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Qualitative Research

Staking a small claim for fictional narratives in social and educational

Cate Watson
Qualitative Research 2011 11: 395
DOI: 10.1177/1468794111404317

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Staking a small claim for R
fictional narratives in social Qualitative Research

and educational research 11(4) 395­–408

© The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/1468794111404317
Cate Watson
University of Stirling, UK

The use of narrative has become widespread in social and educational research, as both the
phenomenon under study and as a method of analysis. However, this general acceptance of
narrative as focus of research may not extend to the use of fictional narratives and related genres
such as semi-fiction and creative non-fiction, nor to use of novels as ‘data’.This article examines the
uses of fiction as data, analytical tool and representational mode in social and educational research.
The purpose is to present an overview of the current uses being made of these approaches,
illustrating different facets of engagement with fictional narratives, and to consider what can be
gained (and also perhaps what might be lost) through their adoption.

Chartered Teacher, creative non-fiction, educational research, fiction, narrative, novel, satire, semi-fiction,
social research

The narrative turn (and other clichés)
It has become something of a cliché to talk about the ‘narrative turn’ in the social sciences.
The narrative of narrative research is that narrative is ubiquitous, and the turn to narrative
near universal. Even disciplines like medicine and law (and what could be more disci-
plined) have fallen under the seductive lure of narrative. We are, Mark Currie (1998: 2)
says, narrative animals ‘Homo fabulans, tellers and interpreters of narrative’, constructing
(and then reconstructing) our lives narratively. The significance of narrative to social
research is therefore twofold, both as the phenomenon under study and as the method of
analysis. However, while there is currently widespread acceptance of narrative in main-
stream social research this acceptance may not extend to the use of fictional narratives or
related genres such as ‘creative non-fiction’ (Hackley, 2007) and ‘semi-fiction’, in which

Corresponding author:
Cate Watson, School of Education, University of Stirling, UK

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396 Qualitative Research 11(4)

‘empirical content is presented in a partial (or total) make-believe form for dramatic
communicative effect’ (Whiteman and Phillips, 2006: 6). This reluctance is no doubt the
result of a deeply felt need for research to be grounded in an empirical reality of something
that really happened – despite the problematizing of this notion occasioned by the ‘crisis
of representation’ (see, for example, Denzin, 1997). But in some quarters, and in a variety
of ways, fiction is being brought into social research. In this article I present an overview
of the uses to which fictional narrative is being put and I explore the issues such a move
raises drawing on examples from my own, and others’ research.

The ideology of genre

E.L. Doctorow is widely quoted as saying, ‘There is no longer any such thing as fiction
and nonfiction; there’s only narrative’ (quoted in Danesi, 2008: 71). While this may beg
the question of what a narrative actually is (itself a fertile area for academic debate), it
draws attention to the artful nature of all narrative constructions. In a sense, all narratives
are made up. Indeed, Genette (1990) examines the claim (and corresponding counter
claim) that there is no way to distinguish between a fictional narrative and a factual one.
He concludes that apart from pure forms ‘only to be found in the poetician’s test tube’
(Genette, 1990: 772) both domains ‘are neither so far apart nor so homogenous as they
might appear’. What is decisive is genre or, as Richardson and St Pierre (2005: 961) put
it, the authorial claim for the text. ‘Declaring that one’s work is fiction’, these authors
say, ‘is a different rhetorical move than declaring one’s work is social science’. This
declaration, which serves to orientate the reader providing a set of expectations, carries
with it certain responsibilities on the part of the author. To declare one’s work ‘social
science’ is to make certain assurances that what one has written is true and deserves to be
taken seriously. But by declaring one’s work simultaneously fiction and social science,
the researcher runs the risk, through disturbing the pact between author and reader, of not
having their work read as social science (or indeed at all) and therefore dismissed. This
is especially so in an era in which we have seen a ‘narrowing of the officially sanctioned
methodological spectrum’ (Barone, 2007: 454), particularly in educational research and
other professions in which ‘evidence-based practice’ has become a mantra. Genre
expectation greatly influences reading, and this is powerfully at work as an ideological
effect in the social sciences.
Yet, in a curious way, Rhodes and Brown (2005: 479) suggest the act of openly declar-
ing one’s work fiction (or semi-fiction) actually demonstrates an ethical position since
it explicitly acknowledges the ‘textuality, aesthetics and constructedness’ of the text,
aspects that are frequently masked in ‘conventional’ social science writing. Indeed, as
Bazerman (1988: 14) says, ‘To write science is commonly thought not to write at all, just
simply to record the natural facts.’ This is the triumph of writing within the empirical
science paradigm. The rhetorical moves inherent in the creation of such texts have
become so naturalized, so sedimented into practice, that they do not appear to belong to
an ideology and, as Bazerman points out, it is only in comparatively recent times that the
rhetorical tropes drawn on by the scientist have been subject to analysis. This is not just
of literary curiosity, however. The writing of such texts legitimizes a particular kind of
knowledge. To recognize and surface such linguistic strategies as strategies is therefore
to adopt a subversive position.

