oral excerpts carries an array of implications, among which are moral ones. The presentation of transcription had to do not only with the interpretation of the transcribed vignette, but also with conceptualizing its genre; is it poetry, prose, etc. (TEDLOCK 1983). The different genres are presented in different graphic and spatial forms. [35]

Quite paradoxically, it was only in the "methodological chapter," in which usually the limits are set rather than challenged, that I allowed myself to experiment with such representations. These presentations suggested reading/listening to some parts of the backpackers' stories as rhythmed narration, as poetry. This was of particular interest, and nearly vital, when it came to embodied narratives of movement. The texts describing the body in motion had to move their readers in a way that conveys the trance like feelings the women backpackers were narrating. The rhythm of the oral narration was transformed into a poetic written transcription, mimetically conveying the embodied and enspaced experience, reflecting and evoking the ways in which body and space were experienced and performed. When the backpackers narrated the strenuous experience of climbing the high mountain, their words were delivered in a way conveying their heavy breathing; when they narrated the hurried "falling down" of their bodies from the peaks and passes of the mountains they trekked, so were their texts presented in hurried words, stumbling down the page, leaping lines and wordily distances. [36]

In other cases it was my own words that needed different, less traditional, graphic representation. So was the case when I recalled my own memories as a backpacker, a decade earlier, in the form of personal vignettes. In that case I wrote memories from and reflections on the travel, depicting my experiences in a more poetic and style-conscious manner. [37]

The second aspect I grappled with concerned not the more visible graphics of transcription and printed word, but the structure of the work and the editorial decisions having to do with the divisions and contents of chapters. Again, I found myself at odds with some basic tenets of scientific-positivist scholarly writing. I found the structuring of the relationship between chapters and subchapters quite difficult: While scientific writing forms are linear, and entail hierarchical distinctions and categories, I felt that my work was not a really linear or ordered development of concepts and could not be represented well in orderly forms of writing. [38]

Some subchapters had the quality of what William LABOV designated as "floating phrases" (1972), i.e. they could fit just about anywhere as they were "non-narrative." Other parts could hardly fit under any title and would require new labeling and new chapters. While some of the writing could have resorted to more traditional forms, the "lived experience" component of the work, the embodied quality of the narratives, and the way in which I read the texts simply had to be expressed through a different kind of less rigid, ordered, and hierarchical writing (HANDELMAN 1993). The work I wrote seemed, and I regret to say that it in fact was marginally organized. It was quite "messy" (DENZIN 1997); only "near" the spot (LAU 2002, following IRIGARAY 1977).7) It hardly had any overarching conceptual hypothesis that was studied systematically throughout the dissertation, and if there was a governing point to the dissertation, it was not explicitly spelled out within it. I was not able or not successful in crystallizing a clear "vertical structure" of knowledge, and, needless to say, in laying it out linearly and progressively. [39]

My (last) hope was that while engaging the work, readers would transform from commentators or critics, reading an account of the development of a hypothesis, into readers who moved along "with" the work (FRANK 1995, p.23). This would mean following how I was trying to create meaning and meaningfulness, however idiosyncratic and fragile the path. Through that process I produced a kind of writing different than any I had previously known, and a kind of writing different than any I had written before. I wished that my readers, and especially the anonymous judges, would be able to bear its "messiness," not to mention to enjoy it and benefit from it.

When he hands me back a few chapters he read I hear my advisor quietly muttering:

"Good work, good work,


Who should be its judges ..." [40]

Dialogical thinkers:

Mainstream academic writing makes it tough for dialogically or relationally oriented thinkers. As mentioned above, academia is a modernist post where individuality is vehemently pursued and repeatedly constituted. Myself, not only do I share ideas with colleagues, or borrow them, "steel" them etc., but when reading others' works, I strongly feel that the conversation created between us is the primary mode of knowledge creation. Works have their way of "touching" and "moving" me into emotions and actions with an intensity that surprises me time and again (most recently JONES 2002). And so the "literature review" sections in my publications are usually in the form of a dialogue (open ended), rather than a monologue (conclusive). I am constantly commented in this regard. I am asked by reviewers to address unmediated "knowledge" directly, rather than from within the relationship or connection I "feel" towards it voicers. But I love conversing with fellow thinkers through their writing. The fact is that when I receive a new publication (usually after having read thoroughly the copy in the library), I look through the pages quickly and think I have a wonderful new space/place in and on which to write, i.e. to comment and converse (JACKSON 2001). [41]

4. Mirroring Reflections: Backpacking in Academia

As the research journey progressed the similarities between the backpackers' narratives and my own doctorate research crystallized. In both cases, a mixture of romantic and modern images and archetypes of travel and self-transformation were at the core, allowing the construction of the explorer's or the scientist's progress (GREEN 1993). Both endeavors, backpacking as hiking-and-narrating, and the dissertation as research-and-writing, seemed to be discursively constructed and structured as a rite of passage. [42]

This is evident in my colleagues' experiences as well. Doctoral students typically mention the "journey" they have gone through, the "way" they have traveled and progressed from the beginning of their work to their current state. The metaphor of the journey, at times Romantic (a propos nature) and at times modern (a propos science), means that the experience of becoming a scholar is that of the individual arriving at new destinations or colonies of knowledge, previously unknown. This is one of the foundational metaphors of modern science, i.e. its progression unto "terra incognita" (BOORSTIN 1983, cited in JOSSELSON & LIEBLICH, 2002; GREEN 1993).8) Of course, the institutional metaphor is embodied in the scholar personally, in his or her vectored career: through and throughout their careers scholars are expected to perform a rites-of-passage and to reiterate it. [43]

The similarities between my endeavor and the backpackers', that is, between the discursive construction of both the dissertation exploration voyage and the backpacking journey, stood out most clearly in the realm of narrative. They are both stories of a rite-of-passage by which the individual enters in and accesses a cultural capital. More importantly, both socially constructed stories of rites-of-passage are ritualistic in that the meaning they carry is mostly symbolic. Regarding the backpackers, I soon realized that it could be said that they travel for the stories. They travel after they have heard numerous stories, which pre-shape the itinerary of the travel and the experiences it bestows. And they progress and "mature" during the trip—they all declare they do—in correlation with the achievements that such (predominantly romantic) journey and adventure narratives entail (ELSRUD 2001; GREEN 1993; NOY 2002a, 2003, forthcoming). Both the personal stories and the larger social and institutional narratives are those of a rite of passage, i.e. of a meaningful self-transformation. And this sought after personal change is achieved through owning a story, which the particular events of one's actual journey validate. Veteran backpackers own stories, and are entitled to tell them (SHUMAN 1986). They gain the right for audience. [44]

The parallels with the doctoral dissertation, as a symbolic (w)rite of passage, are telling. Consider this: How many people read dissertations? Or, why do disciplinary conferences within the larger social sciences regularly devote sessions to "How to make a book of your dissertation?" Part of the initiation of the "young scholar" is to go through an institutionally constructed "basic training" in order to test her/his worth and to grant her/his formal and social seals allowing entrance into the academic arena. For by no means is there an "inherent" need to pursue research in the monograph fashion of the dissertation. [45]

In any case "young scholars" are expected to publish papers and books based on their work, and these publications are the ones that carry weight when career decisions are made. Similar to travelers, young scholars are expected to "travel," and, at least as important, to compose and write a narrative of their successful (predominantly modern) journey. Although backpackers mostly tell stories, and scholars mostly write them, the narrative dimension of their journeys is constitutive. In his discussion of the "adventurous white male mind' GREEN (1993) writes that, "modernity starts with the adventure tale" (p.148), which, in our case, refers to the journey narrative. Central to modernity is the scientific endeavor wherein emphasis is put on experimentation. Citing MERCHANT, GREEN writes, "experiment expresses the spirit of action, of a 'doing' devoted to 'finding out'" (my emphases, p.144). [46]

A final note concerning modern versus post-modern morality is required here. The structure of a self-transforming journey, of a rite and right of passage, is pregnant with value; it is a form of cultural/narrative capital, and it endows the successful practitioner with certain esteemed merits. In the modern version, carrying the dissertation about "successfully," i.e. completing it within the designated time frame, and within the theoretical and methodological frames proposed at the outset of this modern quest, denotes a complete narrative of a rite of passage. The ensuing and sought after moral revolve around the virtues of commitment, dedication, obligation and fortitude. In contrary, post-modern and post-structural dissertation endeavors, where the research's structure is negotiable, and is at least as much a process as it is a form, and where reflexivity is central, a different morale is bestowed. Here, improvisation, intuition, candidness, and personal as well as social and cultural sensitivities, are sought after and valued. The different narratives of rites-of-passage educate the young scholar along different avenues and endow him or her with a different moral code: One more conservative and one more liberal, one more "serious" (GUREVITCH 2000), and the other more playful, one more abstract, the other more embodied. Neutrality is exchanged for involvement, passivity for agency. [47]

As with backpackers, I also acquired the right to a story through "going out there" and "going through the motions," i.e. through the empirical-experimental paradigm. As with backpackers, I too could have not confined myself to my room when researching. There would have to be a "field," which would be constructed, and then "journeys," which are movements to and from; as with backpackers there is a single, clear model of a successful story, which has to do with coherence, unity, linearity and progressiveness. Stories that are "messy" are considered both troubled and troubling, and more than representing an alternative, they represent a disappointment. And lastly, since these are stories of passage and initiation, i.e. of belonging, messiness and disappointment are faults that lead to non-admission or non-entrance.

