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Analysis C: Narrative analysis

Constructing a form of narrative analysis

There is no formal consensus on a singular method of narrative analysis, whether amongst handbooks or in research practice. The meaning of the term shifts in one work and another, and the 'analysis of narratives' blurs with 'narrative analysis'. The integrated interpretation which I have produced for use in this study draws upon a number of sources - which are deployed as required, in ways which are not necessarily those intended by their original authors - and which are presented briefly here.

Firstly we need to address the question of what there is of interest in 'narratives': what can they tell us, beyond their obvious information content? James Deese (1983) notes that narratives are 'accounts of events from a very human point of view', and that 'every narrative is realized in only one particular way out of the countless ways it might have been realized' (p. xiii). Obviously, one aim of an analysis would therefore be to identify the reasoning behind the particular 'take' on the subject which the narrator has chosen - consciously or unconsciously - to use. Deese goes on to observe that 'Narratives... structure events into episodes of goal-directed responses and internal reactions [... and] are often designed to illustrate a moral or morals' (p. xv). Similarly, Hayes & Flower (1983) argue that the act of writing is goal-directed, providing logic and coherence to the process of narrative production 'even when writers perceive their own experience as chaotic and unpredictable' (p. 210). Indeed, the act of producing a narrative can trigger insights which lead to the discovery of substantial new goals for the work. Emotions and motives can be expected to be reflected in narratives, then, as well as their very telling being performed for a particular purpose. As well as the manifest content, narratives 'also convey the subjective reactions of the narrator towards the tale as well as his or her feelings and attitudes about the persons to whom the narrative is addressed' (Deese, 1983, p. xv). A range of latent information is available, behind the 'surface' of the narrative, which can carry meaningful supplementary or even contradictory information to its audience.

Literary theories suggest similar if sometimes rather more overwrought ways of approaching narrative. Daniel Chamberlain's (1990) thesis on narrative perspective in fiction posits three dimensions central to its understanding: that of the narrative voice, that of the narrative world, and that of the reader's perspective. Each of these is affected on the one hand by language and perception mediated by discourse, and on the other by the medium through which the narrative is delivered. Leaving aside unconventional readings, then, this would suggest that we should focus on both the voice of the narrative and the conceptual world in which it is made, as they are produced by the translation of children's perceptions into discourse, and then delivered with pictures through video recording.

Chamberlain refers to the work of Gérard Genette, whose observation that narrative 'always says less than it knows, but it often makes known more than it says' (1980, p. 198), neatly summarises the arguments in favour of narrative analysis. Things 'being said' underneath the manifest narrative should be identified not so much as an exercise in 'textual' archaeology, but because those things are given off by the videos, consciously or not, in any case. For the purposes of this analysis, the systematic breaking down of the children's narratives into constituent components, and their protracted examination in that fragmented state, is of little value; it is open to debate whether such activity is ever particularly worthwhile. However, Genette has usefully identified five functions which he argues correspond to the narrative voice (pp. 255-257):

(1) The 'narrative' function - the telling of the story.
(2) The 'directing' function - the internal organisation of the narrative.
(3) The 'communication' function - the addressing of an audience.
(4) The 'testimonial' function - the speaker's attitude to the subject matter.
(5) The 'ideological' function - the didactic aspect of the commentary.

These functions systematise the array of information which narratives can convey, although each may be more or less present in different texts, or different parts of a text (p. 257). Distinguishing each of them in narrative segments could be of value in exposing their full meanings. The testimonial and ideological functions, in particular, are likely to be of interest in environmental narratives, since they will convey the children's approach to the environment, and show which aspects of the subject are selected as arguments to be communicated to a wider audience.

Before such an analysis is attempted, however, we should consider a sample study of children's narratives. Gunilla Halldén (1994) sought to explore school children's views of the family by asking pupils to write and illustrate narratives about their imagined future family, which were collected together in booklets. Halldén looked at aspects of the stories such as which characters made decisions, who was the central figure, who broke rules, and features of the texts such as the presence of a strong mother character (who was found to be the main character in the stories by girls, but was absent from those by boys). On a more subtle level, attention was also paid to occasions on which the term 'we' was used; for example,

'In the girls' narratives, the actions of the "we" are directed by an organizing main character. In the boys' narratives, "we" most often refers to a group in which the main character is a participant but less often the organiser' (p. 74).

From such rather specific findings, Halldén is able to develop broader themes. For example, the differential uses of 'we' suggest that whilst the girls felt the family sphere to be a place where they had power and were in control,

'The boys often describe themselves as living in a family where they have no control over situations that arise and where comic incidents and the infraction of rules bring to light the chaotic aspects of family life' (ibid).

Some of Halldén's conclusions are arguably too polarised in their treatment of gender, considering that her analysis is based upon the work of only one school class - with boys' and girls' narratives treated as though gender was the only category or difference worth considering, and consequently suggesting that 'boys' and 'girls' are otherwise wholly homogeneous groups. The work is nevertheless a valuable example of how narratives can be examined to tease out insights which otherwise may have remained unearthed.

Even more focused is Carolyn Steedman's book, The Tidy House (1982), which explores in depth a single narrative of that name, written by three eight-year-old girls in school. The story is centred around families and parenthood, and questions of whether and how to bring up children in a background of material deprivation. Steedman notes that the text shows that the children are 'active, thoughtful and frequently resentful' participants in the process of socialisation (p. 31):

'Treated... as evidence of socialisation in working-class, mid-twentieth century Britain, it becomes clear that "The Tidy House" was used by the children who wrote it in two central ways: their episodic drama of family life articulated certain values and norms for the children; but, more than this, the text served as a way of questioning those values and of questioning the future that they saw lay before them.'

The narrative analysis here involves a literary study of themes, as well as a sociological exploration of what the story reflects about these girls' perspectives and knowledge about the world - or, more particularly, female social life. For example, the children's images in the narrative were found to centre around the house, the heart, the nest, the baby and the mother, and these traditionally 'feminine' concerns were theirs but in some way were resisted for being so. The detailed study of the narrative reveals these underlying tensions, and the girls' attempts to negotiate them from an early age.

An attempted narrative analysis of the videos

Due to the nature of the children's environmental videos, which were made up of short bits of speaking and other pictures, and usually edited together by the researcher rather than the children themselves, there is not obviously a 'pure' full-length child-produced narrative available to analyse. However, the narrative elements other than the holistic 'shape' imposed by editing can be examined, and these may suggest some of the general attitudes and worldview of those individuals who created them. It should also be noted that a full narrative analysis would incorporate the identification of general themes and conflicts, as already discussed in Analysis B. These should be assumed to be included in this analysis, although to avoid repetition those findings are not listed again here.

First, the range of basic narratives were identified. Whilst the editing process tended to introduce some elements of structure, the videos generally had segments, or an overall structure, characterised by an obvious narrative which was consciously devised at (or prior to) the time of filming. At Royal Park school, the 'story' involved a comparison between a field which the children felt should have been turned into a nice park by the Council, and Hyde Park, which they felt to be an appealing example of such a park. The Blenheim video, as mentioned previously, was structured around a very distinctive four-part narrative, in which the children assessed their local environment, wrote to the Council about an aspect of it, considered the replies, and then proposed their own ideas. The videos made at Burley, Weetwood, Brudenell and Beckett Park had less conspicuously 'designed' structures, but were each filmed as a series of tours around the neighbourhood which the children saw as building up to make one long consideration of their area, aspects of which they talked about in their filmed interviews in the final week, to be edited into their group's narrative at the relevant places. The video made by the youngest children, at Little London, was not made with any particularly clear narrative, but it can be seen that the video as a whole is telling a story about the 'everywhereness' of the environment - which is the view expressed by Mariam when she was asked about the film (prior to her seeing the edited version).

Four basic narratives

  This is our environment - a critical tour
  This is our environment - all around us
  This is our environment - a comparison of two areas
  This is our environment - and how we would improve it

The videos were built upon one or more of four basic sub-narratives, therefore (see table above), all of which are characterised by the central narrative which can be expressed as 'This is our environment', in which the children show the video audience both positive and negative aspects of the area in which they live and work. The four sub-narratives are far from being mutually exclusive: indeed, all of the videos included some aspects of the critical tour, noted that the environment is all around us, compared parts with other parts, and suggested improvements.

Two dominant narrative themes

  The world is in a bad state - we must try to improve it
  Other people are spoiling the environment - they must stop

If the narratives are taken more in terms of how the story was told (see table above), it can be noted that the children's video narratives almost uniformly applied a tone of constructive criticism; the basic story was that something was rotten in the state of the planet, but things could usually be done to alleviate the situation - although the problem was not seen as trivial, nor solutions easy. Interestingly, although the children were young, a chronological element appeared frequently, with the quality of the environment thought to have declined within recent times. Another basic story was that unspecified other people (not generally seen as a minority) were spoiling the environment, and it was the role of the narrator to persuade those people to stop, or encourage others to stop them. In general, responsibility for environmental damage was seen to lie with individuals, rather than companies (apart from a couple of exceptions) or the government (never mentioned). The implied audience here was often other children - the demonstration of how to dispose of a fizzy drink can, for example, presumably being aimed at such an audience - although the narrating children themselves, whilst concerned about the value of aspects of the environment for children (such as good places to play), did not generally position themselves explicitly as 'children' within the narrative.

The tone of the narratives was uniformly assertive and decisive; the children knew what they did and did not like, and usually had a good reason why, and someone - a generic other - to blame. They seemed well aware that an admittance of their own bad behaviour would weaken the argument, and so a role of moral superiority was assumed. The category of people who were damaging the environment was never 'we', most often being 'they'. On occasions such miscreants would be 'you' - instances which stand out as unexpectedly confrontational, not least because the broadcast media rarely uses this mode of address when apportioning blame for situations.

As noted previously, the primary unseen agents in each narrative, besides the generalised 'people', were 'the Council'. Where other people were seen as harming the environment, largely on an unseen basis, the Council had the god-like and equally invisible role of being there to put things right. The children were not particularly optimistic believers, but neither did they have a naturalised expectation that the Council would be lethargic or useless. Only in some cases was there an awareness that the Council's inaction might be due to a lack of resources. More frequently, the unspoken assumption seemed to be more that the Council were not aware of the problem in question, or had not yet got around to fixing it.

Standardised television genres were only occasionally deployed by the children. Some of the videos, in particular those made at Beckett Park and Little London, were presented in part as a 'show' about the environment, drawing somewhat on TV-presentation conventions. In the Beckett Park video, viewers were invited to phone in with questions, in the familiar style of programmes such as Live and Kicking (see chapter four in the book), whilst in the early stages of production at Little London, the children performed their presentations as sections of their schools programme Zig Zag. In the Blenheim video, during the section where the children examined nearby waste ground and telephoned the Council about it, their video drew to an extent on the 'investigative journalism' genre (typified by ITV's The Cook Report), following the standard narrative line of 'We looked at this situation - found it to be bad - now we are going to question the people responsible for it'. Also in common with this genre, the response was found to be unsatisfactory, and so the video producers suggested their own preferred outcome. Elsewhere in the children's videos, however, the presentation and interview styles only borrowed in a very general way from the styles of non-fictional, talking-to-camera television.

Of course, arguments can be made against genre imitation in children's work, since it might be seen to suggest a lack of original ideas, and could rely upon clichés; on the other hand, the opportunity to explore genres, making their forms more explicit to children, could be valuable and instructive, and producing a text within the confines of a genre is not an unchallenging exercise. As Moss (1989) has shown, children are able to deploy and subvert genres such as 'romance' or 'action-adventure', in their written work, to explore issues of gender and teenage sexuality. Moss suggests that teachers would be wrong to criticise such work for being clichéd or televisual, since the children in such cases have both demonstrated an understanding of genres, and an ability to turn their texts, within those forms, to address their own concerns.

On the whole, as the limited number and extent of genre-based examples above suggests, the children in the present study only occasionally borrowed from particular established televisual forms. A greater amount of planning prior to recording might have altered this situation, but the mix of personalities and sexes in each group may have made agreement on a more sophisticated plan difficult to achieve in any case. Some suggestions and prompting from adults, which in this study the group supervisors deliberately avoided making, might also have spurred the children to attempt some dramatic or genre-derivative sequences. As it was, most of the children's planning discussions centred around what they should film, and (to a lesser extent) how they could illustrate particular points - such as the amount of pollution in a canal - rather than the overall style of presentation or filming, which were not discussed in broad terms.

Silences in the videos

Having examined the issues and angles which the children included in their videos, this final section turns to the important matter of what they did not cover, and which perspectives were not favoured in the presentations. The range of possible alternative narratives is of course infinite, but two of the most obvious lines of commentary which were not produced by the children are indicated in the table below. It will be recalled that whilst the basic narratives of the videos made by the children were divided into four types above, these could basically all be summarised under the single narrative line, 'This is our environment - good and bad points'. The two primary narratives in the table below contrast sharply with this.

Two basic narratives not featured in the videos

  This is our global environment - and its problems
  This is our environment - polluted and ruined by industry

In short, whole-world and structural perspectives were overlooked in favour of individualised explorations of the local environment and its problems. Furthermore, if we look at narrative themes, an explicit comparison can be made between the angles taken and those not used, as shown in the table below.

Two dominant narrative themes ...and two absent narrative themes

The world is in a bad state - we must try to improve it

The world is in a bad state - government and industry must try to improve it

Other people are spoiling the environment - they must stop

Other people and institutions are spoiling the environment - they must be stopped

It could be argued that the form of the project, in giving the pupils an invitation to leave the confines of the school which they were usually unable to resist, contained an implicit direction towards local themes. However, opportunities to use aspects of the local environment to illustrate global themes, or to produce models or simulations of global problems in the classroom, were not taken. Furthermore one could not say that the project promoted the individualism of the children's accounts of causes and solutions; there is nothing suggestive or implicit in the video method to cause the 'dominant narrative themes' in the table above to appear, or for the 'absent narrative themes' to be excluded.

We should note that the responsibility for environmental improvement was not presumed to be with individuals in all cases: the children at Burley, in particular, saw the cleaning-up of their area as the City Council's duty. However, this perceived need for state intervention was in a reactive, non-preventative role - tidying up after pollution, but not stopping that pollution in the first place.

The traditional developmental view of children might suggest that those involved in this study may simply have lacked the ability to 'decentre', or to consider such complex issues. However, the children at all levels demonstrated an ability to consider the needs and feelings of others, and how they might feel about the environment. They were also generally able to explain the complex processes of environmental pollution, when probed; the lack of emphasis on such issues in the videos cannot be taken as evidence either of inability or of ignorance.

To summarize, although the children in this study often identified adults as being an anti-environmental social group, this critique was almost never refined to focus on organised forms of adult action. The children had acquired a strong sense of environmental responsibility, which sometimes even - commendably - allowed them to see that they might be a part of the problem themselves. However, this was not tied to a parallel need for eco-unfriendly institutions to mend their ways in similar fashion, nor even much of a recognition that such institutions may be a bigger problem than the ecologically lax acts of individuals.

The text and images on this site are by David Gauntlett, © 1997, 2004.
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