GuidesResearch methodsUsing narrative analysis in qualitative research

Using narrative analysis in qualitative research

Last updated

7 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

After spending considerable time and effort interviewing persons for research, you want to ensure you get the most out of the data you gathered. One method that gives you an excellent opportunity to connect with your data on a very human and personal level is a narrative analysis in qualitative research. 

Do you want to use narrative analysis to understand your data better? This guide will help you understand this qualitative research method.

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What is narrative analysis?

Narrative analysis is a type of qualitative data analysis that focuses on interpreting the core narratives from a study group's personal stories. Using first-person narrative, data is acquired and organized to allow the researcher to understand how the individuals experienced something. 

Instead of focusing on just the actual words used during an interview, the narrative analysis also allows for a compilation of data on how the person expressed themselves, what language they used when describing a particular event or feeling, and the thoughts and motivations they experienced. A narrative analysis will also consider how the research participants constructed their narratives.

From the interview to coding, you should strive to keep the entire individual narrative together, so that the information shared during the interview remains intact.

Is narrative analysis qualitative or quantitative?

Narrative analysis is a qualitative research method.

Is narrative analysis a method or methodology?

A method describes the tools or processes used to understand your data; methodology describes the overall framework used to support the methods chosen. By this definition, narrative analysis can be both a method used to understand data and a methodology appropriate for approaching data that comes primarily from first-person stories.

Do you need to perform narrative research to conduct a narrative analysis?

A narrative analysis will give the best answers about the data if you begin with conducting narrative research. Narrative research explores an entire story with a research participant to understand their personal story.

What are the characteristics of narrative research?

Narrative research always includes data from individuals that tell the story of their experiences. This is captured using loosely structured interviews. These can be a single interview or a series of long interviews over a period of time. Narrative research focuses on the construct and expressions of the story as experienced by the research participant.

Examples of types of narratives

Narrative data is based on narratives. Your data may include the entire life story or a complete personal narrative, giving a comprehensive account of someone's life, depending on the researched subject. Alternatively, a topical story can provide context around one specific moment in the research participant's life. 

Personal narratives can be single or multiple sessions, encompassing more than topical stories but not entire life stories of the individuals.

What is the objective of narrative analysis?

The narrative analysis seeks to organize the overall experience of a group of research participants' stories. The goal is to turn people's individual narratives into data that can be coded and organized so that researchers can easily understand the impact of a certain event, feeling, or decision on the involved persons. At the end of a narrative analysis, researchers can identify certain core narratives that capture the human experience.

What is the difference between content analysis and narrative analysis?

Content analysis is a research method that determines how often certain words, concepts, or themes appear inside a sampling of qualitative data. The narrative analysis focuses on the overall story and organizing the constructs and features of a narrative.

What is the difference between narrative analysis and case study in qualitative research?

A case study focuses on one particular event. A narrative analysis draws from a larger amount of data surrounding the entire narrative, including the thoughts that led up to a decision and the personal conclusion of the research participant. 

A case study, therefore, is any specific topic studied in depth, whereas narrative analysis explores single or multi-faceted experiences across time. ​​

What is the difference between narrative analysis and thematic analysis?

A thematic analysis will appear as researchers review the available qualitative data and note any recurring themes. Unlike narrative analysis, which describes an entire method of evaluating data to find a conclusion, a thematic analysis only describes reviewing and categorizing the data.

Capturing narrative data

Because narrative data relies heavily on allowing a research participant to describe their experience, it is best to allow for a less structured interview. Allowing the participant to explore tangents or analyze their personal narrative will result in more complete data. 

When collecting narrative data, always allow the participant the time and space needed to complete their narrative.

Methods of transcribing narrative data

A narrative analysis requires that the researchers have access to the entire verbatim narrative of the participant, including not just the word they use but the pauses, the verbal tics, and verbal crutches, such as "um" and "hmm." 

As the entire way the story is expressed is part of the data, a verbatim transcription should be created before attempting to code the narrative analysis.

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How to code narrative analysis

Coding narrative analysis has two natural start points, either using a deductive coding system or an inductive coding system. Regardless of your chosen method, it's crucial not to lose valuable data during the organization process.

When coding, expect to see more information in the code snippets.

Types of narrative analysis

After coding is complete, you should expect your data to look like large blocks of text organized by the parts of the story. You will also see where individual narratives compare and diverge.

Inductive method

Using an inductive narrative method treats the entire narrative as one datum or one set of information. An inductive narrative method will encourage the research participant to organize their own story. 

