FOCUS: Narrating Policy – Potentials of narrative methods and theories in extending and re-orientating policy research

FOCUS: Narrating Policy – Potentials of narrative methods and theories in extending and re-orientating policy research

James Beresford and Ashley Bullard

‘Narrative’ has become a growing field of interest in social science and an increasingly deployed analytical tool. Having a heritage from literary analysis, but also a growing concern with the psychosocial and elements of social psychology, various authors have sought to declare a ‘narrative turn’. There are edited collections, journals, research centres such as the Centre for Narrative Research  at the University of East London, and international associations. However, what is being turned towards is somewhat of a debated area and definitional quagmire. The eclecticism of theoretical positions and interdisciplinary lineages narrative research possess engenders a wealth of different definitions. From this point, there have been many conceptual contestations around how this relates to other academic concepts such as stories and plot. Different typologies are presented, aligned to differing theoretical positions and disciplinary focuses.

However, linking all these different ideas together narratives can broadly be understood as meaning production through claiming of casual connection between articulated sequences of events. As Cobly notes, “[a]t the lowest level of simplification, narrative is a sequence that is narrated”. (1) What is important to stress for this focus piece and mini special issue is that these connections between articulated sequences of events as productive. To narrate is not just to arbitrarily describe. Narratives shape how actors come to understand what is narrated, whether it be a particular event, other actor or process; and in turn their actions to it. This is not just simply what is in them but rather, as Anne Phoenix reminds us, what is not narrated.(2)

The concern of this focus piece and the articles that follow is how this has impacted studies of policy and the new areas of understanding and research germinated by this. Based in part on the conversations and discussions of Narrating Policy, a symposium from at University of Leeds in 2016, as well as including authors working in the field who did not present, what is written here hopes to act as a framework for newer ways to understand policy practice. Narrative analysis in policy usually comes from the break away from what has been termed a rational or empiricist approach to policy toward that termed critical policy studies. Rather than locating policies as a rational response – a proportional triage system reacting to different scales of discrete social problems objectively dependent on their risk and scale – critical policy studies endeavours “to critically explain how and why a particular policy has been formulated and implemented, rather than others”.(3)

The justification for early narrative interventions into policy analysis was an identified deficit in previous research along these lines of looking at the power formations of policy. There were areas of policy, in its implementation and development, obscured through blindspots and erasures of previous theoretical models. Emery Roe, introducing the idea the ’policy narratives’, is an instructive example here.(4) His focus is the stories narrated through various government initiatives. Roe’s innovative book, Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice, interrogates the ways in which narratives and narrative analysis can be a tool through which the researcher and analyst can better come to understand policy, applying literary modes of analysis to a range of different policy issues at the time. Through this, certain elements that would not be recognised, such as pacing, where things start and then end, would be revealed. This was furthered by what came to be known as the Narrative Policy Framework.

This mini special issue seeks to highlight the futures of narrative research and its location in policy scholarship. It shows how these foundational ideas have been moulded and shaped into new areas of enquiry. The remainder of this article shows how this is done in relation to three areas. First, is the link between policy making and the autobiographic, challenging ideas of policy makers as rational actors simply following the directions of higher governmental power. Second, is the evidential mobilisation of narrative by policy bodies, looking to how narrative has been positioned by different collective and individual bodies as a valid and necessary way to gain information about policy ‘improvement’. Finally, are interventions into styles of academic writing about policy, looking to how narratives can be shaped in order to create particular vivid experiences for readers. It goes without saying that a far longer list can be given. hHwever, these three are selected given the impacts and the connections with the four articles making up the special issue. What links this all together is an instance that narrative allows us to uncover and understand previously unremarked aspects of policy and contemporary governance.

Narrative Policy Futures

Firstly, the link between policy actors and the autobiographic and experiential. One of the central strains of narrative analysis is an emphasis on the autobiographic and the crafting of self through meaning making. This centrality has come to light through a particular debate around event and experiential based inequity. Rooted in the writings of William Labov (and Joshua Waletzky), event-based research approaches narratives as a text through which to understand events.(5) In turn, this provides particular ideas of what a narrative is, excluding more fragmented articulations from analysis in favour of ‘coherent’ texts. Experience-centered research has emerged as a corrective; it is an interlocutor to event-based inquiry. It shares with event research the proposition that individual representation of thoughts, feelings, and phenomena-events exist; and it is this which narrative grants external expression. What distinguishes it is that event-based scholarship assumes a consistency to these individual representations. For experience-based research, they shift and morph drastically in relation to context. Furthermore, one event can enact a multitude of different stories even from the same actor. Actors narrate that which hasn’t occurred to them; the experiencing of hearing, emphasising, and so on not being jettisoned from analysis because of a reductive normative conflation of experience with presence.

Taking this position in relation to policy crafting allows enquirers to understand it in novel ways. Hannah Jones’s ethnography of a local council in the UK and the actors involved with developing community cohesion policy is an astute and artful example.(6) Jones’s Negotiating Cohesion, Equality and Change looks to the way ‘white’ policy practitioners narratively handle the discomfort they feel through enacting policies which in turn force them to encounter their own privileges. Jones’s narrative analysis shows how these autobiographies cultivate a need for the participants to encounter and act toward community cohesion policy in particular ways.