As I finish writing the first chapter, a large essay on voices and quotations in narrative,
and hand it to Amia and Yorm to read, I burst into tears.

I know now that the dissertation will be; that it is.

I am overwhelmed.

I am crying. My mother. I am feeling my mother. From whom I inherited my writing; my writing disability.

And then back into the everyday frustration of writing the next chapter, and the rewriting of the next chapter, and the next ...

Twice a day she was spared. Momentarily. Before falling asleep and at dawn ideas flowed through her, complete, ideal, worded perfectly. She said to me, "These ideas, I had them... I held them..." But with any move she made, any move to seize them or record them, they would dissolve. This was the curse. I know it well (I'm writing it). She took comfort in my father's fluent writing and in my own. She hoped I could help her write. The irony.

I'm thinking, writing and/in/as living. Connect all the lines of the letters you wrote, the ballpoint-pen ink, fountain-pen ink, and printer ink to a long (seismographic) line of life. When it ceases—so do you. Writing like biting on something sharper than your teeth. Like scratching your skin too deep. Chasing phantoms. I, even I, could not comfort her/myself. And I cannot hope for or help her anymore. I myself am not "hoped."9) Writing like blowing air gently, writing like rekindling.

How many times have I decided that I will not write any more? How many times have I written these doubts and hesitations, such as now? [48]

In the beginning of the essay I suggested a different view of narrative—and of lingual communication in general—than the conventional one. Narratives of lives and of lived experiences—such as backpackers' Romantic stories and young scholars' modern dissertations—entail enactment and not only present a discernable "reality" (GERGEN 1994; SHOTTER 1993; WORTHAM 2001). I have tried to show here, using an autoethnography, how personal narrative enacts, performs and evokes, rather than conveys. I suggest that in addition to "unity" and "direction" we should regard as central experience and relationships in forming meaning in narrative. [49]

5. Epilogue

My aunt asked me Where did I travel to for such a long time. I told her To Japan.
My aunt asked me That Japan you traveled to what is it and how is it and what did you find there. And I didn't know the answers.

YA'AKOV RAZ, Tokyo and Back (2000)

The above dialogue is taken from the epilogue of a poetic journal of a journey. In one section, RAZ describes the way an old Japanese stone-gardener talks about the rocks and stones he "grows" and nurtures in his garden, with more affection and warmth than most people talk about their siblings. The journey, on which RAZ embarked, across the southern parts of Japan, followed the footsteps of another journey and another journeyer—the famous Haiku writer BASHO—precisely three centuries earlier (1689-90). [50]

Following RAZ's awe and bewilderment at his extended journey, I, too, am puzzled: What was it I wrote in the dissertation? What was it I wrote about? Swarthmore (where my post-doc is presently taking place), Jerusalem, the hissing screen, and my mothers' departure—are now one. [51]

To publish or perish? If you think of it enough, if you quote it from one context to another, the saying sounds eerie. Some people published and perished. Others perished because they published. [52]

I am here because I know I have to publish, i.e., write. (I don't want to perish.) I am not sure what it is exactly that I am writing about, nor whether this is even the central question at stake, nor whether I understand the relationship between ethnography, research, narrative, myself (researcher) and writing. I just know that here, in this occupation, I have to write. Not a privilege but a necessity. Dead-lines for life-lines. [53]

A write of passage. [54]


I deeply thank Kenneth GERGEN and Matt KUTOLOWSKI for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. I would like to thank the Rothschild Foundation (Yad-Hanadiv) for a wonderful postdoctoral research year at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College, during which this paper was written. Parts of this paper were presented at the QUIG Conference on Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies, The University of Georgia, Athens, January 4th 2002; and at the 2nd Annual Interdisciplinary Qualitative Approaches to Research Colloquium, Texas A&M University, College Station, February 28th 2002.



Avrahami, Elyahu (2001). The Israeli Back-packers: A Study in the Context of Tourism and Post-Modern Conditions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, CUNY, New York.

Becker, Howard S. (1986). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bloch-Tzemach, Dalit (1998). Tourist, Dwelling Tourist and all the Rest. Unpublished master's thesis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

Bochner, Arthur P. & Ellis, Carolyn (Eds.) (2002). Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Dent, Beverly (2002). Border crossings: A story of sexual identity transformation. In Arthur P. Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics (pp.191-200). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Denzin, Norman K. (1997). Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications.

Denzin, Norman K. (1999). Two-stepping in the 90's. Qualitative Inquiry, 5, 568-572.

Denzin, Norman K. & Lincoln, Yvonna S. (1994). Preface. In Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp.ix-xii). London: Sage Publications.

Derrida, Jacques (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1990). Force of Law: The Mystical Foundations of Authority (M. Quaintance, Trans.). Cardozo Law Review, 11, 921-1045.

Eco, Umberto (1989). The Open Work (A. Cancogni, trans.). Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1962)

Ellis, Carolyn (1993). "There are survivors": Telling a story of a sudden death. The Sociological Quarterly, 34, 711-730.

Ellis, Carolyn (1997). Evocative autoethnography: Writing emotionally about our lives. In William G. Tierney & Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), Representation and the Text: Re-Framing the Narrative Voice (pp.115-142). Albany: SUNY Press.

Ellis, Carolyn (1999). Heartful autoethnography. Qualitative Health Research, 9, 669-83.

Ellis, Carolyn & Bochner, Arthur P. (Eds.) (1996). Composing Ethnography: Alternative Ways of Qualitative Writing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Elsrud, Torun (2001). Risk creation in traveling: Backpacker adventure narration. Annals of Tourism Research, 28, 597-617.

Flemos, Douglas & Green, Shelley (2002). Stories that conform/stories that transform: A conversation in four parts. In Arthur P. Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics (pp.87-94, 115-122, 165-169, 187-190). Walnut Creek, CA.: AltaMira Press.

Frank, Arthur W. (1991). At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Frank, Arthur W. (1995). The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garrett, Dean (2002). My Qualitative Dissertation Journey: Researching the Rules. New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1994). Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1999). An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage Publication.

Green, Martin B. (1993). The Adventurous Male: Chapters in the History of the White Male Mind. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gurevitch, Zali (2000). The Serious Play of Writing. Qualitative Inquiry, 6, 3-8.

Handelman, Don (1993). The absence of others, the presence of texts. In Smadar Lavie, Kirin Narayan, & Renato Rosaldo, (Eds.), Creativity/Anthropology (pp.133-152). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Handelman, Don (1994). Critiques of Anthropology, Literary Turns, Slippery Bends. Poetics Today, 15, 341-381.

Harshav, Barbara & Harshav, Benjamin (Eds.) (1994). Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry (1948-1994). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Irigaray, Luce (1997). This Sex Which Is Not One. In Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, & Sarah Stanbury (Eds.), Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory (pp.248-256). New York: Columbia University Press.

Jackson, Heather J. (2001). Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jones, Stacy H. (1998). Kaleidoscope Notes: Writing women's Music and Organizational Culture. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Jones, Stacy H. (2002). The Way We Were, are, and Might Be: Torch singing as Autoethnography. In Art P. Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics (pp. 44-56). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Josselson, Ruthellen & Lieblich, Amia (2002). A Framework for Narrative Research Proposals in Psychology. In Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, & Dan P. McAdams (Eds.), Up Close and Personal: The Teaching and Learning of Narrative Research (pp.259-274). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Labov, Bill W. (1972). Language in the Inner City: Study in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lau, Kimberly, J. (2002). What a World of Technology Makes Possible: Toward a Performance Ethnography. Available at: [August, 2002; changed permission, FQS, September 2003].