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Watson 397

Fiction and social research

Relations between fiction and social research are complex. Rhodes and Brown (2005:
469), working within the field of organization studies in which, rather surprisingly
perhaps, fiction has been ‘quite fruitfully employed’ for some time, suggest that ‘fiction
has emerged as a methodological concern in three related ways’. If it is accepted that
‘(1) fictionality can be seen to be a characteristic of research writing in general’ it
follows that ‘(2) explicitly fictional stories can be regarded as appropriate empirical
material for organizational research’ and so ‘(3) fictional genres can be used as a legiti-
mate mode for the writing of research’.
De Cock and Land (2006: 519) (again working in the area of organization studies) refer
to three ‘modes of engagement’ with literature: Mode 1 subjects academic writing to the
methods of literary criticism, making academic texts ‘subject to critique using literary
theory’. The main aim of this, the authors suggest, is to improve the literary quality of
research texts, but the tools of literary theory can also be used to analyse research texts in
order to examine the rhetorical strategies utilised in their construction (see, for example,
Watson, 2009). Mode 2 concerns the ‘use of literary genres as alternative modes of rep-
resentation for organizational knowledge and research’, i.e. the writing of fictional/semi-
fictional research texts or the incorporation of poetry, drama, etc., into academic texts;
finally, Mode 3 draws on literature as a pedagogical ‘tool to explicate theory’, largely for
the purpose of illustration of themes and ideas or as a resource for critique. De Cock and
Land refer to the interdisciplinary boundary that these modes of engagement traverse as
the seam. The authors consider what this seam contributes to both disciplines:

Through our exploration we point to the dynamic tensions and incongruities that flow from this
organization/literature relationship, thereby furthering an engagement between the organizational
and the literary that neither reduces one to the other, nor privileges their separation. (De Cock
and Land, 2006: 518)

The metaphor of the seam provides a means for holding open the relationship between
the literary text and the text of social research, which enables each to draw on and
from the other. As an example of this, Warner (1991: 8) discusses the ‘social role’ of
the novel and shows how a Foucauldian analysis of the 18th century novel reveals ‘the
insidious fashion in which the novel promotes systems of social control’, producing
subjectivities which, through their seeming naturalness render the ‘workings of power
invisible’ (Warner, 1991: 4). Conversely, in an exploration of empathy (Watson, 2009a) I
demonstrate how literary strategies, such as ‘free indirect style’ (untagged movement
between the minds of the narrator and character) and ‘metanarrative comment’ can be
used to convey empathy in research texts, a practice which may be interpreted as manip-
ulative and hence ethically dubious. Bringing the tools of literary critique to bear in
analyses of social research texts exposes the (artfully) constructed nature of these texts.
In effect, movement across the seam has the power to produce an alternative reading,
revealing, in the two examples above, the ideological workings of genre.
The interdisciplinary fertility conferred by the seam therefore supports the emergence
of a range of analyses. The focus in this article, however, is on an examination of the
use of fiction as data, analytical tool and representational mode in social research.

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398 Qualitative Research 11(4)

The purpose is to present an overview of the current uses being made of these approaches,
illustrating different facets of engagement with fictional narratives, and to consider what
can be gained (and also perhaps what might be lost) through their adoption.

