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Narrative Research and Living with Risk: Methodological Reflections . Karen Henwood ^ , Karen Parkhill * , Nick Pidgeon * , Peter Simmons + & Dan Venables * ^ School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University * School of Psychology, Cardiff University + School of Environmental Science, UEA.

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narrative research and living with risk methodological reflections

Narrative Research and Living with Risk: Methodological Reflections

Karen Henwood^, Karen Parkhill*, Nick Pidgeon*, Peter Simmons+ & Dan Venables*

^ School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

* School of Psychology, Cardiff University

+ School of Environmental Science, UEA

overview of talk
Overview of talk
  • Previous methodological reflections of qualitative (& narrative) interviewing
  • Risk & narrative – the case for linking the two
  • Overview of our project
    • Introducing our narrative elicitation strategy
      • Aims & questions types
    • Fieldwork sites
  • Reflections & findings from our project specifically relating to how the narrative strategy we used worked
methodological work on qualitative interviewing e g uwe flick
Methodological work on qualitative interviewing (e.g. Uwe Flick)
  • alleged: Inducing narratives can stimulate a more ‘natural’ discourse exchange echoing everyday conversations
  • allows interviewees to reveal more about their social worlds (as feel more comfortable)
  • allows more in-depth exploration of narrated meanings
  • allows narrative scepticism (deficit model of people’s subjective views) to be combated
  • can be used in conjunction with focused questions, to avoid the use of bland assessments
risk narrative the case for linking the two
Risk & narrative – the case for linking the two
  • How to make intractable issues – risk controversy - researchable?
    • Risk & vulnerable/marginal groups – known problem of narrow choice of methods (e.g. 1980s HIV study)
  • Risk & narrative interviewing active, interpretive process of producing narratives can make everyday lived realities intelligable (Czarniawska)
  • Biographical narratives can address particularities, inconsistencies & ambiguities of narrated meanings (Hollway & Jefferson)
  • Risk & the need to avoid “grand theorising”; the significance of risk in everyday life (Tulloch & Lupton: “risk biographies”)
  • Risk & constructed preferences – how to study what people take into account in arriving at judgements? (Satterfield)
the development of our narrative approach
The development of “our” narrative approach

Our Aims:

  • Elicit narratives :
    • to embed risk problems in contextually, emotively, and morally rich stories (Satterfield)
    • & facilitate the study of meaning, interpretation, & the local context (esp. the role of identity, place & values)
  • Introduce biographical/life story element :
    • to include how people perceive/represent/respond to risk over the “changing time & place coordinates of their lives” (Tulloch & Lupton); aka risk awareness/subjectivity/reflexivity
    • To address ambiguities of narrated meanings (Hollway and Jefferson)
  • To be methodologically reflexive
    • There is a “strong assumption” that narrative methods may not apply to all topics.
interview strategy 3 broad types of questions
Interview strategy: 3 broad types of questions

Type 1 Narrative

  • Daily experiences and feelings about living near to Bradwell power station?
  • Any difference it makes in your lives ?
  • And covering ‘risk biography’ questions e.g.

did you know about the plant before you moved here?

can you tell me what you remember about the building of the power plant?

interview strategy broad types of questions continued
Interview strategy : broad types of questions continued

Type 2 Biographical/Life Journey/Choices Narrative (local context)

I.e. Thoughts and feelings about living in the area generally

  • how has your life changed over time (and in what ways)?
  • how does living here compare with other places you have lived?

Denise York: We've rather digressed from power stations.

R: It's interesting too. The point of the research in a way is what exactly people are interested in…

DENISE YORK: Why we are living in this neck of the woods.

R: Well, what are the important things, you know the power station is not the only thing in the village so we're interested in things like the WI because that is important to people.

(Denise York, Bradwell)

Type 3 Focused Questions

  • Specific questions about possibly controversial issues raised by this form of energy generation in the locality, nationally and (to a lesser extent) globally

- e.g. new build, incineration, climate change, health impacts


St Peter-on-the-Wall Chapel (“No they’ve made a lot of arguments about the oldest, it’s the oldest Christian chapel; up until the 1930s it was a cow shed…!”)

Essex Marshes


Thornbury Park Looking to Oldbury

View from Sedbury/Chepstow

narrative data how it appeared in the interviews
Narrative data – how it appeared in the interviews
  • Prosaic discourse (Polkinghorne, 1995)
  • More interested in those narratives that are “emplotted narratives” (Polkinghorne, 1995), i.e. In a story form (context, plot etc)
  • Few holistic, life story narratives (some exceptions – question of direct impact operation of power station in account of working/family life)
  • Significant, fragmentary narratives
    • Episodes (intersection of biographical & risk concerns – disruption to life story – e.g. contamination scares/cancer)
    • Vignettes (open – beginning/ending with a foreword/summation, thus the vignette is an illustration story; a presentation of a point; self enclosed - no introduction or commentary, the story’s moral is held within)
    • Biographies of a life journey (e.g. What led them to moving to the area/doing the job they do)
intersection of biography and risk concern
Intersection of biography and risk concern