Maoz, Daria (1999). Libi bamizrach (My Heart is in the East): The Journey of Israeli Young Adults to India. Unpublished master's thesis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

McAdams, Dan P. (1993). The Stories We Live: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. N.Y.: William Morrow.

McAdams, Dan P. (1997). The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. N.Y.: Guilford Press.

McAdams, Dan P. & Bowman Phillip J. (2001). Narrating life's turning points: Redemption and contamination. In Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, & Amia Lieblich (Eds.), Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition (pp.3-34). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Meloy, Judith M. (2002). Writing the Qualitative Dissertation: Understanding by Doing (2nd edition). MahWah, N.J.: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers.

Mevorach, Oded (1997). The Long Trip after the Military Service: Characteristics of the Travelers, the Effects of the Trip and its Meaning. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

Minh-ha, Trinh T. (1989). Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcolonialy and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Noy, Chaim (2002a). "You MUST go Trek there—The persuasive genre of narration among Israeli tarmila'im (backpackers)." Narrative Inquiry, 12, 261-290.

Noy, Chaim (2002b). The Great Journey: Narrative Analysis of Israeli Trekking Stories. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

Noy, Chaim (2003). Narratives of hegemonic masculinity: Representations of body and space in Israeli backpackers' trekking narratives. Israeli Sociology, 5, 111-142. (Hebrew).

Noy, Chaim (forthcoming). This trip really changed me: Israeli backpackers' narratives of self-change. Annals of Tourism Research.

Pirsig, Robert, M. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Raz, Yakov (2000). Tokyo and Back. Tel-Aviv: Modan Publishing House. (Hebrew).

Richardson, Laurel (1997). Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life. NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Ronai, Carol R. (1999). Sketching with Derrida: An ethnography of a researcher/erotic dancer. Qualitative Inquiry, 4, 405-431.

Salmon, Ruthi (1998). "A distant place, a worryless place": Motivations for participation in the backpacking trip, and gender influence. Unpublished Masters' thesis. Ramat-Gan, Bar-Ilan University.

Shotter, John (1993). Becoming someone: Identity and belonging. In Nikolas Coupland & Jon F. Nussbaum (Eds.), Discourse and Lifespan Identity (pp.5-27). London: Sage Publication.

Shuman, Amy (1986). Storytelling Rights: The Uses of Oral and Written Texts by Urban Adolescents. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Simchai, Dalit (1998). "Untrodden, Not Always Marked, This Trail Starts Here…": Israeli Backpackers in the Far East. Unpublished master's thesis, Haifa, Haifa University. (Hebrew).

Sparks, Andrew C. (2002). Autoethnography: Self indulgence or something more? In Arthur P. Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics (pp.209-232). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Stewart, Susan (1991). Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Susan (1993). On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tedlock, Dennis (1983). The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Topol, Ellen R. (2001, June). Aesthetics and ethics of narrative inquiry: Exploring women's doctoral experience. Paper presented in the 13th Annual Conferences on Ethnography and Qualitative Research in Education, Albany, SUNY.

Tyler, Stephen A. (1986). A Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document. In James Clifford & George, E. Marcus (Eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (pp.98-122). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wortham, Stanton (2001). Narratives in Action. New York: Teachers College Press.

"The thesis is done. But the writing, the story, may be far from over."

An imagined conversation, in Stacy Jones, Kaleidoscope Notes


Chaim NOY

I graduated from the Department of Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel (2002), and was on a Rothschild Postdoctoral Fellowship in the United States (the Department of Psychology, Swarthmore College, and at the Center for Folklore and Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania). I am currently a M. Ginsberg Postdoctoral Fellow, at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. My interests include qualitative and narrative modes of inquiry, combined with research of everyday experience, identity, tourism, and theories of social embodiment, particularly in the context of Israeli society.


Chaim Noy

1/a Shalom Yehuda St.
Jerusalem, 93395

Phone: 972-2-6732188



Noy, Chaim (2003). The Write of Passage: Reflections on Writing a Dissertation in Narrative Methodology [54 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 4(2), Art. 39,

Volume 10, No. 1, Art. 30 – January 2009

Beyond the Story Itself: Narrative Inquiry and Autoethnography in Intercultural Research in Higher Education

Sheila Trahar

Abstract: STENHOUSE's (1981) differentiation between research on education and research in education contributed much to the development of practitioner research in educational settings, yet exemplars of university teachers researching their own practice are rare. Even rarer, in spite of pleas from "international students" for reciprocal dialogue with local academics and students to recognise the value of many different realities and knowledges (KOEHNE, 2006), are practitioners who reflect critically on the personal and professional impact of cultural diversity in higher education (BRUNNER, 2006).

In this article, I critique how a narrative inquiry paradigm supported and challenged me to explore different realities and knowledges about learning and teaching in a UK higher education context in my doctoral research with postgraduate students from many different cultures. Practitioner research is, inevitably, an iterative process—research and practice are inextricably linked and continuously evolving. Thus, through the autoethnographic exploration of my own practice, my "subject positions, social locations, interpretations, and personal experiences" continue to be examined "through the refracted medium of narrators' voices" (CHASE, 2005, p.666), glimpses of which will be seen as the article unfolds.

Key words: narrative inquiry; autoethnography; intercultural learning and teaching; higher education

Table of Contents

1. What Is Narrative Inquiry?

2. Narrative Inquiry and Intercultural Research

3. A Practitioner Researcher

4. Gathering Narratives

5. Analysing Narratives

6.Researching Intercultural Communication—Messy Research?


8. Critiquing Narrative Inquiry

9. The Story of the Rotten Shrimp

10. Intercultural Communication and Critical Pedagogy

11. Ethical Complexities

12. Glass Palaces and Glass Cages?





1. What Is Narrative Inquiry?

Narrative inquiry is based firmly in the premise that, as human beings, we come to understand and give meaning to our lives through story (ANDREWS, SQUIRE & TAMBOKOU, 2008). Grounded in interpretive hermeneutics and phenomenology, it is a form of qualitative research that involves the gathering of narratives—written, oral, visual—focusing on the meanings that people ascribe to their experiences, seeking to provide "insight that (befits) the complexity of human lives" (JOSSELSON, 2006, p.4). But, narrative inquiry is more than the uncritical gathering of stories. Narrative inquirers strive to attend to the ways in which a story is constructed, for whom and why, as well as the cultural discourses that it draws upon:

"The term narrative carries many meanings and is used in a variety of ways by different disciplines, often synonymously with story (...) the narrative scholar (pays) analytic attention to how the facts got assembled that way. For whom was this story constructed, how was it made and for what purpose? What cultural discourses does it draw on—take for granted? What does it accomplish?" (RIESSMAN & SPEEDY, 2007, pp.428-429) [1]

In the gathering and telling of "stories", we are gathering "knowledge from the past and not necessarily knowledge about the past" (BOCHNER, 2007, p.203, original emphases), thus:

"Making stories from one's lived history is a process by which ordinarily we revise the past retroactively, and when we do we are engaged in processes of languaging and describing that modify the past. What we see as true today may not have been true at the time the actions we are describing were performed. Thus we need to resist the temptation to attribute intentions and meanings to events that they did not have at the time they were experienced" (ibid, p.203). [2]

Yet, it is often only retrospectively that we come to understand and give meaning to events (POLKINGHORNE, 1995); memory is always selective and plays tricks on us. It lurks in the shadows waiting to catch us out—"(It) is far from uniquely (auto)biographical (...) (it) is grounded in what is tellable" (ATKINSON & COFFEY, 2003, p.118). [3]

As a very young child I was always writing stories. I cannot recall the content of those stories but I remember that Mrs. Jackson, my teacher, used to take them home to show to her husband. The meaning that became part of my family narrative was that I was always writing stories, very creative stories. But is that the meaning that I am applying retrospectively? How can I know? Thus, in The Story of the Rotten Shrimp, told later in this article, Cheng-tsung may not have experienced the events that he describes as racist but it is in the retelling of them to an audience—me—and my subsequent analysis that this meaning was attributed. [4]

