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How To: Narrative Analysis

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We all have a story to tell that defines who we are and adds meaning to our lives. Through storytelling, we become relatable to one another and find connection and direction through those relationships. Narratives consist of one or more speakers sharing and recounting an experience or event. In a typical conversation, the telling of stories occurs multiples times during the course of a conversation, and they share common structural features. When we are trying to make sense or better understand something, speaking about it in the form of a story, or narrative, helps us map out time, order, and unity; thus making sense of the people, places, events, and actions we encounter in our lives.


Step 1 | Select an Artifact

For an artifact to be considered for an application of a narrative analysis, it must include the following four criteria:

  1. Two Events (minimum): The setting of the story must undergo a change, depicted by the events of the story.
  2. Sequence Organized by Time: Consists of a sequence of events that aren’t necessarily chronological.
  3. Contributing Relationship: Defines the condition of the relationship between the two, or more events, within the story.
  4. Unified Subject: The subjects within the story must be connected.

Artifact Selection:

Soon after the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida in February 2018 (Event 1, Time Order 1), Andrew Ross Sorkin from the New York Times began regularly writing columns laying out all the different layers of the business community supporting the gun industry while also addressing the kinds of roles and opportunities that exist for these companies to try to end gun violence (Unified Subject).

A year and a half after the shooting in Parkland, in August 2019, 22 people were killed at a Walmart Store in El Paso, Texas (Event 2, Time Order 2). Sorkin then wrote an open letter to Doug McMillan (Relationship A), CEO of Walmart, addressing McMillan’s unique and authentic claim as the CEO to address and engage in the conversation about gun violence in America because of what happened in his store. Sorkin also addressed McMillan’s new moral responsibility to take action.

Just over a month (Time Order 3) following Sorkin’s letter to McMillan, Walmart entered the gun control debate by announcing that it will stop selling the kinds of bullets used by mass shooters and called on Congress to consider a new ban on assault rifles (Relationship B).

Step 2 | Analyze the Artifact

The basic procedure for analyzing the artifact above involves three primary steps:

  1. Identify the Objective: What does the story you are analyzing aim to perform in the world, how is it functioning?
  2. Identify the Features: What strategies are contributing to the achievement of the objective?
  3. Assess the Narrative: You can do this by scrutinizing the objective or by addressing the strategies.

Step 3 | Formulate a Research Question

After analyzing the artifact, you can focus on either of the following three subjects to base your research question upon:

  1. The Objective: Base your research on what actions and effects the story has after it goes out into the world.
  2. The Features: Define your research on how specific strategies are contributing to the success of the objective.
  3. The Alignment: Formulate your research question based off of whether or not the objective and the features align.

Step 4 | Write an Essay

Your essay should include the following five major components:

  1. Introduction: Define your research question, how it contributes to rhetorical theory, and its significance.
  2. Your Artifact: Include a description and its context.
  3. Your Method: Describe narrative criticism and how you will apply it.
  4. Your Findings: Report on your analysis and if you focused on the objective, the features, or the alignment.
  5. Discussion: Explain how your analysis contributes to rhetorical theory.

What makes a narrative analysis useful?

Narrative analysis is most effective when used to uncover hidden ideas, or the objective, embedded in stories. Rather than focusing on the collection and processing of data, narrative analysis focuses on the organization of human knowledge. This method can be used to gain a deeper understanding of how people organize and derive meaning from events. While it is criticized for not being theoretical enough, it can be especially useful in studying social structure impact and how it relates to identity, intimate relationships, and family

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