Fictional forms in social and educational research

Novels as ‘data’
To speak of novels as ‘data’ is to introduce a note of deliberate incongruity – illustrating
how movement across the seam focuses attention on what is usually taken for granted,
simultaneously rendering strange both the idea of ‘the novel’ and the concept of ‘data’.
The use of literary quotes to illustrate specific points, appealing to the truths offered
by fiction (as well as showing off the erudition of the researcher) is common practice in
the writing of research texts. (In this way, paradoxically, fiction functions as an authen-
ticating device providing validity for some aspect of the research text.) However, the
use of entire novels as data in social research appears to be more restricted. Scholarly
works discussing the pedagogical uses of fiction in the social sciences provide perhaps
the most common examples. Thus, Whitebrook (1993) advocates the use of fiction
in teaching politics; Czarniawska-Joerges and de Monthoux’s Good Novels, Better
Management. Reading Organizational Realities in Fiction (1994: 1) has the aim of
showing ‘how good novels can educate better managers’; Gerde and Foster (2008: 248)
consider the use of ‘graphic novels’ to teach business ethics, arguing that comic books
‘illustrate ethical dilemmas, cognitive development, ethical reasoning, and the com-
plexity of social issues’; and Kelly (2009) analyses satirical fictional representations of
the supervisor/doctoral student relationship and discusses the use of these in her work
as an academic developer.
Leaving the pedagogical uses of fiction aside then, what is it that the novel provides
distinctively as a source of ‘data’ for research purposes? Negash (2004) (working in the
area of political science) addresses this question. In particular, he asks: ‘if insights are to
be gained from artistic works … one has to provide a more systematic answer to why this
is’ (original emphasis, Negash, 2004: 187). In answer to his own question, Negash makes
a number of suggestions as to ‘why the arts, in their form and production, provide a site
from where we can observe and experience aspects of political life that we cannot
possibly achieve in other ways’ (Negash, 2004: 188, emphasis added). The first concerns
human agency, the motivations and intentions behind human action, and the way this is
represented in artistic works which takes ‘stock of the discontinuities of the social life
process that a “science” of human life or generalizations about human behavior [sic]
cannot accommodate’. As data ‘the literary narrative accommodates the unpredictable
side of life as well as purposeful behaviour – the fragmented and the coherent at the
same time’ (Negash, 2004: 193). Second, Negash suggests, ‘art is a privileged medium in
the sense that it imparts knowledge about life … at both the abstract level and at a deeper
cultural level of meaning’, revealing something that was not revealed to us before.
Together, these two justifications relate to what we might think of as the internal aspects
of the text. Negash highlights the contrast between the concerns of a ‘traditional’ notion
of research in the social sciences with its reductive tendencies, aimed at producing

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Watson 399

generalizations and closure, and those of the artist concerned with complexity, ambiguity
and openness. The interdisciplinary tensions produced by this juxtaposition create a
productive site, a rich seam, which can usefully be exploited by the social researcher.
This shows up the importance of aesthetics in the novel-as-data: ‘one must’, Whitebrook
(2001: 18) says, ‘look at the novel – what goes on inside it – and respond to that’. The
novel presents a complex picture and this should not, she suggests, quoting Haight
(1956), be ‘allowed to lapse from the picture to the diagram’. In this sense the novel,
as ekphrastic device representing the visual in verbal terms, has the potential to move
from simply source of ‘empirical data’ to analytical tool which facilitates the development
of theory.
Two further reasons are offered by Negash (2004: 193) as to why the novel and other
fictional texts (he is also concerned with films) may be of interest to the social researcher.
First, novels ‘are influenced by other historical circumstances in time and space …’. This
relates to Foucault’s notion of episteme (1989), a configuration that circumscribes what
it is permissible to think in any historical period. Analysis of the text can give insight into
the epistemic constraints, or social discourses, which surround its production. Finally,
Negash argues that the activities of artists/writers as intellectuals are significant in their
own right and ‘their influence in the construction of images are also part of the political
realities in the here and now’ (2004: 188), which acknowledges the role of authorial
intention in the fashioning of the text. These two aspects relate to context, extending the
analysis beyond the confines of the written text. Taken together, all this suggests that
fictional narratives provide a potentially distinctive source of data for the social researcher
that can be drawn on in a variety of ways, as I now aim to show.
In the field of higher education, Tierney (2004) analyses what he calls the ‘academic’
novel as a genre which presents ‘a moral tale about academic life’ (p. 164) as a means to
examine the current socio-cultural context in which notions of academic freedom
reside.1 The academic novel, Tierney (2004: 164) suggests, provides a ‘research tool for
understanding higher education’ and he cites Milan Kundera in saying that ‘the novel
provides unique opportunities to explore philosophical questions’. Specifically, he says,
‘novels allow readers to examine meaning rather than truth, existence as opposed to
reality. Thus, the novel suggests what is possible, which reality forecloses’ (Tierney,
2004: 162). Moreover, novels, Tierney argues (unlike academic papers), are widely read
and therefore have a role in shaping public perceptions about issues such as academic
freedom. By examining these narratives, the academic holds up a mirror – albeit one in
which a certain amount of distortion may be apparent – and sees a new relation. In this
case, Tierney sees a change in the meaning attached to ‘academic freedom’ over the
course of the 20th century. Thus, for example, Robert Herrick’s Chimes, published in
1926, concerns ‘the problems a professor faces for his pacifist views during World War
One’ and Thurber and Nugent’s The male animal (1940) ‘is a defence of a liberal who
sees it as his business “to bring what light we can into this muddled world – to try to
follow the truth”’ (Tierney, 2004: 166). In the latter part of the 20th century, however,
Tierney sees a movement away from associations of academic freedom with virtue and
towards reduction to brute questions of tenure and its loss, often occasioned by sexual
transgression (see for example Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, published in 2000). It
may be asked what this analysis achieves – other than to allow us as academics, in the