2. Narrative Inquiry and Intercultural Research

Narrative inquiry then has evolved from the growing participatory research movement that foregrounds a greater sensitivity to social and cultural differences. "Narrative inquiry embraces narrative as both the method and the phenomena of study" (PINNEGAR & DANES, 2007, p.4, my emphases) and "characteristically begins with the researcher's autobiographically oriented narrative associated with the research puzzle" (CLANDININ & CONNELLY, 2000, p.40, original emphasis). In my research I acknowledged the importance of accessing and understanding participants' different social constructions of reality (BERGER & LUCKMANN, 1967), examining issues in depth through exploratory, open-ended conversations, prioritising holistic understanding situated in lived experience. The study also drew upon related methodological and theoretical perspectives derived from the field of international and comparative research, combined with recent advances in critical theory. Most notably, these included this specialist field's central engagement with context sensitivity and its long-standing challenge to research or policy initiatives that, knowingly or unknowingly, promote the uncritical transfer of policy or practice across cultures (CROSSLEY & WATSON, 2003). I thus began by problematising discourses and policy interventions that prioritised Western models of learning and teaching in multicultural settings. [5]

The research design came to draw increasingly upon research perspectives and strategies developed and applied by writers such as CLANDININ and CONNELLY (2000). Methodological strategies developed by such scholars prioritise autobiographical experiences and conversations "between theory and the stories of life contained in the inquiry" (ibid, p.41). True to many of the principles of a broader qualitative paradigm, however, this eventual methodological positioning was not fully conceptualised before the study began. Rather, it emerged and evolved during the research process itself. Sustaining this methodological agnosticism enabled me to remain open to, and to explore, a myriad of possibilities for conducting intercultural research. Holding on to this "not knowing" was uncomfortable but maintaining the position of the agnostic enabled me to recognise eventually the suitability of narrative inquiry and autoethnography for this evolving study. [6]

3. A Practitioner Researcher

As a practitioner researcher with a steadfast belief in reciprocal dialogue between academics and students (KOEHNE, 2006), I did not enter the field to gather research data. I am in the field, "a member of the landscape" (CLANDININ & CONNELLY, 2000, p.63), in relationships with students, my main research participants. I turned to narrative as a mode of inquiry because I was "persuaded that social science texts needed to construct a different relationship between researchers and subjects and between authors and readers" (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000, p.744-745). Reading of how "the narrative text refuses the impulse to abstract and explain, stressing the journey over the destination, and thus eclipses the scientific illusion ofcontrol and mastery" (ibid), I was hooked. Narrative inquiry and its allegiance to social constructionism that holds that "our constructions are the product of social forces, either structural or interactional" (BURR, 2003, p.20) fitted with my critical questioning of the epistemological foundations of many of the methodological paradigms prevalent even in qualitative research and reflected ways in which "constructions" emerged through "social forces" of relationships between the participants, between the participants and me and between you, the reader, and me. [7]

From the very beginning of the study I wanted to provide "insightful accounts of processes which go beyond the particular story" (PRING, 1999, p.6). It would, therefore, have been disingenuous and inconsistent with the methodological paradigms that I espoused eventually to "plan my tactics in advance", rather than "let them unravel as life does" (GABRIEL, 2003, p.181) by separating out the research process into the discrete elements of more conventional studies. I believed that I needed to work within a methodological approach that was sensitive to the different worldviews that I was encountering in my interactions with students. At the same time, I acknowledged the paradox of seeking to develop a conceptual framework that was grounded in those different worldviews. Working within a postmodern paradigm where regimes of truth are questioned, may of course be disrespectful to the very people to whom I was seeking to be respectful and whose conceptualisations of truth may remain firmly modernist (ROBINSON-PANT, 2005). But I did not write as a "disembodied omniscient narrator claiming universal and atemporal general knowledge" (RICHARDSON & ST. PIERRE, 2005, p.961). I presented the narratives as I perceived them, recognising the situational limitations, articulating the ethical complexities. "Postmodernism ... distrusts all methods equally. No method has a privileged status" (ibid). More paradoxes: By positioning myself as a narrative inquirer and writing autoethnographically, I have privileged those perspectives and they, too, have their limitations. For example, the recognition that "I, too, lead a storied life and the research relationship is part of my experiential text" (WINKLER, 2003, p.399) may be seen as a limitation as the telling and retelling of this experiential text may detract, at times, from the storied lives of others. [8]

Narrative inquiry became the most appropriate methodological approach, because I was investigating meanings of experiences but, at the same time, the research process itself was a series of experiences, a journey. "When you are preparing for a journey, you own the journey. Once you've started the journey, the journey owns you" (SHOPE, 2006, p.165). The journey did begin to own me, entirely consistent with the concept of "the narrative text ... stressing the journey over the destination" (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000, pp.744-745). [9]

Finally, constructing a "dialogical experience" (McINTYRE, 1997, p.41), allowed those critical comments to be made about dimensions of working with cultural diversity in higher education that are often uncomfortable and contentious and can, therefore, remain unsaid. Such silence makes it difficult to initiate reasoned debate (BACK, 2004) losing opportunities for increased understanding. I grasped those opportunities—the interrogation of my own "whiteness" and my own "culture" as a British woman, became intrinsic to the study, contributing much to the subsequent changes that I made to my pedagogical practice. [10]

4. Gathering Narratives

Narrative inquiry does not privilege one method of gathering data. Because the research is life as it is lived on the landscape (PHILLION, 2002) then inevitably other events, actions, happenings are also a part of the research and are woven into the stories that are retold. I invited students to have conversations with me that were tape-recorded, transcribed and "analysed", but "interviews" can be considered of less importance than the noting of events, feelings, hunches, conversations in the corridor (CLANDININ & CONNELLY, 2000; CLOUGH, 2002). Thus in the brief, storied extract of a narrative interview with Cheng-tsung you can "read" how everyday events and experiences were recalled and stories told about them by each one of us. In narrative inquiry, the relationships between researcher and participants remain open and "agnostic". I could not "know" the stories that would be meaningful for research participants and so rather than ask a series of questions, I invited participants to tell stories that were meaningful for them and I shared the resonances that those stories had for me. Although the overall aim of the doctoral research was to explore experiences of learning and teaching in the culture of our department, had I only focused on those dimensions, I maintain that I would not have been able to hear the unanticipated narratives (CORTAZZI & JIN, 2006) that led to profound and different understandings and meanings. Thus I came to "know "something" without claiming to know everything" (RICHARDSON & ST. PIERRE, 2005, p.961), a crucial dimension of researching across cultures, particularly as I was seeking to be sensitive to cultural diversity and to the ethical issues inherent in conducting research with students. Sustaining this position of the respectful and curious inquirer brought forth rich stories that changed through our interactions (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000). Exploring our diverse experiences of learning and teaching through individual and collective narratives allowed me to begin to understand the cultural embeddedness of learning and teaching knowledges and how these knowledges are "narratively composed, embodied in people and expressed in practice" (CLANDININ & CONNELLY, 2000, p.124). [11]

5. Analysing Narratives

Not only are narratives gathered by using a variety of methods, they may also be re-presented in various ways, such as analysis of narratives, narrative analysis (POLKINGHORNE, 1995), structural narrative analysis (LABOV, 1982), dialogic/performance analysis (RIESSMAN, 2008) and fictionalised representation (CLOUGH, 2002). Consequently, there is even more onus on the researcher to articulate transparently how s/he gathered and analysed the data. The narrative interview, a major way of gathering verbal narratives, may bear resemblance to broader definitions of semi-structured and unstructured interviews or it may be viewed as a collaborative activity, one in which the researcher shares the impact on her/him of the stories that are being told. Through such an interactive process, different stories may emerge, stories that are co-constructed (CHASE, 2005). There can though then be an inference that because a story is co-constructed, it somehow produces the "truth"; this we need to be wary of: "Techniques like prolonged interaction or joint construction (...) will not lead to a more correct interpretation because ... an indeterminate ambiguity (...) lies at the heart of the interview interaction" (SCHEURICH, 1997, p.73, my emphases). [12]

What is important is that the interview or conversation is conceptualised as problematic and complex—it is never a simple process of sitting down with a research participant and asking them a series of questions or issuing the invitation to "Tell me about ...". Those who use interviews as a research method are often cautioned to articulate and render transparent the supposed power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee, but the power in any interview shifts constantly. Research participants will often find ways to tell the stories they want to tell rather than or perhaps as well as those that they think the listener wants to hear. In addition, the researcher herself may well be bringing her own agenda to the interview. She may want to be seen in particular ways, want or need the participant to hear something of her experiences and opinions. This probably happens in any research interview—the difference in the type of narrative interviews that I strive to engage in is that these elements are surfaced, articulated in so far as they can be, so that readers can gauge how the complexities of "difference" have been grappled with. [13]