Actually I seem more concerned about it when, it’s that concept of perceiving real risk because I don’t, I’m a member of the sailing club, although I don’t have a lot of time for real sailing, but the first time somebody took me out sailing on the river, now that’s quite a dangerous place to sail with a forty foot tide, um, ten knot tide so with the rise and fall it’s ten knot up and down, you can get swept away if you’re not careful but being out there on the water,the water being splashed on you and then there’s the power station pumping away and it makes you think ‘oh I wonder how, what’s in the water?’but until I was out there getting splashed by the water going past I’d never given that a second thought. There’s loads, there’s loads of people that go sailing there every week and there’s no big incidence of cancer in Thornbury sailing club, you’d probably pick up something a lot more biologically active from the river, another group that’s out, it’s a much cleaner place. So everywhere you turn there are risks.

(Harrison Donaldson, Oldbury)

biography and risk concern intersection e g 2
Biography and Risk Concern Intersection E.g. 2

Ryan Kirk: Um, yeah I do see it all changing; I think it has changed since I’ve been here. At first I didn’t feel any risk but I got attacked a while ago by a group of young thugs who were thinking that they’re running the streets or whatever and they just, they were quite aggressive, I mean there was this gang around me, I didn’t know any of them, and I’d only lived here for a couple of months so I didn’t really know what was going on, um, and there was about fifteen or twenty of these people and as soon as I raised my head I got a fist in it and I got kicked and beaten quite a lot. I did report it to the police and I managed to get fifty pound out of it but it didn’t really make me feel any safer on the streets and that does, I do worry about that quite a lot, when I’m going out at weekend or whatever, being on the streets, I do worry about those people being out there

Interviewer: Is that just in Thornbury then?

Ryan Kirk: Yeah, well in Bristol as well I guess but I don’t really go out in Bristol that often, but yeah I do worry about what could happen at late night or whatever, even in broad daylight when it happened to me it was in the middle of the day, I mean I didn’t know it was going to happen so, but I do, I worry about anyone else I know really that will go out as well, I mean anything could happen anytime

I.e. There are more immediate personal threats than the power station

biography and risk concern intersection e g 3
Biography and Risk Concern Intersection E.g.3

Toby Bundock: [omitted foreword] …Now when we were there, when I was there as a young man, we used to smash it about and it would be dust and throw it at somebody underneath, and they'd be covered in this dust, like flour. Nowadays, if there's a chance of a matchstick head of asbestos about it's contained, sealed, taken away. You know, you can't work there, you can't go close to it. In those days, so who knows what's in people's lungs now, waiting to become malignant.

Interviewer: And did you say some people you know were...

Toby Bundock: Yes, I know of two people and I know one that's dying at this very moment, you know, he's got a year or two to live. From Berkeley Power Station and Aubrey, which is a bit sad and it's a bit... concerns you a little bit,cos, it could be you next and it comes about very quickly and not a very pleasant death.

Interviewer: Right, and is that the sort of thing you've checked out or...

Toby Bundock:I have had checked out, yeah. And now that they've recognised it they didn't know how bad it was, nobody did, all other industries were exactly the same, the aircraft industry, ICI, all the... all industries, you know, the construction industry particularly bad.

biography and risk concern intersection e g 4

There was something that happened in the summer this year, our youngest the baby was diagnosed with genetic condition. Both Gibson and I were evaluated to see if we were carriers and neither one of us are and it's a spontaneous occurrence of this genetic disorder which is somewhat unusual and we did have a conversation, well I wonder if it was because of the proximity or some kind of elevation in radiation or if she was conceived and I was pregnant the whole time <??> and it's one of those things where winners are known so when things don't quite add up you start looking, well could it be that. We both know it probably isn't linked at all but it's one of those kind of unanswered questions and if it was something where some of the other kids in the village all of a sudden came up with this disorder that's like um, maybe there is something to it.

(Melanie Windsor, Bradwell)

Biography and Risk Concern Intersection E.g. 4
facilitated expression of difficult to express ideas feelings
Facilitated expression of difficult to express ideas & feelings
  • Humour/Irony:

Interviewer: Does the fact that it’s a nuclear power station have any affect on the way you live your life at all?

Oscar Berk: Uh not really, um we have the warning system, which can be a bit scary because unfortunately they haven’t got it quite right; it starts of by telling you there’s a major problem and then saying it’s just a test, I’d prefer it to do it the other way round (amusement) scariest thing there is that, ‘run for your lives, actually it’s just a test’ (amusement).

(Oscar Berk, Oldbury)


Brandon Heitman: Years ago when it was first built and for the first few years, well up until probably ten years ago, they used to come round here, always on a Sunday, whether they got paid overtime I don’t know , to do all these checks, but what the worrying thing was they’d park outside here and they’d all get out in their white suits, like a space suit, helmet and everything to do all the testing, well there we were sort of just ordinary and they did that up until ten years ago when the power station, I presume, was safe and everything. Now it’s getting towards its end and they, all around our fields they used to have lampshades

Molly Heitman: Well they used to come and test

Brandon Heitman: They used to come and test out, well they haven’t got those now. It seems to me that they do far less tests now when it’s more likely the power station’s going to be leaking radiation I should have thought, when it’s been warned, then everyday, years ago always seemed, well it was wannit? Always on a Sunday night they used to be about here doing it

Molly Heitman: About teatime

Brandon Heitman: Yeah

Interviewer: And how did it make you feel when you saw them doing this?

Brandon Heitman:Well worried to death ‘cause when they get out in their spacesuits and you’re part of it you, ‘cause sometimes they come and did it if they had an incident down there didn’t they? Well you know, we had no protection whatsoever…

(Brandon and Molly Heitman, Oldbury)

scope to study imaginary positions
Scope to study imaginary positions

INTERVIEWER2: In terms of all the <??> I was just thinking, is there anything you would like to see in terms of consultation or any specific <??> that the Government could do that would improve the situation?

ROY: They could take that power station down and they can make site look more respectable so that they can take the stigma away from us and they don't have to rebuild, they mustn't think they've got a nuclear community, they can always do what they want here. They thought they could do that with Nyrex and they couldn't. It's not only a naïve thing for them to believe but a dirty attitude. It's like we can shit on this community. <??> in the middle of Birmingham or somewhere, Hyde Park, they build them out in communities who didn't have the power to protest.

comments on narrative interview strategy how it worked continued
Comments on narrative interview strategy – how it worked continued
  • Useful strategy for investigating meaningfully different forms of risk awareness & subjectivity (“private risk reflexivity”)
reflexivity e g 1
Reflexivity E.g. 1

Interviewer: Have either of you ever been concerned about things like radiation discharges into the Severn or into the atmosphere or waste issues, you know, transportation of waste, those sorts of things?

Naomi Gerritson: Yes um radiation no, I’m not concerned, rightly or wrongly I have confidence in them that they’re not doing anything polluting too badly because I actually think that pollution from other sources is probably worse than anything that comes out of the power station, that’s my view of radiation but waste, transportation of waste and the waste itself does worry me

Olivia Gerritson:No way mum, I’m sorry but do you not remember the time they had that big truck thing that was moving waste, did you not remember that? And they closed that whole road and they had these police coming either side of it and what did we do; if you were that scared of waste that instead of just going ‘oh there’s some waste out there’ that we actually got out off our seats, actually into the road and watched it go by, taking photos of the giant thing

Naomi Gerritson:Yes that was fine, that was one thing but I’m talking generally, this is a general thing, I’m not talking about that one specific, they had to take away part of a reactor or something

Olivia Gerritson: Yeah it was massive

Naomi Gerritson: And it was huge and they had to strengthen the bridges and I don’t know what else

Olivia Gerritson: Yeah put stuff on the bridges

Naomi Gerritson:But that was one isolated thing, I’m talking generally, I don’t know whether your question was general or specific but that to me, in general I do contact waste with...

(Naomi and Olivia Gerritson, Oldbury)

reflexivity e g 2
Reflexivity E.g. 2

PHILLIP: I was young then, I didn’t care. I used to go to sleep on top of a ton of explosive, you just didn't think about it.

R: Do you think you would think differently about it now?

PHILLIP: I don’t think so. I just don't worry about them sort of things. I remember the last job there actually. We had a load of TNT come in and to move anything down there it was on black <??> on railway lines, metal wheels and metal tracks and I remember pushing this down and then one box fell off and nearly cut it in half. How it didn't go up I don't know because you've only just got to hit that stuff and I had two ton of it on that truck so I would have been in orbit. You're always living with some sort of danger.

(Phillip Cabot, Bradwell)

risk framing reflexivity
Risk, framing & reflexivity

Allowed for differences to emerge in participants’ narratives – some constructing as potentially hazardous, while others’ narrative normalised the risk

I don’t particularly, I mean the safety record in this country is unbelievable, I mean I know accidents can happen like Chernobyl and things but I just think, I can’t imagine the power station getting to that stage, I mean there was a little fire last week and it was shut down instantly, the fire wasn’t even anywhere near the reactors, well from what I heard on the news it wasn’t anywhere near the reactors and it was just a piece of kit blew like any piece of kit can blow, you know, your toaster can blow and it caught fire and they instantly shut everything down and I just think that we’re so safety conscious, you know, I mean it’s people that work there and they’ve got to be safety conscious, it’s their health and their life isn’t it? So no, it doesn’t bother me

(Teagan Sloane, )

concluding remarks
Concluding remarks
  • In telling (fragments) of their life stories, people portrayed dynamic, contextually embedded, ways of responding/living with risk
  • Our approach to narrative study involved avoiding imposing risk frames on interviewees (the use of “risk”); albeit “have never thought about it” gave less leeway to negotiate risk framing with interviewees
  • Narratives not always elicited; do not resolve conversational reluctance of some interviewees; would have elicited fewer without its mix of narrative & more focussed questions
  • The narrative approach also facilitated the use of other forms of analysis e.g. the creation of a comprehensive, in-depth thematic framework analysis.