Emotional reactions to reading narrative analysis of cancer experience

Last updated on August 30th, 2019 at 10:48 am

In preparing my new dissertation study proposal, I was tasked with reading a book chapter on narrative research – specifically:

Josselson, R. (2011). Narrative research: Constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing story. In F. J. Wertz, K. Charmaz, & L. M. McMullen (Eds.), Five ways of doing qualitative analysis: Phenomenological psychology, grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative research, and intuitive inquiry (pp. 224-242). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

The chapter describes what narrative analysis is, but also provides a specific example of narrative analysis. This is where I ran into challenges. The example given involved the analysis of an interview of a cancer patient about the losses and identity crisis she experienced as a result of her cancer diagnosis and treatment. As I read through the example, I found myself completely relating to the quotes from the interview. I found the journey through this persons cancer experience had a lot of parallels to my journey. It was emotionally difficult to read, as each paragraph brought back a flood of new memories and their associated emotions. I was very aware of what was happening as I read. This reaction was such an unexpected one. I find it difficult to think back to how I might have read the chapter before with a dissociated passive interest, rather than an emotionally charged interest.

What was clear through the reading and description of the analysis process was that the researcher doing the analysis was an outsider. She was looking in at the interview text without emotion. The words on the page represented a text or story that was disassociated from the person who was telling the story. The analysis felt cold and disconnected. It was analytical. To me, it felt wrong. It felt like the researcher was trying to assign meaning to the words of the research participant without knowing what it meant to go through the experience. There was a distance between the analysis results and the participant interview data.

It was reading this that served to outline the difference between ethnography and autoethnography. Ethnography is done from the perspective of an outsider. The researcher is looking in and observing what is going on, but is not themselves a part of what is happening. In some cases, this disassociated view provides an understanding and perspective that an insider cannot see.  However, as an outsider the researcher can only see what can be observed. The researcher cannot truly understand the experience of participant because they are not the participant. They are not an insider.

It also helped me to better position my research. I see even more now how I am in a unique position as a blogger and breast cancer survivor to understand the culture and phenomenon (illness blogging) that I will be studying. The lens through which I interpret the stories that I collect will be directly influenced and connected to my experience as a breast cancer survivor and blogger.

What this also highlighted was that what looks like an innocent example about a cancer experience is something that will affect me in an emotional way. The reading of the Josselson chapter taught me not only about narrative analysis, but also taught me that stories of cancer have a deep impact on me personally. I have an emotional attachment to the story in a way that someone who has never had cancer cannot understand. I am an insider.

3 responses

  1. […] I struggle with the emotional strings associated with the reading. They draw on quotes from breast cancer blogs to prove an academic point, but I find that I understand so many of the nuances behind the quotes that I feel the research is superficial. It often does an analysis of a single aspect of what is happening, but that aspect is happening in a context, and often that context matters. I also feel the emotional pull because I can completely relate to what quoted blogger is saying. I wrote a little bit about this on my post about my emotional reaction to reading about narrative analysis that uses a breast cancer pathography as an example. […]

  2. scottx5 Avatar

    Good points about the distance between patient and interviewer. I recently heard that the hospital that did all but one of my infusions has a known long-term reputation for callous treatment of patients yet the only response Alberta Health can give is an offer to tell them of your complaint. My sense is that maintaining a distance from the patient is policy to prevent high-value technicians from displaying human weaknesses unbefitting of scientists tasked with processing patients as rapidly as possible.

    To me, it’s obvious my status as an object to be managed has caused me to withdraw from “care” that has always been a sham anyway.

    Interesting group here: Health Arrows — http://healtharrows.ca/?p=854499

  3. Terri Johnson (@tljohnso) Avatar

    I, too, am a breast cancer survivor and I understand the “insider” you speak of…

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