6. Researching Intercultural Communication—Messy Research?

Narrative inquirers, as indicated earlier, are cognisant of audience. They will be the audience for their narrator (s), and then in turn they re-tell the stories to other audiences—their readers. Narrative inquirers recognise that a story will differ depending on the listener and the teller, when the story is told and in what context (MISHLER, 2004). The role (s) of the researcher (s) is/are thus extremely complex and "research involving this level of human interaction and human relationship is going to feel messy!" (CONNOLLY, 2007, p.453) [14]

In my conversations with research participants and with the re-presentation of them, I strove to be transparent so that it is obvious where we share similar knowledge and experience. When that knowledge and experience is not shared, we make it explicit. Throughout my conversations with Cheng-tsung, for example, there are numerous points when we do not understand or think we do not understand each other, resulting, sometimes, in "messy" dialogue:

"Seeking to recognise how 'race' ethnicity and other social differences are produced and have effects in qualitative interviews is undoubtedly difficult and messy work. Rather than trying to fix this mess with methodological strategies such as matching, or analyses that erase the complexities of difference and power relations in the interview, there is much to be achieved by distrusting any neatness, and actively searching out and valuing the complexity and richness that comes with the mess" (GUNARATNAM, 2003, p.104). [15]

Experiences that resonate with each other lead us to connection, but these connections are not "contrived versions of commonality" (ibid, p.102). Cheng-tsung and I (and other research participants), by interrogating those "points of commonality for the dislocations and differences that they carry" are finding "points of alignment and orientation between us" (ibid; p.104). These are significant elements of any research encounter, but perhaps rendered more significant when those encounters are manifestations of the intercultural research "tentacles". The conceptual framework of narrative inquiry enabled me to grasp some of those slippery tentacles and to hold on to them for sufficient time to enable the insights, some of which are summarised in this article, to occur. [16]

I actively searched out and relished the complexity of difference, but took some time to distrust the implied neatness of the conversations with those with similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds to me. Those conversations were as complex, if not more complex, once I began to engage in questioning that supposed neatness. For example, in my re-presentation of my conversations with another white British woman, I queried whether our apparent sharing of knowledge and experience produces a kind of collusion, a positioning of the "international students" as the "other" that we fail to confront in our research conversation. It was only later, when I was analysing this conversation that I became aware of this. In sharing my interpretation with her—she agreed. [17]

7. Autoethnography

The definition of autoethnography is an:

"Autobiographical genre of writing and research that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural. Back and forth autoethnographers gaze, first through an ethnographic wide-angle lens, focusing outward on social and cultural aspects of the personal experience; then they look inward, exposing a vulnerable self that is moved by and may move through, refract and resist cultural interpretations" (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000, p.739). [18]

This definition is congruent with the narrative inquiry principle of the researcher's story being intrinsic to the study. Narrative inquirers engage in intense and transparent reflection and questioning of their own position, values, beliefs and cultural background. There is, therefore, much potential for such articulation of self-awareness and reflexivity to be used in and to enrich research in intercultural communication (FOX, 2006; TRAHAR, 2006 a, b, 2008). Making oneself apparent via such reflexivity, however, carries with it a danger. One risks making oneself more central to the discourse and pushing "other" voices out to the margins (EDWARDS & RIBBENS, 1998). Increasingly, in reporting narratives, an autoethnographic account that provides information on the researcher's own "voice, stance, assumptions and analytic lens so that the reader is abundantly clear on whose story is whose" (CONNOLLY, 2007, p.453) is advised and I trust that by the time you read The Story of the Rotten Shrimp, you will have gained enough such information to enable you to understand the meanings that were ascribed to it. [19]

Narrative inquirers may vary in the extent to which "they" are present in the writing and may employ one or more of three voices. An authoritative voice "speaking differently from but not disrespectfully of the narrator's voice"; a supportive voice "pushing the narrator's voice into the limelight (...) creating a self-reflective and respectful distance between researchers' and narrators' voices" (CHASE, 2005, p.665) or an interactive voice, one that reflects the intersubjectivity between their voice and the narrator's voice. Through the interactive voice, researchers "examine their voices—their subject positions, social locations, interpretations, and personal experiences—through the refracted medium of narrators' voices" (ibid, p.666, original emphasis)—and it is this voice that I chose to employ. [20]

8. Critiquing Narrative Inquiry

As with any other paradigmatic position, narrative inquiry is not without its critics; I want to acknowledge three areas of criticism of narrative inquiry. One criticism is that "If you are a storyteller rather than a story analyst then your goal becomes therapeutic rather than analytic" (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000, p.745). In my case this statement resonates powerfully as it was narrative therapy that drew me originally to narrative inquiry. As a counsellor, I relished the challenges of the narrative therapists WHITE and EPSTON (1990) to the major theoretical traditions in counselling. This stance is though an example of the Cartesian dualisms prevalent in Western social science—I can be a story "analyst" with an "analytic" goal but the stories may also have a "therapeutic" value. [21]

Another allegation is that researchers often re-present narratives as if they were "authentic" when:

"Autobiographical accounts are no more 'authentic than other modes of representation: a narrative of a personal experience is not a clear route into 'the truth', either about the reported events, or of the teller's private experience (...) 'experience' is constructed through the various forms of narrative" (ATKINSON & DELAMONT, 2006, p.166). [22]

Such criticism is entirely legitimate in my view, especially when narrative inquirers may be seduced into a belief that in order to re-present faithfully another's story, the story needs to be simply reproduced—whether textually or visually. But this reproduction will only ever be as the researcher heard it—even if the text is given to the narrator for member-checking or even if the event is filmed. The Story of the Rotten Shrimp is a good example of this. That story was constructed through Cheng-tsung's telling of it to me and my responses to it. Both he and I can never know whether that story told to another person, especially one who shared his cultural background, would have been the same or even whether it would have been told. So, in narrative inquiry, we work with what we gather but look for "the supporting evidence and argument given by the researcher" (POLKINGHORNE, 2007, p.476) for the claim that is made. [23]

A further criticism levelled at narrative inquirers is that, in their concern to re-present the meanings that individuals ascribe to their lived experience, they resist what FOX defines as "a globalised, homogenised, impoverished system of meaning" (2008, p.341), and oppose collective understanding being derived from their work. While recognising that each individual is unique, those such as JOSSELSON (2006) call for the need to "build a knowledge base out of these proliferating studies" (p.5), challenging that "what we seek in narrative research is some understanding of the patterns that cohere among individuals and the aspects of lived experience that differentiate" (ibid). There is yet again a danger of falling into the trap of Cartesian dualisms. Either the individual voice is privileged or collective understandings are made, when both are possible. ANDREWS poses some provocative questions for those who consider that collective understanding is unwise:

"How does this individual with whom I am speaking reflect wider social and historical changes that form the context of his or her life? I am convinced that if I can listen carefully enough, there is much to learn from every story that one might gather. For society really is comprised of human lives, and if we can begin to understand the framework that lends meaning to these lives, then we have taken the important first step to being able to access the wider framework of meaning that is the binding agent of a culture" (ANDREWS, 2007, p.491). [24]

Such questions demonstrate how narrative inquirers can build a knowledge base without relinquishing the respect for the individual voice. So, in The Story of the Rotten Shrimp, I can begin to understand how difficult it can be for students from Taiwan to be critical and to complain and to experience particular behaviours as racist. I can therefore develop greater sensitivity towards such behaviours and in addition ensure that in my teaching I develop strategies that will enable students to express any dissatisfaction without feeling that they do not have the appropriate words to do so. [25]

9. The Story of the Rotten Shrimp

The Story of the Rotten Shrimp is an example of an unanticipated narrative (CORTAZZI & JIN, 2006). It seemed to emerge from my desire to share with Cheng-tsung, a postgraduate student from Taiwan, my feelings about the "'whiteness' of the academy that seemed to go unnoticed and uncommented" (CLEGG, PAR & WAN, 2003, p.164). The concept of institutional racism (SCHEURICH, 1997) was challenging me to interrogate not only my own teaching and learning practices, but also to investigate more critically the dominant pedagogy of the institution and of my department. I was keen to move from "teaching as assimilation (...) a kind of colonial phase" (BIGGS, 2003, p.123) towards a transformational ideal of assimilation (YOUNG, 2001). I wanted to share some of these reflections with Cheng-tsung, to gain his perspective:




And what we don't do enough of ... and I feel very strongly about this ... is this, what we're doing now, is to talk to you about your experiences and to use those experiences to inform and to look more critically at what we do. So I kind of wondered ... I'm interested in how you feel about that.

