For some time now, I’ve been thinking about visual mapping techniques and how they can be used in narrative research.
I came to this topic by considering the data collection method for my PhD. What would be an appropriate and engaging way to collect data from creative industries entrepreneurs? This question led me to reflect on how I collect data from such people in my day job as a business consultant.
Consultants quickly get good at collecting and synthesising information from their clients. It’s a fundamental skill – the fast and accurate distillation of information, collected firsthand from people via interviews. Often, a consultant is learning about a business or maybe even an entire industry that is completely new to them. Regardless of the consultant’s experience, a client can justifiably expect that a consultant will be able to rapidly understand, analyse and critique situations relatively unfamiliar to them. Time, as they say, is money, and this is especially true for consultants who charge by the hour (or in other words, all of them). It’s a business model that demands multi-tasking.
Right from the first interview with a client, the one where the consultant is exploring the brief and getting to grips with the issues, they are performing multiple, concurrent cognitive tasks, including listening, questioning and writing. And underneath that process of building a relationship with a client and trying to summarise what he/she is hearing, there’s a subroutine full of other mental functions running furiously: assessing what’s being said (does it all make sense?), formulating the next question to ask (will that give me the information I’m looking for?), spotting problem areas for further investigation, working out what additional information is needed and trying to discern what’s not being said.
This practice is not, I think, unique to management consultants. I suspect that it’s a mental diagnostic process that many professionals need to master: lawyers, counsellors, mechanics, doctors and nurses, and I’m sure the list goes on. It’s an activity I wish someone would invent a verb for, because “simultaneously listening/questioning/collecting/analysing/note taking” just isn’t going to roll off anyone’s tongue.
If you get good at it though, you can collect an impressive amount of information in a relatively short amount of time. It requires a good memory, an ability to identify key pieces of information, an ability to read people and to draw upon deep subject matter knowledge.
On the face of it, it seemed like there was a good match here between what I did in my day job and what I needed to do for my PhD research. Both had a key element of data collection, and I knew how to do this.
This is what led me to canvassing, a verb I actually did… well if not invent, then press into service to describe the relatively recent trend of using large map-like diagrams to collect data about a problem and analyse it. Canvassing takes “simultaneously listening/questioning/collecting/analysing/note taking” and adds an element of mind-mapping, producing a visual map of the storm of information collected during a client interview. I had, I thought, a promising method for collecting data from creative entrepreneurs; one which was grounded in my professional practice and one which added a visual element which creative industry practitioners would respond to.
But it wasn’t that simple.
Narrative inquiry favours the interviewee’s story. Considerable emphasis is placed on allowing the story being told to progress independently of direct guidance from the interviewer. Interviewers may ask a small number of open-ended questions as prompts, but the interviewee controls the direction, content and pace of their own narrative. There is insight to be gained not just from what the story contains, but how it is told, and the choices made in the telling of it.
The free-flowing nature of the collection of narratives for research proved to be a difficult element to incorporate into my plans to use canvassing as a method of data collection. As noted elsewhere on this blog, I devised and drew up an “entrepreneurial journey canvas” for the mapping of entrepreneurs’ stories as a framework and I scheduled a test interview with a volunteer, who had founded and was still running his own creative business. Although canvassing proved an effective tool for engaging with the interviewee (let’s call him Mark) – allowing him to interact with his story in a physical way by seeing his story mapped out in front of him – it also presented a range of practical problems and challenges to what is seen as good practice in the collection of narratives for research.
Practical problems first: my self-devised canvas framework constrained my interviewee’s story. Some parts of the canvas were crowded with post its, others relatively blank. And the use of post-its could prove a distraction, as when some lost their adhesive qualities and fluttered to the floor.
These problems were relatively minor and could have been corrected easily by changing formats from physical to electronic or by altering the design of the canvas. But the fundamental problem was the way in which a. the canvas design and b. my actions in populating the canvas with jottings of ideas worked against the free-flowing narrative of the interviewee.
Firstly, my canvas dictated the shape the story would take, rather than allowed it to emerge naturally. The lack of an open-ended chronological scale meant that I was retrofitting the story into my predetermined form, which is antithetical to allowing an interviewee to set the boundaries for their own story. And with me acting as note taker and populator of the canvas, I assumed the role of editor of the story. This meant that I, not the interviewee, chose which were the important elements for summarising.
Kate Bowles, my PhD supervisor, and I discussed the pros and cons of these approaches at length, and she first identified these difficulties in applying a consulting methodology to narrative research. The skills required to be a good consultant – distilling information and silently making editorial judgements about which pieces of information are relevant – were working against the need to allow the interviewee to tell their own story, and dictate its length, its inclusions and its shape. The entrepreneurial canvas may work as an information gathering exercise, but it did not have the flexibility to be a way of collecting narratives for research. This in turn prompted me to address the way I collected those narratives and try being less of a consultant and more of a researcher.
This sounds bad. But there was one element of this experiment which seemed to be worth persisting with: the level of engagement Mark had with his story when he saw it mapped on the canvas.
Seeing his entrepreneurial journey illustrated, even imperfectly, generated two key benefits for Mark: firstly, it allowed him to visualise the story he had just told, and notice connections between the stories various elements and secondly, seeing it gradually take form during the canvassing session allowed him to generate fresh insights from the story, to add elements to it and to adjust it. Here, Kate and I noted a more enthusiastic response from him than might have been expected from an interview alone.
This desire to hang on to what was working well in the process led to a consideration of other ways to visually map narratives. Michael White’s work on mapping patients’ journeys as part of his therapy practice was a precedent. His maps of the narratives he collected from patients included an open-ended timeline. This enabled stories to take their own length. But for my purposes, a strictly linear structure did not seem adequate considering the complexity of Mark’s story. There seemed to be a need for multiple timelines focusing on specific story elements. For instance, when an interviewee referred to their feelings and responses, there was a clear story strand for themselves as the main character, but Kate had noted the prominence of friends and family members in Mark’s narrative, so there was a clear need for a strand for the role of others in the narrative.
In addition to this, a number of narrative researchers talk about the value gained by reordering stories into chronological order, as a way of sense-making from the original interviewees’ stories. A methodology that combined this with visual mapping suggested the potential for a process that invited the interviewee to participate in this reordering process, and in doing so, clarify and add detail to their narrative.
The combination of these elements led to my conceiving of a layer cake of narrative strands stretching from left to right on an open-ended chronological scale, upon which narratives could be mapped in a way which allowed the narrative to take on its natural form, but also in a way which separated out the story elements to demonstrate the connections between them. As with a typical canvassing activity, segments of text or key concepts are written on post-it notes (or their digital equivalents in mind mapping software) along each of the lanes dedicated to each narrative element. (Ironically, this approach recalled the management consulting practice of process mapping, which uses a linear diagram to detail parts of a process in order to identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks. But it also has similarities to the storylining process used to map out plays, TV shows and films.)
In my new mapping framework, originally called Five Staves and now more snappily called Five Lanes, five key story elements are mapped:
- self (for narrative elements which relate the interviewee),
- others (for capturing the role of others, as presented by the interviewee),
- environment/context (for elements which describe the operating environment the interviewee’s story takes place in),
- actions and events (for specific actions or events which take place in the story) and
- resources (which for the purposes of mapping an entrepreneurial journey captures the resources the interviewee needed to access to pursue his/her venture. For non-entrepreneurial stories, this might be more generally – but probably less helpfully – labelled “things” – objects which like people or events have an impact on the story being told).
In addition to the five lanes, two chronological scales are added. The first is a timeline, to which details on dates can be added to give a sense of the story’s duration. The second specifies the stages of a story. In the case of an entrepreneurial journey, these maps the stages of entrepreneurship which I have detailed here and which formed the basis for my original entrepreneurial journey canvas. This second scale can also be used to chart more general stages of story: beginning, middle and end, for instance, or bespoke labels which help identify when the story has moved into a new phase.
As an example, I’ve created a Five Lanes narrative map for the story of Red Riding Hood, which can be downloaded here.
The other aspect of narrative research noted in my reading was the importance of engaging with an interviewee more than once. This allows an interviewee time to reflect upon the narrative they’ve produced, edit or add to the story and to reconsider what they’ve said in the initial interview. A useful technique for facilitating this reflective response is restorying, where a narrative researcher will retell the story offered by the interviewee, in order to check for veracity and to offer a deeper consideration of the narrative from the interviewee.
A number of methodological elements were combining: narrative interviews, visual mapping and restorying. In an attempt to coordinate these elements into a coherent and engaging approach, I formulated the following method:
- Conducting a narrative interview with a creative industries entrepreneur, with minimal input from me but with some gentle guidance to address the various stages of entrepreneurship
- The creation a Five Lanes narrative map (using online platform Miro), based on the interview.
- A subsequent restorying session with the interviewee, where the map is used as a visual aid in the retelling of the story. The interviewee is then invited to add to and edit the story with me, using the visual map.
This method was tested in an interview with a second volunteer creative industries entrepreneur (we’ll call her Nola), with positive results. As with the entrepreneurial canvas, the visual mapping element gives Nola a focus during the restorying session. She could easily see where story elements were missing or incorrectly ordered, or given undue emphasis, and could easily correct these elements. As with the entrepreneurial canvas, the Five Lanes map assisted Nola with the sense-making of her own narrative, and garnered an enthusiastic response from her, who observed that it was key to her being able to engage with her original story in an analytical and editorial way. And as with the canvas, the completed map became something to offer back to the interviewee for their participation in the research.
Ultimately, however, the most compelling reason to pursue the use of the Five Lanes framework (or any other visual mapping techniques) as a research tool is that it results in more rigorous and reliable data compared to other narrative research choices. Without controlled tests and the consideration of the appropriateness of various methods to distinct situations, this can’t be claimed for certain.
However, to focus on the restorying process for a moment, where the interviewee is asked to reflect on and edit their story, we might consider a visual map as being able to provide a perspective which audio recordings or written transcripts cannot. The ability to “see” what’s unrepresentative within a story seems, on the face of it, to offer a fast and effective way to improve the accuracy of narrative accounts. For those who respond positively to visual stimuli and to the visual representation of concepts (and we might stereotypically lump creative industry entrepreneurs in this basket of self-identified “visual people”), this method offers a way of increasing their engagement with narrative research.
The next test will be to apply the Five Lanes framework to a range of creative entrepreneurs’ stories and compare them side by side. The “heat map” effect created by the accumulation of notes within the five lanes (effective becoming a data points on a larger map) will hopefully help provide insight into the similarities and differences between each stories, and allow for effective comparative analysis. The end result should be a rich collection of data which can help illuminate the experience of creative entrepreneurs in Australia, but will hopefully also be a successful test run for a new way of visualising narratives, which can complement and enrich existing research methods.
References: White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.