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400 Qualitative Research 11(4)

words of Robert Burns ‘to see ourselves as others see us’. In response to this, Tierney
(2004: 164) suggests that:

the purpose in reading academic fiction has less to do with proving or disproving the truth of a
text; instead, the novel might be thought of as a way to help academics think about how academic
life has been structured, defined, and interpreted in order to create constructive change.

The analysis therefore potentially raises some interesting and important questions
concerning the changing nature of universities as organizations (particularly when one
considers that many of the authors of the campus novel are themselves academics, which
introduces an element of reflexivity). In turn this has bearing on theory concerning the
construction of academic identities which certainly has relevance in the current context
as higher education responds to the twin vicissitudes of neoliberalism and the global
financial crisis.
While Tierney’s article provides one of the few examples of the analysis of the novel-
as-data in educational research, political science provides several. For example,
Whitebrook (2007) draws on a ‘political reading’ of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway
using this to construct a theory concerning ‘the politics of party-giving’. In this she
argues that ‘forms of political sociability – from salons to tea parties, cocktail parties,
metropolitan dinner-parties – may be construed as sites of political activity’ and as dis-
tinct arenas for women’s influence in politics. In this way, the novel functions as a means
to open up a space in which ideas surrounding ‘an alternative politics’ can be developed
and interrogated. Whitebrook then extends the analysis to other sources, firstly, to a his-
torical consideration of the role of the salon and the ‘salonnière’ in political activity, and
then to contemporary politics and the role of women. Similarly, Ingle (2007) analyses
Orwell’s 1984, examining the relationship between the ‘ordinary citizen’ and the state,
through a ‘close analysis of one of the best-known modern accounts of that relationship’
(Ingle, 2007: 730). Ingle asks what it is that imaginative writers bring to the study of poli-
tics and suggests that ‘it has a lot to do with the imaginative insights of writers who, by
dint of their expertise, seek to give us an understanding of an issue that could be called
experiential as much as intellectual’ (Ingle, 2007: 730). As well as a close reading of the
text itself, Ingle contextualizes his analysis through a consideration of Orwell and the
socio-political discourses within which he was writing, and uses this contextualization to
construct an argument relating to citizenship and the state.
Finally, another example from Whitebrook (2001) in which she provides a complex
and extended example of the use of the novel-as-data. In her book Identity, narrative
and politics she analyses literary works by Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, E.L.
Doctorow and others in order to examine the narrative construction of identities. This
relies on a connection between the form and function of literary narratives and our
personal narratives of experience, a position supported by Culler (1984: 7) who says,
‘non-literary discourses prove to function according to principles and processes most
dramatically and explicitly manifested in literature, so that literature serves as a model
for what is involved in the intelligibility they confer’. Whitebrook (2001: 11) argues:
‘given that certain narrative terms are potentially explanatory for the construction of
identity, attention is directed to that form of narrative where those terms are most
clearly deployed’, i.e. novels:

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Watson 401

I look at novels as accessible instances of narrative in practice. Turning to narratives – modern

novels – allows for observation of how identity is constructed, through attention to content
and form; plot and characterization; and narrative structure, style and techniques. The process
of narrative construction is relevant inasmuch as it makes the point that identity is narratively
made, and shows what that means for an understanding of political identity. (Whitebrook,
2001: 5)

This approach goes beyond quoting from fictional texts as a means to ‘illustrate’
particular points or to ‘provide insights’ (important and useful as this may be). The way
in which identity is narratively constructed in the text is subject to systematic interroga-
tion and used to develop theory relating to the creation of political identities. Whitebrook
(2001: 17) says, ‘novels include political ideas which relate to political theory, but theory
is needed to systematize those political ideas which are part of the literary whole’. It is
this process of systematization of ideas, tracking between the artistic source and the
resources of social research, traversing the interdisciplinary seam, which provides the
strength of this approach in which data and analysis elide, the text becoming as much
critical analytical tool as source of data.
For Whitebrook (1993: 258) this is key and she decries the tendency for researchers
with an interest in literature to work with ‘crude conceptions’ of literary realism in which
‘plot is taken as an account that can be treated like a case study and ignoring style, struc-
ture and metaphor’. This highlights a dichotomy: Tierney arguably does indeed treat the
campus novel as a ‘case’; Phillips and Zyglidopoulos (1995: 593) in their analysis of
Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and its relevance to organizational research, are upfront
about this, arguing that ‘our general approach is to treat works of narrative fiction as
intensive, qualitative case studies … we treat the narrative as if it grew out of some
underlying hypothesis that the author is struggling with in the book’, and they equate
their approach with grounded theory in which through their analysis they uncover this
hypothesis and restate it in a way more useful to research. The dichotomy appears to rest
on a distinction between a literary approach to narrative analysis and an ethnographic
approach, which cannot be collapsed, illustrating the potentially productive tensions held
open across the interdisciplinary seam.

Fictional/semi-fictional research texts

I turn now to consider the presentation of narrative fictions and semi-fictions as and in
research texts. This encompasses a wide range of possibilities, from entire works writ-
ten as fictional forms, with or without some kind of metanarrative commentary, to the
insertion of poetry, vignettes, dramatic representations, visual sequences etc. While in
comparison with areas like political science there appear to be relatively few examples
of the ‘novel-as-data’ in educational research, fictional forms of representation (and
particularly performance) are more widespread. In an influential piece, Eisner (1997: 7)
considers the ‘promises’ and ‘perils’ of such alternative forms of representation, the
main aim of which, he suggests, is to enlarge understanding. In our research accounts,
he says, ‘we report the temperature even when we are interested in the heat … New
forms of data representation signify our growing interest in inventing ways to represent

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402 Qualitative Research 11(4)