Personally I think that ... I mean the support from the university, especially Education School, I think it is enough for me personally. [26]


This is not the response I was expecting. I anticipated that he would agree with my statement, but his response is that he has felt supported. He then disrupts the conversation to tell me two different stories, stories about specific experiences from his life in the UK. He might be said to be radically transgressing from the "knowable order" of the "interview", providing another example of what I wrote earlier in this article "the indeterminate ambiguity of interviewing "(SCHEURICH, 1997, p.75).




Yeah, personally, yeah I think some part of England or outside the university, that image is I mean ... is different from I thought before. Yeah. I thought I mean British should be a very polite country. (LAUGHTER) According to my image that this is a very clean place or something like that. But some image is contrary to my past imagination. I mean outside university. I mean some people are really rude, yeah.




In what way? Can you give me an example?


Because ... such as 2 weeks ago I went to the airport to receive my family and I went to the bus station and I tried to get on, get on the coach. And the coach is delivered from the bus station to the airport every half hour. But when I get there in time the coach driver told me, told me that he won't drive this time because he said that the traffic is so bad. But there is no previous information about cancelling this bus service.




So he just cancelled it?


He just cancelled. Nobody told me that, nobody told me this kind of a ... this cancellation. And he didn't, I mean, apologise to me. And the coach station, they didn't say anything about this kind of ... such kind ...




So that would be an example of how you don't think that we're particularly polite


Yeah. But I found it is usual in this place, yeah. It's not so I mean ... strict, strict on the regulation all the time.



I found this interesting, it's a very interesting. (LAUGHTER) Yeah so maybe in this way. And some feeling is very subtle because I found sometimes you're, you're communicating with some businessmen or ... if you go shopping sometimes. I found the feeling ... that made me feel I am not respected. But I think maybe it is the reason maybe I don't use the very fluent English. So maybe I misunderstand this meaning or meaning yeah. So maybe this is part of the language difficulty.




But what it makes you feel is not respected.


Yeah [27]


He then continues to illustrate further his feelings about not being respected by telling me the story that I have titled The Story of the Rotten Shrimp:



I remember that one of my colleagues in TEFL pathway, once she was going to a noodle bar, yeah, and she ordered a bowl of noodles. And she found that, that something in her bowl, I mean a shrimp or something like prawn or something like that, is rotten. Yeah. And they called the waiter to complain about this situation. But they found that the, the attitude of this waiter is very bad. Yeah? But I mean maybe we are afraid of, I mean, the language, how to communicate well or maybe we are so worried about we are so rude in some way, so ...



Oh so you think you might be being rude?

Yeah yeah. So we force ourselves not to complain more, even if we feel we are not ... uncomfortable. So the thing is ... I mean is over without any further, any further solution ... even if they still feel unsatisfied.



That's really difficult, isn't it? Because you don't know why that is do you? What you're saying is you don't know ... the waiter was rude and you don't know whether the waiter was rude because you complained ... or because of the way you complained, because of the language that you used.




And because you don't know, you don't know why he was responding to you in that way, you then kind of don't do anything, you're left not doing anything.

Yeah. (LAUGHTER) I mean in that kind of a situation we don't have enough words to complain properly So most of the time we will ... I mean ... constrain or ...



Constrain yourself. [28]

In an earlier conversation, Cheng-tsung had told me that Chinese people constrain themselves and avoid confrontation. In this conversation, much later in our relationship, I feel that I have permission to probe a little more about his difficulties with making a complaint. I had become aware that it can be difficult for Confucian-heritage culture (CHC) students to express any dissatisfaction with my teaching (CORTAZZI & JIN, 2001; HO, 2001), and so I wanted to find out how to encourage them to do it. I want to respect the importance of face (BOND, 1986, 1991), to be mindful of the authority invested in the "teacher" figure (PRATT, KELLY & WONG, 1999), and yet I still want to hear about their dissatisfactions. I use the "rotten shrimp" as a metaphor, which he responds to immediately with laughter. I sense that he likes it; he is sharing my attempt at humour:




So would that happen here? Thinking in the department, you know if there was something you weren't happy with, I mean say something like the rotten shrimp ...




... in a bowl of noodles, what would you do about that?

You mean in education school?



Yes, yes.

I feel that I am very relaxed if this kind of situation happened, because I know you are here and I know you are very supportive. So if something happened I am not satisfied, I will tell you.



Right yeah. So you would have been happy to do that?

So I'm very relaxed here, because I have a very strong support behind my learning. So I don't have to worry... something ... I mean, I mean I always have enough support, so I can relax in my learning.



But so ... okay, so what you're saying then is that that's very important, that's been important, to feel that you've got that support. So that actually if you were not happy about something you could have come and spoken to me about it.

Yeah that's right.Yeah the point is some colleagues of mine, I mean … a Taiwanese student, they are not quite satisfied with their learning here.I think maybe the main reason is that they don't have sufficient support from their tutor. [29]


I change the direction of the conversation at this point. I have obtained from him some expression of the dissatisfaction I was searching for, even if, it was not dissatisfaction with me, but with others. He tells two stories, both of which seem to be about rudeness and finding it difficult to complain. I take the opportunity to use the metaphor of the "rotten shrimp" to explore with him how he would complain about situations with which he were unhappy in the learning environment. He responds that he would have been able to come and talk to me, because he had sufficient support and can feel relaxed in his learning. This is in marked contrast to an earlier conversation, where he told me that he would find it very difficult to complain to me. [30]

JOSSELSON (1996) suggests that narrative inquiry should be mutual and collaborative, within a relationship that is being established over time, which allows for the telling and re-telling of stories. In this conversation, held at a later stage in our relationship, he re-tells stories told in an earlier conversation. He disagrees with me. He "disrupts", determined to let me know the lack of support felt by some of his colleagues. Thus the coda here is that we agree that respect and valuing are important, but that the ways in which respect and valuing are demonstrated, are different in our respective cultures. Such differences may result in or be derived from racist attitudes that masquerade as claimed misunderstanding. [31]

10. Intercultural Communication and Critical Pedagogy

A critical pedagogic approach seeks to dismantle the hierarchy that creates a power differential between academics and students (IPPOLITO, 2007) yet in seeking to dismantle such hierarchies, we may overlook the different ways that people understand each other's behaviour and "hierarchies", especially in intercultural higher education contexts. "Hierarchies" may be very familiar to many students who can feel threatened by apparent attempts to dismantle them. No matter how much we talk of shifting and fragmentary identities (SARUP, 1996; FOX, 2006) resisting essentialised notions of the latter, we all bring different understandings to the international classroom, including ways in which the relationship between learner and teacher is conceptualised (SALILI, 2001). To what extent then, in seeking to dismantle this "hierarchy" are we acting in ways that are at best counter cultural for many people and at worst dismissive of their traditions? Through my practitioner research as a narrative inquirer, I have learned that, seeking to dismantle or dismiss the authority vested in me can be threatening for those students who are more familiar with positioning the academic as an authority figure. It is much more inclusive to accept the different conceptualisations of the teacher/student relationship, certainly at the beginning of that relationship, as this can lessen the anxiety of such students. [32]

In addition, I have explored the cultural embeddedness of some other culturally inviolable Western academic traditions such as critical thinking and plagiarism elsewhere (see TRAHAR, 2006a, b, 2007, 2008). Those such as WELIKALA (2008) engage in similar critiques:

"For instance, for Japanese learners, criticality is interwoven with their norms related to interpersonal relationships. Moreover, they do not relate verbal silence to intellectual passivity. Their argument is that critical learning also involves critical thinking, and hence, for them, arguing for a point of view itself is not an assurance of critical learning (...) those who talk too much during lessons may not be critically reflecting but 'shouting' since they have language fluency" (WELIKALA, 2008, p.166). [33]

There is of course a more fundamental and perhaps more uncomfortable question to ask (BACK, 2004) which is to what extent are we, certainly in the UK given our history as a coloniser, perpetuating imperialism by not opening up all of our higher education practices to scrutiny for their unacknowledged cultural entrenchment? "Even the cultural hybridity permitted within an internationalised HEI is scripted by the neoliberal presumption that Western norms should prevail" (SIDHU, 2004, cited in HAIGH, 2008, p.430). I suggest that engaging in narrative inquiry to research intercultural communication in learning and teaching in higher education is a way to challenge this neoliberal presumption. [34]

11. Ethical Complexities

Inevitably, the complex ethical issues that are a consequence of this messy research can rarely be resolved at the outset and can be difficult to anticipate (BOND & MIFSUD, 2006). Many of the participants in my research, including Cheng-tsung, wanted to be named so that their stories would be made visible. But, in narrative inquiry, as I indicated earlier, the research does not depend on the gathering of one form of "data". The research depicts lived experience and, in my life, certainly my professional life, although conversations about learning and teaching are a large and significant part of it, so, too are my dreams, daydreams and reflections, my interactions with people who are (so they say) "nothing to do with the research".