Secondly, is the increasing allure of narratives to policy makers. At a national and supra-national level, policy making bodies have begun to consider narrative as a legitimate category of evidence. For example the World Health Organisation recently commissioned Cultural contexts of health: the use of narrative research by Trisha Greenhalgh. This 50 plus page document reviews the benefits of narrative methods in constructing health policies; and locates narratives as complementary to other forms of ‘evidence’

Storytelling (and story interpretation) belongs to the humanistic disciplines and is not a pure science, although established techniques of social science can be applied to ensure rigour in sampling and data analysis. The case studies illustrate how narrative research can convey the individual experience of illness and well-being, thereby complementing (and sometimes challenging) epidemiological and public health evidence.

Similar the European Union launched the New Narrative for Europe initiative; taking this further by not using narrative simply as an evidence base for policy but instead crafting a narrative to act as a cultural policy framework.

The New Narrative is a project designed to give a voice to the artistic, cultural, scientific and intellectual communities to articulate what Europe stands for today and tomorrow. The purpose of this is to contribute to bringing Europe closer to its citizens and reviving a “European” spirit via the arts and sciences.

In many ways, then, by understanding narrative and the way that this is then approached by policy making bodies, we can understand not just the crafting of policy but the nature of contemporary governance. Looking at the preference of data on which to shape policies and reasonings behind this have implications for what is considered as preferential role of ‘the state’ or more accurately what is termed as ‘the state’.

Thirdly is an interrogation the genres of academic writing. Narrative is used in this sense to supplement what would normatively be considered more academic or scholarly prose.  Peter Beresford’s All our welfare: towards participatory social policy is a good example.(7) Beresford identifies a marginalisation of the voices of services users in the discipline of social policy; and endeavours to make an intervention to address this disenfranchise. As a service user with mental health conditions, Beresford’s account interweaves the history of the welfare state with the narratives of his own and his family and friend’s accounts of it. While there have been various histories already written about the state; the uniqueness and importance of Beresford’s contribution is how stories from his family and friends are interwoven throughout.  A vivid understanding of the experiential is given which permits the reader a more nuanced understanding of the lived experiences and effects of the welfare state.

This mini special issue

The articles that follow in some ways present various considerations of some or all of these questions. Drawn from authors across various disciplines (sociology, social policy, cultural studies, health care research, political science) and writing about different international contexts (United States, United Kingdom, Sweden)

Emily Maddox looks to the way narrative is used evidentially in health policy justification in the context of gendered ideas of autism. Maddox explores diagnostic practices and particularly the ‘Theory of the Mind’ hypothesis, suggesting that autistic people present a lack of empathy as they are unable to access that which others feel or think. In particular this theory states that autistic people are not able to narrate their gender coherently. This leads Maddox to conclude that the argument that policy planning around autism is based on a judgement of narratives and narrative coherence.

Gemma Hughes, in the UK policy context of integrated social and health care, works with an idea of policy as narrative to understand how it works as a story. The focus is on how the narrative of integrated care as important exists alongside evidence of slow implementation and a lack of ‘success’. Hughes contends, from this position, that we should understand this intervention as a sense-making, stored process rather than an intervention to resolve practical problems.

Sarah Scuzzarello uses narrative as a framework to explore causality around the 2018 Swedish electoral campaign and positions towards integration and immigration in Sweden. Situating her article at a comparative juncture between the 2018 and previous 2014 election, Scuzzarello notes how there has been a shift from portrayals of immigrants in need of help to one of a ‘failed integration’ narrative, expressed through topes of welfare dependency, segregation and inability to speak Swedish.

Tim Aistrope, similarly to Scuzzarello, looks at how emotionality is built into narrative tropes of policy to enact racialized marginalisation. Aistrope does this through highlighting the usefulness of narrative analysis for examining national security policy through the case study of the Muslim paranoia narrative to illustrate this. Positioning his paper as an interlocutor to accounts of policy enactment as ‘unsentimental’ and emotionally absent. Emphasising the role of affect,  Aistrope mobilises the idea of narrative to help show the way emotionality is intricately tied into various security policy documents he analyses.


[1] Cobley, P. (2001). Narrative. Routledge: London.

[2] Phoenix, A. (2012). Suppressing Intertextual Understandings: Negotiating Interviews and Analysis. In: R. Ryan-flood and R. Gill. (eds). Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process. London: Routledge.

[3] Howarth, D. (2010). “Power, discourse, and policy: articulating a hegemony approach to critical policy studies”. Critical Policy Studies. 3(3-4), 309-335.

[4] Roe, E. (1994). Narrative policy analysis: theory and practice. Durham, N.C; London: Duke University Press.

[5] Labov, W and Waletzky, J. (1997) ‘Oral Versions of Personal Experience: Three decades of narrative analysis’, Journal of Narrative and Life History 7:1-4.

[6] Jones, H. (2014). Negotiating cohesion, inequality and change. Cambridge: Policy Press.

[7] Beresford, P. (2016). All our welfare: towards participatory social policy. Bristol: Policy Press.


James Beresford is a +3 ESRC funded doctoral researcher in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, at the University of Leeds. His research interests include narrative, oral history, critical policy studies, equality legislation and critical memory studies. Ashley Bullard is a +3 ESRC doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds. Their research interests cover anti-foundationalist philosophy, relational politics, and centrality of identity in policy making. (