the heat’. This is clearly a different aim from ‘traditional social science’ which concerns
the ability to ‘explain, predict and sometimes control similar future events’ (Barone,
2007: 464).
In order to enlarge the understanding of those we seek to influence we must first get
their attention. A key motivation then for researchers to present their work in fictional
form is to increase reader/audience engagement. In the current ‘REF’2 dominated jargon
this relates to the impact of our research. Recently, I was asked to present a paper at a
research seminar on professional development for inclusion in education (Watson, 2011).
My presentation, which concerned constructions of the ‘home-school partnership’ drew
on a narrative of a mother of a child diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder). In reading her narrative one of the things that struck me was
how, from her perspective, this diagnosis was arrived at though a sequence of quite
trivial events, starting with her son having forgotten his school tie one day (a motif which
recurred throughout the narrative). Between them, the educational, medical and psychi-
atric professions constructed a deviant family, and the family, obligingly, fell into this
role, descending from a kind of everyday family ordinariness into madness. At the semi-
nar I presented this as a series of satirical ‘Hogarthian’3 scenes documenting the family’s
progress and called on members of the audience to take the various (scripted) roles. The
analysis of this mother’s narrative was itself a narrative in which I quoted her at length,
added my own interpretations and fictionalized some parts to present scenes based on her
experiences. Here the aim of fictionalization was to satirize these events in order to point
up the absurd that always lurks beneath what hegemonic discourse claims as the rational,
since it is precisely this claim that produces ‘madness’ through what it excludes. There is
perhaps an ethical tension in presenting an analysis of narrative around traumatic events
such as these as satire, yet the intention was not to trivialize but rather its opposite. Satire
is a thoroughly serious – though underutilised, and perhaps misunderstood – way to
address important topics in social research. Many of the comments I received afterwards
were about how powerful this presentation had been – some people even saying that it
had kept them awake during the graveyard hour after lunch (which I took to be a compli-
ment rather than a complaint). An interesting aspect of this for me was that although the
roles were scripted, the players were free to perform their parts as they wanted. At first I
was annoyed at what I took to be one of the actors ‘misreading’ their role, but then I
was intrigued by this ceding of control and the possibilities for multiple interpretations
opened up.
Whiteman and Phillips (2006: 16) write that ‘The fictional dimension can increase
reader response and help challenge pre-existing assumptions in a creative and subversive
way’. Increasing reader response relates to impact. A colleague subsequently told me that
following this presentation, one of her students (a teacher on a Masters course) had ques-
tioned whether what I had presented constituted research at all. She replied, ‘Did it make
you think differently about relationships between home and school? Will that influence
your practice? If so, then it’s research’. (Although I have put this in quotation marks, as
a rhetorical strategy to increase reader engagement, I cannot swear to these being the
exact words she spoke). To have impact, our research accounts need to be consumed by
the various audiences we seek to influence. In education, and possibly in other areas of
professional practice too, there is a tendency these days, when presenting research for

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Watson 403

consumption by practitioners, for findings to be simplified, made easily digestible;

complexity is violated in the reductive pursuit of simple messages and closure. By
contrast, Sparkes (1997: 33) says, of fictional narratives, ‘The end result is a powerful
story that has the potential to provoke multiple interpretations and responses from
readers who differ in their positioning to the story provided’. Yet, as my colleague’s
student reveals, a problem clearly remains which concerns the ideological effect of
genre – if this style of representation is not accepted as research (and especially if it
cannot find a sympathetic publisher) then there is no impact.
Barone (2007: 466), in a defence of the use of fictional forms argues that ‘our aim as
researcher-storytellers is not to seek certainty about correct perspectives on educational
phenomena but to raise significant questions about prevailing policy and practice that
enrich an ongoing conversation’. Holm (2009) illustrates this in an examination of the
professional identities of Chartered Teachers (a fairly recently introduced advanced
qualification for classroom teachers in Scotland). She explores the confusion in identi-
ties and understanding of the role that this professional shift can engender, along with
ambivalent attitudes towards Chartered Teachers within the teaching profession itself
by means of a ‘playlet’. Her aim is to ‘illustrate issues’ and ‘inform the judgements
and decisions of practitioners (and perhaps policy makers)’ as well as contributing to
‘theoretical ideas about professional identity’. Through an analysis of interviews with
teachers and school management which centres on the organization of plot and symbol
she draws out themes and ‘leitmotifs’ and uses these to construct her fictional account.
While Holm does provide an introduction setting out the context and explaining the
form of analysis, the playlet, which offers a beguilingly subtle analysis, stands on its
own and she resists the temptation to engage in further interpretation.
This is not always easy, indeed Sparkes (2007) points up the pressure to provide an
interpretation when presenting a story as research in an academic journal. There is the
expectation that the fictional narrative will be swaddled within a researcherly paratext
which provides authority and validates it, particularly in relation to citation. Sparkes
largely, though not completely evades this (as his lengthy list of acknowledgements
attests), in a paper in which he presents a fictional account ‘about the embodied struggles
of a composite and mythical (perhaps?) academic at an imaginary (perhaps?) university
in England that is permeated by an audit culture’ (Sparkes, 2007: 522). Sparkes provides
a brief introduction to the story which he presents for our ‘consideration’. He then
relinquishes control over the interpretation of the story by including responses to it
from the reviewers of the paper and other academics. This approach highlights a ten-
sion between fictional narratives and research reports (sensu strictu) which is located
in the drive for closure. Eisner (1997) suggests that fictional forms can counter this
drive. Through ‘productive ambiguity’, he says, fictional narrative representations
provide the possibility of keeping interpretation open. (Though this is a binary ripe for
deconstruction – fictional narratives are never quite so open to alternative readings, nor
research papers so completely closed down. Intertextuality ensures that meaning
escapes language.)
The potential openness of fictional narrative forms, which enables multiple interpre-
tations fostering productive ambiguity, provides one justification for their place in
social research (though Eisner (1997) also points out the potential ‘perils’ that this

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404 Qualitative Research 11(4)

can engender in terms of loss of ‘precision’). Another justification lies in the aspect of
understanding to be enlarged. Many authors of fictional research texts point to the way
in which fictionalization, in contrast to more conventional forms of representation in
social research, taps into the emotional aspects of existence (see, for example, Clough,
2002). Thus, Pelias (2004: 1) in the introduction to his book A methodology of the heart:
evoking academic and daily life says:

The essays all originate in the desire to write from the heart, to put on display a researcher who,
instead of hiding behind the illusion of objectivity, brings himself forward in the belief that an
emotionally vulnerable, linguistically evocative, and sensuously poetic voice can place us
closer to the subjects we wish to study.

While some may view this kind of emotional display with a certain squeamishness (I
know I do) it is nonetheless true that fictionalization can convey a real sense of viscerality.
An alternative approach however, as I have already indicated, makes use of satire as an
analytical tool, tapping into the comic or the carnivalesque as a means to critique domi-
nant discourses. To give a further example, a year or so ago (depending on when this is
published), I presented a paper at a research seminar on interprofessional working in chil-
dren’s services (Watson, forthcoming). The paper examined the ways in which ‘organiza-
tions more or less succeed in maintaining a façade of order’ but ‘by imposing boundaries,
hierarchic order, and an ideology of rationality on differentiation, (they) create a context
that is inherently fragmentary and contradictory’ (Batteau, 2000: 730). The aim of the
presentation was to show how the imposition of ‘boundaries, hierarchic order and the
ideology of rationality’ actively undermines the possibilities for integrated working while
also shifting the focus away from organizations’ disorganization and onto individuals.
The paper drew on research interviews with teachers and the other professionals with
whom they worked, to construct a fictionalized account which constituted a narrative
analysis of identities mobilized within the different organizational systems within which
these professionals practised. The dialogue stuck closely to what the interviewees
actually said (though in some cases this was altered to provide greater anonymity), but
their words were condensed in order to highlight particular aspects of the performance of
identity and the ‘individuals’ presented were all fictional characters, amalgamations to
render the ‘script’ more manageable in performance terms, and to prevent identification
of individuals and organizations. The approach did not aim at the transparent representa-
tion of data (itself a fiction) but at its re-presentation in such a way as to constitute an
analysis through the generation of another narrative. Clough (2002: 8), defending such
fictionalizations in educational research says, ‘as a means of educational report, stories
can provide a means by which those truths, which cannot be otherwise told, are uncov-
ered’, offering researchers ‘the opportunity to import fragments of data from various real
events in order to speak to the heart of social consciousness’. However, while wishing to
appropriate Clough’s arguments to legitimize the approach adopted, in addition a key
aim of the representation was precisely to construct a partial narrative (in both senses of
the word) in order to produce satire as a means to highlight the ways in which, within
the ambiguous embrace of the organization, teachers, other professionals and their
respective managers, construct and mobilize their identities. The paper aimed to disrupt

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Watson 405

the metaphysics of closure so prevalent in modernist policy discourses and to antagonize

those discourses ‘intent on the suppression of dissent, diversity, complexity and unpre-
dictability’ (MacLure, 2006: 224).
Satire is, Bronowski and Mazlish (1960[1933]: 252) suggest, ‘a mode of challenging
accepted notions by making them seem ridiculous’. It is, Knight (2004) says, a form of
attack whose purpose may not be to bring about change but to focus perceptions. What
is lost and what is gained by this form of analysis? What is lost is representation as
narrative realism – the true words spoken by the actual people in the real organizations.
But this is not the same thing as saying that what is lost is somehow more real or more
authentic: realism aims to represent a natural landscape which feels real. Satire shifts
representation from realism to allegory. Of this move Mathieu-Castellani (1991: 33)
writes, ‘could it be that one lets us see, while the other lets us understand?’.

Conclusion – reality, truth and the ‘gold standard’

In this article I have examined fictional narratives as data and method in social research.
To a certain extent the organization of the article draws on Polkinghorne’s (1995) dis-
tinction between analysis of narrative and narrative analysis. In Polkinghorne’s terms
analysis of narrative interrogates a narrative and presents the results in a non-narrative
form; conversely, narrative analysis typically takes non-narrative data and creatively
fashions a narrative from it. This suggests two rather different forms of analysis.
However, Polkinghorne’s taxonomy relies on a somewhat conservative set of ideas as
to what constitutes narrative. An alternative, more expansive definition4 would suggest
that in both cases the researcher takes a narrative and fashions another in response to
it. And in both cases the question that continues to dominate concerns truth and reality.
Bridges (2003: 96) argues that ‘the fictional must always be parasitic upon the factual
narrative’ and ‘the real has a kind of logical priority over fiction and represents a kind
of measure, a gold standard against which the value or currency of fiction is judged’.
But paradoxically, as Bridges himself acknowledges, we have learned to dispense
with the gold standard which, surviving only as metaphor, itself takes on a fictional or
fabulous quality. Paradoxically too, in Lacanian terms the ‘real’, as that which remains
unsymbolized, is always out of reach (Lacan, 2001) – which of course explains the
necessity for narrative fiction as the means through which we attempt to grasp the real.
Bridges (1999: 597) suggests that all enquiry must be concerned with ‘truth’ otherwise
‘it probably collapses into incoherence’. The question is, though, by what narrative
means shall we construct this truth?
None of this is to suggest, of course, that research which makes use of fictional data is
in any way a `cure all’ to be used in all circumstances and for all purposes (an objection
made by a reviewer of an earlier version of this article). It is, rather to stake a small claim
for the legitimacy of this approach to social and educational research. I have, in this
article, outlined a number of different ways in which the analysis of fiction or the repre-
sentation of data as fiction can further our thinking. These may be summarized as follows
(and this is certainly not an exhaustive list). First, by providing as already indicated ‘a
means by which those truths which cannot otherwise be told, are uncovered’ (Clough,
2002: 8) they may create enhanced emotional involvement with the reader; secondly, as

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406 Qualitative Research 11(4)

satire fiction moves from realism to allegory, an analytical move which ‘metamorphoses
a notion into a character’ (Mathieu-Castellani, 1991: 33); third, fiction may be seen as a
means to subvert the inherent tendency of research to impose closure (not least because
it encourages a reflexive examination of the rhetorical tropes drawn on by researchers).
Last (and not wishing to be accused of claiming too much for this approach to research),
crossing disciplinary boundaries gives us access to another set of tools which enable
exploration of some issues of social and educational interest in – slightly – different ways.

1. As an introduction to the ‘academic’ novel, Tierney’s article can hardly be bettered, and is
recommended for any readers wanting to get to grips with this genre.
2. The REF – the Research Excellence Framework, is the latest manifestation of the research
assessment exercise. It is the competition by means of which research is judged in UK higher
education institutions, and how they receive government funding for research. At the time of
writing ‘Impact’ is to contribute 20% of the overall ranking measure.
3. William Hogarth (d.1764) was an artist famous for his satirical series examining social mores,
for example ‘The Rake’s Progress’ and ‘Marriage a la mode’.
4. Richardson (2000: 169) suggests there are currently four basic approaches to defining narrative
which he designates temporal (two events connected by a temporal link), causal (introduces a
plot), minimal (‘implies a transformation from an earlier to a later state’) and transactional (‘pos-
its that narrative is simply a way of reading a text, rather than a feature or essence found in a text’).

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Biographical note
Cate Watson has an interest in professional learning and is a member of the proPEL network, an
international network for research into professional practice, education and learning, based in the
School of Education at Stirling University. Cate is the author of Reflexive Research and the (Re)
turn to the Baroque. (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the University) (Sense, 2008);
and with Joan Forbes has edited, Service Integration in Schools. Research and Policy Discourses,
Practices and Future Prospects (Sense, 2009). The Transformation of Children’s Services.
Examining and Debating the Complexities of Inter/professional Working, also co-edited with Joan
Forbes, is forthcoming (Routledge).

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