"For example, who decides what may be disclosed about whom? What is restricted information and only disclosed outside the formal exchange, as it were 'off the record'? These are familiar problems in any qualitative research. However the nature of the narrative process means that concerns of this type may be difficult to anticipate in advance and may only become issues as they arise ... both parties need to engage reflexively in both the subject matter and the ethical challenges to create the human circumstances that enable the research to flourish and to ensure the intellectual integrity of the project" (BOND & MIFSUD, 2006, p.250). [35]

In so far as it was possible, all those foregrounded in my research read and approved what I wrote and, in many cases, added their own comments that I included. But, in some cases, by naming the person, other people who had chosen not to be named, were rendered visible. In each of these ethically important moments, I used my intellectual integrity to make a judgement call (SPARKES, 2002) and chose to take a communal sense of responsibility. In doing so, I overrode the desires of some to be named. But ownership of stories is one of the complexities of narrative research. If the story is constructed collaboratively, then who "owns" the story? Has it become a communal story of which we all have ownership? Or, indeed, do any us have ownership because the story was not my story or their story but became a story through those stories? (YARDLEY, 2008) [36]

I tried to imaginatively feel my way into experiences and included dialogue so that the reader can make judgements about the meanings that I have ascribed. I sought to ensure that the spirits and values of the original storytellers as they expressed them are embedded in the writing. But I must not forget that I, too, am an original storyteller and I, too, have striven to be accountable to my spirits and values. [37]

12. Glass Palaces and Glass Cages?

I was concerned that I might be accused of being "self-indulgent rather than self-knowing, self-respectful (...) or self-luminous" (SPARKES, 2002, p.214). As a practitioner researcher, I wanted to go beyond "self-indulgent exercises to provide ... deliberation and critique that will generate guideposts for future practitioner research" (BROOKER & MACPHERSON, 1999, p.219). I wanted my research to make a difference to me, to my participants, to my practice, to those who read it. Consequently, it was important to establish criteria against which I wanted the research to be judged—to go beyond the story itself:

 "How do we judge the merits of these stories? When do we know they're reliable and telling? I think it's the same judgement we make about any author or any character. Is the work honest or dishonest? Does the author take the measure of herself, her limitations, her confusion, ambivalence, mixed feelings? Do you gain a sense of emotional reliability? (...) Does the story enable you to understand and feel the experience it seeks to convey?" (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000, p.749) [38]

Clearly in an article such as this, the extent to which the above judgements can be made are limited. I hope, however, that I have given a flavour of the research that will enable you to at least consider the above evaluative criteria. The impact of cultural diversity on the academic is still rarely exposed in the literature. That was a motivation for this research and, I suggest, the extent to which I exposed and critiqued the cultural influences in my own life, is a very distinctive dimension. I tangled with the complexities of critiquing the paucity of reflexive, lived experiences in the literature, while, at the same time, problematising reflexivity as culturally a constructed discourse as any other. Questioning notions of reflection and reflexivity may have made me a thorn in the flesh for those who speak unproblematically of these concepts as essential elements to developing one's own practice. I have, however, come to disagree with ERLANDSON (2005) and those other critics who position reflection in action as another method of controlling the practitioner, and of denying the value of her own practical skills. I do not agree that by "thinking" about my practice and my experiences and interactions with others, I have " been disciplined to judge and normalise (my) everyday practice with tools not from (my) own practices but from (my) discursive captors" (ERLANDSON, 2005, p.668). Perhaps that is the glass cage that GABRIEL (2003) refers to but, for me, it is questioning myself and sharing those questions with others that moves me, occasionally, into the glass palace. [39]

Finally ...

"Globalization is the context of economic and academic trends that are part of the reality of the 21st century. Internationalization includes the policies and practices undertaken by academic systems and institutions—and even—individuals—to cope with the global academic environment...Globalization may be unalterable but internationalisation involves many choices" (ALTBACH & KNIGHT, 2007, pp.290-291). [40]

Their words "and even—individuals" imply that "individuals" somehow are not actors in the drama of the changing nature of higher education and yet it is we, the individual students and academics, who constitute the "deeply embedded values, cultures and traditions" (STENSAKER, FROLICH, GORNITZKA & MAASSEN, 2008, p.2) of higher education, the values, cultures and traditions that are rarely articulated and exposed to critical scrutiny (TRAHAR, 2007; TURNER & ROBSON, 2008). Subjecting events inside and outside of the higher education "classroom" to intense and sustained critical reflection through narrative inquiry can produce "insightful accounts of processes which go beyond the particular story itself" (PRING, 1999, p.6), can contribute much to effective intercultural communication and to the internationalisation of the academic Self (SANDERSON, 2007). Intercultural communication in higher education does not just happen (OTTEN, 2000, 2003). Through narrative inquiry, I have learned to be explicit about diversity in higher education contexts and to acknowledge that we may all experience difficulties and frustrations, encouraging people to learn, through dialogue, about their differences and similarities.

"Voice without control may be worse than silence; voice with control has the capacity to become a less perishable form of power because in essence it allows voice to enter into a more genuinely reciprocal dialogue. Such dialogue could provide a more enduring challenge to the power relations of research, knowledge production and the public sphere. To create the conditions for dialogue therefore implies a research agenda that both revisits research methods and ethics, but also unmasks the inequalities of the global public sphere" (GREADY, 2008, p.147). [41]


Altbach, Philip & Knight, Jane (2007). The internationalization of higher education: Motivations and realities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3/4), 290-305.

Andrews, Molly (2007). Exploring cross-cultural boundaries. In D. Jean Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp.489-511). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Andrews, Molly; Squire, Corinne & Tambokou, Maria (Eds.) (2008). Doing narrative research. London: Sage.

Atkinson, Paul & Coffey, Amanda (2003). Revisiting the relationship between participant observation and interviewing. In Jaber F. Gubrium & James A. Holstein (Eds.), Postmodern interviewing (pp.109-122). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Atkinson, Paul & Delamont, Sara (2006). Rescuing narrative from qualitative research. Narrative Inquiry, 16(1), 164-172.

Back, Les (2004). Ivory towers? The academy and racism. In Ian Law, Deborah Phillips & Laura Turney (Eds.), Institutional racism in higher education (pp.1-13). Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Berger, Peter L. & Luckmann, Thomas (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. London: Allen Lane.

Biggs, John B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university (2nd ed.). Buckingham: SRHE/Open University.

Bochner, Arthur P. (2007). Notes toward an ethics of memory in autoethnographic inquiry. In Norman K. Denzin & Michael D. Giardina (Eds.), Ethical futures in qualitative research (pp.196-208). Walnut Creek, Ca.: Left Coast Press.

Bond, Michael H. (1986) (Ed.). The psychology of the Chinese people. Hong Kong: OUP (China).

Bond, Michael H. (1991). Beyond the Chinese face: Insights from psychology. Hong Kong: OUP (China).

Bond, Tim & Mifsud, Dione (2006). Narrative conversation between cultures: A novel approach to addressing an ethical concern. In Sheila Trahar (Ed.), Narrative research on learning: Comparative and international perspectives (pp.239-251). Oxford: Symposium.

Brooker, Ross & Macpherson, Ian (1999). Communicating the processes and outcomes of practitioner research: An opportunity for self-indulgence or a serious professional responsibility? Educational Action Research, 7(2), 207-221.

Brunner, Brigitta R. (2006). Student perceptions of diversity on a college campus: Scratching the surface to find more. Intercultural Education, 17(3), 311-317.

Burr, Vivien (2003). Social constructionism (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Chase, Susan E. (2005). Narrative inquiry: Multiple lenses, approaches, voices. In Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), The handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp.651-679). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Clandinin, D. Jean & Connelly, F. Michael (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass.

Clegg, Sue; Parr, Sadie. & Wan, Stephen (2003). Racialising discourses in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2), 155-168.

Clough, Peter (2002). Narratives and fictions in educational research. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Connolly, Kate (2007). Introduction to Part 2: Exploring narrative inquiry practices. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(4), 450-453.

