Temporal ordering and co-creating narrative accounts

The relationship between narrative and time

In his essay Narrative Time, Paul Ricoeur wrote about what he saw as the reciprocal relationship between narrative and temporality. Taking Heidegger’s questioning of the conception of time as a consecutive series of “nows” as a starting point, Ricoeur identifies three levels of time’s relationship with narrative: an understanding of time as that in which events as recounted in narratives happen (“within-time-ness”), time as historicality (putting greater emphasis on the past) and time as a narrative element which plot and characters reckon with.

It’s mind-bending stuff, but for me the important aspect of what Ricoeur says is that narrative has its own multifaceted relationship with time, which narrative researchers need to recognise and account for. He says that to consider “narrative time” as only a sequential series of instants is to consider narrative superficially. He sees two dimensions to deal with:

…every narrative combines two dimensions in various proportions, one chronological and the other nonchronological. The first may be called the episodic dimension, which characterises the story as made out of events. The second is the configural dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events … The humblest narrative is always more than a chronological series of events and that in turn the configurational dimension cannot overcome the episodic dimension without suppressing the narrative structure itself. (Ricoeur 1980, p177)

The issue of chronology, or temporal ordering, is of specific relevance to my research with cultural and creative industry (CCI) entrepreneurs. Mishler identifies this as one of “two fundamental questions all students of interview narratives must address” (Mishler 1991, p82). I’ll come to the first one a little later (appropriately enough for a post about temporal ordering), as it’s the second which pinpoints the challenge of straddling Ricouer’s two dimensions.

How should one take into account… relations between events in the real world and these events expressed in the narrative such as their respective temporal orderings, their modes of connection and forms of organisation, and their functional significance? (Mishler 1991, p82)

How narrative interviewees shape time

Having recently conducted a series of narrative interviews with CCI entrepreneurs, I can see how interviewees construct their own narrative time. They choose start and end points for their stories and select the speed at which they move between these points. They highlight significant events and exclude others and vary the amount of detail devoted to the events they include. Thus they shape the temporality of their own narrative. 

Because the gaps between selected events are inconsistent – sometimes months, sometimes years – time is lumpy. Some interviewees will specifically date events as they go through, but not always, so time is also vague. Nearly all interviewees flip forwards and backwards throughout the story depending on what they recall during the retelling, making time nonlinear. Time, within an interviewee’s own narrative, is theirs to control, usually untidily. That untidiness then becomes a partial answer to Mishler’s question: we can use the characteristics of this untidiness – its juxtapositions, its contradictions, the unexpected linkages it reveals – to enhance our understanding of the narrative beyond an analysis of it as reportage.

But despite this flexible approach to temporal ordering, chronology tends to prevail in most interviewees’ retellings of their entrepreneurial ventures, in the Heideggarian sense of a series of instants more or less in order. This is partly because I invite interviewees to tell me the story of their entrepreneurial journeys and the “journey” metaphor implies a linear progression from start to end. Ricoeur reflects that the episodic dimension of narrative time, characterised by “and then?” and “what next?” questions, tends to lean towards a linear representation (Ricoeur 1980)

I suspect also that we as listeners have a predisposition towards chronology as a mode of sense making. As Cosgrove said in her reflection on Ricoeur, “clear temporal sequences are critical if a text is to be coherent for its reader” (Cosgrove 2012). Perhaps this is a side effect of the predominance of a stereotypical but comforting mode of storytelling, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever the cause, temporal ordering does, I think, offer an aid to comprehension.

So, the other part of my answer to Mishler’s question is that we can, in fact, account for both Ricouer’s chronological and nonchronological dimensions of narrative. Both offer us different things. And because, as noted above, narratives of real events are untidy in their temporal ordering (temporally disorderly, maybe?), if we want to account for both, a process to shift narratives from one mode to the other is needed. That shift need not, I’d argue, mean an adulteration of the original narrative, but the co-creation of something new.

Using narrative accounts to co-create new narratives texts

No narrative is created in a vacuum. As de Fina and Georgakopoulou put it, “Narrative is an embedded unit, enmeshed in local business, not free-standing or detached/detachable” (De Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008). They go on to note that a narrative is fundamentally impacted by how it is told, where it is told and to whom it is told. There is always a level of observation bias, but this should not limit the agency of the interviewee to recount their narrative on their own terms, choosing the manner, the length and the constituent parts of their stories. So collecting and recording any narrative is unavoidably an act of co-creation.

In my research, I have added another level of co-creation, through the construction of a chronological visual map from the narrative accounts of CCI entrepreneurs (further detail on that methodology can be found here). The map is created using verbatim quotes from interviewees to ensure that their voice is maintained. I then use re-storying – retelling the interviewee’s story back to them – as a way of testing accuracy and inviting edits and additions. The interviewees are then invited to make changes on the narrative map along with me, and then have a chance to review and reflect on the new chronological version of the story we have co-created. In all cases to date, greater detail has been added by the interviewee by way of embellishments to the narrative. 

Mishler said that “temporal order is a central problem in narrative analysis” (Mishler 1991, p78). In his book Research Interviewing: context and narrative, he considered Labov & Walketzky’s foundational and rigorous approach to temporal ordering of narrative and found the results to be “relatively uninteresting” (Mishler 1991, p83). In consideration of my own research, this observation acts as a useful prompt for the question, what is gained through re-ordering a narrative chronologically? I see three potential reasons for doing so.

The first, as I mentioned above, is as an aid to coherence and comprehension. The second is as a useful way of re-engaging an interviewee with their story, so to generate new, hitherto unmentioned aspects of their story and to gain new insights. Both of these potential advantages could apply to a range of narrative interview topics and a range of research methods.

A third use for temporal ordering is distinct to my topic of entrepreneurship and specifically the process of founding and pursuing a CCI venture. I’ve written before about how the process of entrepreneurship has been grappled with and articulated, and provides a useful way of de-mystifying the act for external observers. It’s this process I want to test with CCI entrepreneurs to see how their experiences match or differ from this understanding. It’s also a linear process – entrepreneurial ventures have a before, a during and after. Chronological ordering shares that linearity and thus allows comparison with that process.

However, there are risks to consider.

What is lost for what is gained

I said I’d get back to the first of Mishler’s two questions for students of interview narratives, and here is it: “What are the effects on the production of a narrative, the respondent’s “story” of the interview as a particular context and of the interviewer as questioner, listener and co-participant in the discourse?” (Mishler 1991, p82)

Mishler was talking about the base level of impact caused by the interviewer and the interview’s context (which he believes is often seriously underestimated). Temporal ordering is significantly more interventionist than that base level, so its effects must also be more profound. They need to be carefully considered. Comprehensibility, clarification and comparability are all valuable. But in tinkering with an interviewee’s narrative to gain more of these aspects, what is at risk?

Well, a number of things. The influence of the interviewer’s bias, already in place through the reading, analysis and restorying process, grows through the re-ordering process – even if done carefully and in collaboration with the interviewee. The resulting chronology of events could imply causal relationships within the narrative which are not there. The boons of untidiness, those insightful juxtapositions and contractions, can be lost in the tidying up. And to bring us back to Ricoeur, the interviewee’s own relationship with time is at risk of being overwritten by another. 

For these reasons, the recognition of this process as the co-creation of a new narrative text is essential. Interviewee and interviewer working together to create something new for the purposes of comprehensibility, clarification and comparability, but seeking to retain the interviewee’s voice and the themes of their narrative. The retention of the original text and the new co-created text then allows for comparison, both texts standing as similar but distinct retellings of an interviewee’s narrative.

The process in practice

In practice, I have found that temporal ordering has both aided interviewees’ engagement with their own narrative and reinforced the collaborative nature of these constructions. As mentioned here, the narrative maps created through this process have been positively received by interviewees, as a way of enhancing their interaction with their own stories. However, as I’ve thought more about narrative time, I’ve now started to ask interviewees about the impact of temporal ordering on their narratives.

Responses to date have shown that the chronological nature of the ordering itself is uncontroversial, but an awareness of my involvement as a rearranger of the original material is present, as well as an interest in how that reordering has reshaped the narrative. Some indicative quotes from two interviewees are presented below, with my emphases.

On the influence of me as co-creator:

Interviewee A: But where the map is useful or interesting is personally seeing how a story was interpreted by someone else.

Interviewee B: looking… at that map to kind of look at the story … was really helpful because I was obviously deeply acquainted with the material, but I could see the things that you had thought were interesting. And so that’s quite good.

On the reordering of events:

Interviewee A: I was impressed with when I saw what you had done was, “Wow, he really listened a lot and he actually ordered it correctly”. So it’s seeing something fed back to you which you don’t necessarily expect.

Interviewee B: (on the use of chronology) “…it’s only possible to connect dots in hindsight and I think a lot of the time I look back on the journey that I’ve been on and I can see, I can see connections and make links and kind of explain how it’s a kind of causation way (to) explain how I got to where I am.”

And related the quotes above, an observation on co-creation and sense making: 

Interviewee A: It does feel like my story but the collaborative essence comes down to the fact that the categories that I hadn’t considered before are now visualized. So the collaborative is almost sense making I would say.

These are brief observations from a very limited sample. But I think it’s reasonable to say that the ordering of narrative events is identified by these two interviewees as an active, transformative process. The visual map created through this process is not an iteration of the original narrative; it is something new and distinct. And my role as co-creator of the narratives is far from passive and is understood by the interviewees as such. 

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean we should shy away from interacting with narratives and interviewees. With care, we can clarify and enhance narratives in collaboration with interviewees, in ways which add to an interviewee’s own sense making and which recognise the reflexive nature of narrative research. There is utility in researchers working with interviewees to examine, re-order and add narrative accounts, albeit with a few principles in mind. That the results are considered distinct, co-created texts. That the interviewee’s agency is given primacy. And that the context of the reordered text’s creation, complete with its biases and complexities, are reckoned with.

Cosgrove, Shady E. 2012. “Can We Inhabit (narrative) Time?” http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1374&context=lhapapers.

De Fina, Anna, and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. 2008. “Analysing Narratives as Practices.” Qualitative Research: QR 8 (3): 379–87.

Mishler, Elliot G. 1991. Research Interviewing: Context and Narrative. Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1980. “Narrative Time.” Critical Inquiry 7 (1): 169–90.

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