To make sense of how a story begins and ends, you must rely on cues from the participant. These may take the form of entrance and exit talks. 

Participants may not always provide clear indicators of where their narratives start and end. However, you can anticipate that their stories will contain elements of a beginning, middle, and end. By analyzing these components through coding, you can identify emerging patterns in the data.

Taking cues from entrance and exit talk

Entrance talk is when the participant begins a particular set of narratives. You may hear expressions such as, "I remember when…," "It first occurred to me when…," or "Here's an example…."

Exit talk allows you to see when the story is wrapping up, and you might expect to hear a phrase like, "…and that's how we decided", "after that, we moved on," or "that's pretty much it."

Deductive method

Deductive narrative analysis means starting with a basic code outline, such as "summary," "beginning," "middle," and "end." Many research professionals have developed their own methods of organizing narrative research, such as the Delve "Story Circle" method

Regardless of your chosen method, using a deductive method can help preserve the overall storyline while coding. Starting with a deductive method allows for the separation of narrative pieces without compromising the story's integrity.

Hybrid inductive and deductive narrative analysis

Using both methods together gives you a comprehensive understanding of the data. You can start by coding the entire story using the inductive method. Then, you can better analyze and interpret the data by applying deductive codes to individual parts of the story.

How to analyze data after coding using narrative analysis

A narrative analysis aims to take all relevant interviews and organize them down to a few core narratives. After reviewing the coding, these core narratives may appear through a repeated moment of decision occurring before the climax or a key feeling that affected the participant's outcome.

You may see these core narratives diverge early on, or you may learn that a particular moment after introspection reveals the core narrative for each participant. Either way, researchers can now quickly express and understand the data you acquired.

A step-by-step approach to narrative analysis and finding core narratives

Narrative analysis may look slightly different to each research group, but we will walk through the process using the Delve method for this article.

Step 1 – Code narrative blocks

Organize your narrative blocks using inductive coding to organize stories by a life event.

Example: Narrative interviews are conducted with homeowners asking them to describe how they bought their first home.

Step 2 – Group and read by live-event

You begin your data analysis by reading through each of the narratives coded with the same life event.

Example: You read through each homeowner's experience of buying their first home and notice that some common themes begin to appear, such as "we were tired of renting," "our family expanded to the point that we needed a larger space," and "we had finally saved enough for a downpayment."

Step 3 – Create a nested story structure

As these common narratives develop throughout the participant's interviews, create and nest code according to your narrative analysis framework. Use your coding to break down the narrative into pieces that can be analyzed together.

Example: During your interviews, you find that the beginning of the narrative usually includes the pressures faced before buying a home that pushes the research participants to consider homeownership. The middle of the narrative often includes challenges that come up during the decision-making process. The end of the narrative usually includes perspectives about the excitement, stress, or consequences of home ownership that has finally taken place. 

Step 4 – Delve into the story structure

Once the narratives are organized into their pieces, you begin to notice how participants structure their own stories and where similarities and differences emerge.

Example: You find in your research that many people who choose to buy homes had the desire to buy a home before their circumstances allowed them to. You notice that almost all the stories begin with the feeling of some sort of outside pressure.

Step 5 – Compare across story structure

While breaking down narratives into smaller pieces is necessary for analysis, it's important not to lose sight of the overall story. To keep the big picture in mind, take breaks to step back and reread the entire narrative of a code block. This will help you remember how participants expressed themselves and ensure that the core narrative remains the focus of the analysis.

Example: By carefully examining the similarities across the beginnings of participants' narratives, you find the similarities in pressures. Considering the overall narrative, you notice how these pressures lead to similar decisions despite the challenges faced. 

Divergence in feelings towards homeownership can be linked to positive or negative pressures. Individuals who received positive pressure, such as family support or excitement, may view homeownership more favorably. Meanwhile, negative pressures like high rent or peer pressure may cause individuals to have a more negative attitude toward homeownership.

These factors can contribute to the initial divergence in feelings towards homeownership.

Step 6 – Tell the core narrative

After carefully analyzing the data, you have found how the narratives relate and diverge. You may be able to create a theory about why the narratives diverge and can create one or two core narratives that explain the way the story was experienced.

Example: You can now construct a core narrative on how a person's initial feelings toward buying a house affect their feelings after purchasing and living in their first home.


Narrative analysis in qualitative research is an invaluable tool to understand how people's stories and ability to self-narrate reflect the human experience. Qualitative data analysis can be improved through coding and organizing complete narratives. By doing so, researchers can conclude how humans process and move through decisions and life events.

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