Cortazzi, Martin & Jin, Lixian (2001). Large classes in China: "Good" teachers and interaction. In David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs (Eds.), Teaching the Chinese learner: Psychological and pedagogical perspectives (pp.77-98). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Cortazzi, Martin & Jin, Lixian (2006). Asking questions, sharing stories and identity construction: Sociocultural issues in narrative research. In Sheila Trahar (Ed.), Narrative research on learning: Comparative and international perspectives (pp.27-46). Oxford: Symposium.

Crossley, Michael & Watson, Keith (2003). Comparative and international research in education: Globalisation, context and difference. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Edwards, Rosalind & Ribbens, Jane (1998). Living on the edges: Public knowledge, private lives, personal experience. In Jane Ribbens & Rosalind Edwards (Eds.), Feminist dilemmas in qualitative research: Public knowledge and private lives (pp.1-23). London: Sage.

Ellis, Carolyn & Bochner, Arthur (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject. In Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp.733-768). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Erlandson, Peter (2005). The body disciplined: Rewriting teaching competence and the doctrine of reflection. Journal of Philosophy in Education,39(4), 661-670.

Fox, Christine (2006). Stories within stories: Dissolving the boundaries in narrative research and analysis. In Sheila Trahar (Ed.), Narrative research on learning: Comparative and international perspectives (pp.47-60).Oxford: Symposium Books.

Fox, Christine (2008). Postcolonial dilemmas in narrative research. Compare, 38(3), 335-347.

Gabriel, Yiannis (2003). Glass palaces and glass cages: Organisations in times of flexible work, fragmented consumption and fragile selves. Ephemera,3(3), 166-184.

Gready, Paul (2008). The public life of narratives: Ethics, politics, methods. In Molly Andrews, Corinne Squire & MariaTambokou (Eds.), Doing narrative research (pp.137-150). London: Sage.

Gunaratnam, Yasmin (2003). Researching "race" and ethnicity. London: Sage.

Haigh, Martin (2008). Internationalisation, planetary citizenship and Higher Education Inc. Compare, 38(4), 427-440.

Ho, Irene T. (2001). Are Chinese teachers authoritarian? In David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs (Eds.), Teaching the Chinese learner: Psychological and pedagogical perspectives (pp.99-114). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong,

Ippolito, Kate (2007). Promoting intercultural learning in a multicultural society: Ideals and realities. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5), 749-763.

Josselson, Ruthellen (Ed.) (1996). Ethics and process in the narrative studies of lives (Vol. 4). London: Sage.

Josselson, Ruthellen (2006). Narrative research and the challenge of accumulating knowledge. Narrative Inquiry, 16(1), 3-10.

Koehne, Norma (2006). (Be)coming, (Be)longing: Ways in which international students talk about themselves. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 27(2), 241-257.

Labov, William (1982). Speech actions and reactions in personal narrative. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing discourse: Text and talk (pp.219-247). Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

McIntyre, Alice (1997). Making meaning of Whiteness: Exploring racial identity with White teachers. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Mishler, Eliot (2004). Historians of the self: Restorying lives, revising identities. Research in Human Development, 1(1 & 2), 101-121.

Otten, Matthias (2000). Impacts of cultural diversity at home. In Paul Crowther, Michael Joris, Matthias Otten, Bengt Hilsson, Hanneke Teekens & Bernd Wachter (Eds.), Internationalisation at home: A position paper (pp.15-20). European Association for International Education/Academic Cooperation Association, IAK, IESEG, Nuffic, Katholieke Hogeschool Limburg and Malmo University.

Otten, Matthias (2003). Intercultural learning and diversity in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(1), 12-26.

Phillion, JoAnne (2002). Becoming a narrative inquirer in a multicultural landscape. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 34(5), 535-556.

Pinnegar, Stefinee & Danes, J. Gary (2007). Locating narrative inquiry historically: Thematics in the turn to narrative. In D. Jean Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp.3-34). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Polkinghorne, Donald E. (1995). Narrative configuration in qualitative analysis. In J. Amos Hatch & Richard Wisniewski (Eds.), Life history and narrative (pp.5-23).London: Falmer Press.

Polkinghorne, Donald E. (2007). Validity issues in narrative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(4), 471-486.

Pratt, Daniel D.; Kelly, Mavis & Wong, Winnie S.S. (1999). Chinese conceptions of "effective teaching" in Hong Kong: Towards culturally sensitive evaluation of teaching. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(4), 241-258.

Pring, Richard (1999). Reflecting on the reflective practitioners. In Ai-Yen Chen & John van Maanen (Eds.), The reflective spin: Case studies of teachers in higher education transforming action (pp.3-13). Singapore: World Scientific.

Richardson, Laurel & St. Pierre, Elizabeth A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp.959-978). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Riessman, Catherine Kohler (2008). Narrative methods in the human sciences. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Riessman, Catherine Kohler & Speedy, Jane (2007). Narrative inquiry in the psychotherapy professions: A critical review. In D. Jean Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp.426-456). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Robinson-Pant, Anna (2005). Cross-cultural perspectives on educational research. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Salili, Farideh (2001). Teacher-student interaction: Attributional implications and effectiveness of teachers' evaluative feedback. In David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs (Eds.), Teaching the Chinese learner: Psychological and pedagogical perspectives (pp.77-98). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Sanderson, Gavin (2007). A foundation for the internationalization of the academic Self. Journal of Studies in International Education, [Date of access: September 15,2008].

Sarup, Madan (1996). Identity, culture and the postmodern world. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Scheurich, James J. (1997). Research method in the postmodern.London: Routledge Falmer.

Shope, Janet Hinson (2006). "You can't cross a river without getting wet": A feminist standpoint on the dilemmas of cross-cultural research. Qualitative Inquiry,12(1), 163-184.

Sparkes, Andrew C. (2002). Autoethnography, self-indulgence or something more? In Arthur Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (Eds.), Ethnographically speaking: Autoethnography, literature and aesthetics (pp.209-232). New York: Alta Mira Press.

Stensaker, Bjorn; Frolich, Nicoline; Gornitzka, Ase & Maassen, Peter (2008). Internationalisation of higher education: The gap between national policy-making and institutional needs. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 6(1), 1-11.

Stenhouse, Lawrence (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2), 103-114.

Trahar, Sheila (2006a). A part of the landscape: The practitioner researcher as narrative inquirer in an international higher education community. In Sheila Trahar (Ed.), Narrative research on learning: Comparative and international perspectives (pp.201-219). Oxford: Symposium.

Trahar, Sheila (2006b). Roads less travelled: Stories of learning and teaching in a multicultural higher education environment. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol.

Trahar, Sheila (2007) Teaching and learning: The international higher education landscape—some theories and working practices. ESCalate Discussion Paper, [Date of access: September 15,2008]

Trahar, Sheila (2008). Close encounters of the cultural kind: Reflections of a practitioner researcher in a UK higher education context. In Meeri Hellsten & Anna Reid (Eds.), Researching international pedagogies: Sustainable practice for teaching and learning in higher education (pp.45-64). New York: Springer.

Turner, Yvonne & Robson, Sue (2008). Internationalizing the university. London: Continuum.

Welikala, Thushari (2008). (Dis) Empowering and (Dis) locating: How learners from diverse cultures read the role of English language in U.K. higher education. London Review of Education, 6(2), 159-169.

White, Michael & Epston, David (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.

Winkler, Gisela (2003). Ethical issues in narrative research. Educational Action Research,11(3), 389-402.

Yardley, Ainslie (2008). Living stories: The role of the researcher in the narration of life. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3), Art. 3, [Date of access: August 21, 2008].

Young, Iris Marion (2001). Justice and the politics of difference. In Steven Seidman & Jeffrey C. Alexander (Eds.), The new social theory reader (pp.203-211). London: Routledge.


Sheila TRAHAR (PhD, MSc, Dip Counselling, BA, FHEA) is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol. Her research interests are cross-cultural communication, learning and teaching in higher education and the methodological complexities of researching across cultures. Dr TRAHAR has recently led a UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) Internationalisation initiative funded study. The study's main aim is to explore perceptions and practices of internationalising the curriculum from a discipline, practitioner and student perspective and to identify the impact of "internationalisation" on learning and teaching across several disciplines. The study emphasises particularly the concept of Internationalisation at Home (IaH). Dr TRAHAR is Director of the Master of Education (MEd) programme taught in Hong Kong at City University and Secretary of the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE).


Sheila Trahar

Graduate School of Education
University of Bristol
8-10 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1HH, UK

Phone: 00 44 (0) 117 3314400



Trahar, Sheila (2009). Beyond the Story Itself: Narrative Inquiry and Autoethnography in Intercultural Research in Higher Education [41 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10(1), Art. 30,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *