Narratives And Accounts Research Paper

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Diaries, narratives, and accounts represent methods used in the social and behavioral sciences for investigating people’s perceptions and subjective experiences (Josselson and Lieblich 1993). Diaries are written or recorded (audio or video) records of events, as well as related thoughts and feelings, often recorded on a daily basis. Diaries reflect text material in the form of stories (e.g., what happened to me today, or my interactions with my friend today) that are defined in terms of the ideas of accounts and narratives. Diaries often ask quite specific questions such as what did you do at 11 a.m. today? They may only ask a series of such questions or may involve questions for more lengthy involved responses. The latter are accounts and narratives and are the main focus of this discussion.

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1. Definition And Scope

Accounts and narratives are terms referring to story-like compositions (that also may be written, or presented in another media format), that usually pertain to descriptions of and explanations for events observed or participated in by the individual. They also may include raw emotional expressions (e.g., ‘Oh no, I can’t believe it happened’ as a reaction to hearing about a major loss occurring in someone’s life). Some scholars (e.g., Schonbach 1990) have contended that accounts only pertain to justifications that people offer for consequential events in their lives (e.g., ‘I had the accident because I was distracted by a large building I had not seen before on that highway’). Other scholars, however, have defined accounts more generally as the story-like responses to life events that may emphasize explanation and description, without special emphasis on justification. In the latter vein, accounts and narratives refer virtually to the same ideas and methodological approaches.

The following example is an excerpt from an account of a 63-year-old woman regarding how she coped with the loss of her husband and became involved with another man who appreciated her continued reflections about her deceased husband (from Harvey 2000, p. 163):

[After her husband’s death] I had to help myself … I worked on myself. I privately reflected long and hard about our life together. But I joined support groups (e.g., Young Energetic Widowed Singles) and met the man I intend to marry in one of them. He had lost his wife in 1989, about the same time I lost my husband. We have been dating about 2 years. We have recovered from our grief and have a happy relationship. It’s a real blessing. We talk often about our deceased spouses and how they would approve of our new relationship. We have shared our grief and stories, and are not afraid to shed tears … But we go on and appreciate each day in our new life. You have a right to have and express your memories of your former life. You have to talk, talk, talk—never stop.

We are now sharing our experiences with other widows and widowers.

We hope to help them in their grief and help them be successful in making their new lives …

Scholars also have used narratives and accounts as theoretical concepts. For example, Shotter (1984), Harvey et al. (1990), and Schonbach (1990) have produced theoretical conceptions that emphasize the role of narratives or accounts as mental and verbal constructions of meaning. These scholars argue that people develop these constructions in attempting to make sense of the world. In the above excerpt, the woman is reporting how she and her new lover have constructed meanings about the losses of their spouses and how they continue to develop and communicate those meanings. Central to their relationship and coping are their stories of loss, the regular acts of constructing those stories, and their sharing of stories with one another. There is a valuing of stories and confiding them to one another and to others.

Harvey et al. (1990) contend that people formulate many accounts about the matters of moment in their lives (e.g., their families, careers) and that these accounts become subaccounts of an overall life story master account. This master account, for instance, might contain stories of all of a person’s close romantic relationships, that then form the overall picture in that person’s mind of her or his romantic career.

Harvey et al. (1990) define people’s act of formulating accounts as ‘account-making’ (similar to Bruner’s 1990 concept of ‘acts of meaning’ in the construction of narratives). Harvey et al. (1990) argue and provide evidence supporting the position that account-making is particularly important to people in dealing with major loss events in their lives. This activity facilitates development of a sense of control, clarification, and expression. In the above excerpt, the couple emphasizes how their accounts about their deceased spouses have helped them to develop new identities and new lives that are positive for their health, but that do not discard the realities and impacts of their past relationships.

An influential theory of emotional expression articulated by Pennebaker (1990) also has stressed the value of confiding stories of loss as a way of coping with major loss. Pennebaker (1990) argues and provides much evidence that such expression relieves the behavior inhibition of emotions and that such inhibition is conducive to negative psychological and physical health developments.

The value of narratives and accounts is that they provide relatively in depth and naturalistic reports of human experience (Berscheid 1994). People may not feel as constrained in their reports when producing accounts and narratives as they do in responding to standardized measures or structured questionnaires (Bruner 1990).

2. Typical Topics Examined Using These Methods

Increasingly, these methods are used to examine many types of social and psychological phenomena. An example of the use of this technique is in the study of couples’ retrospective reports of the breakdown of their close relationships (Weiss 1975). Couples may be asked to provide their versions of the events leading to the breakdown and sometimes are asked to try to report their partner’s versions as well. These reports may be obtained by investigators from both members of a terminating relationship during the early separation period through final divorce or dissolution. The couple may be asked to write regularly over this period about their views of why their relationship is ending, new events occurring related to their feelings about the relationship, and future expectations for new close relationships (Bochner et al. 1997).

Another common topic for investigation using narratives and accounts pertains to people’s experience of loss and trauma (Harvey 2000). For example, persons who have experienced the death of close others or personal losses due to illness or injury may be asked to report the events thoroughly and then their emotional reactions, as well as the reactions of close loved ones. An interesting question in such studies involves the extent to which close others were empathic and supportive of a person experiencing major loss. It has been found that people who receive a nonempathic, unresponsive reaction from close others to whom they tell their stories of loss will be negatively affected psychologically by those reactions, such that they may not again attempt to confide in close others about the losses (Harvey et al. 1990, Stroebe et al. 2000).

3. Methodology Issues

The methodology emphasizing narratives and accounts (which are classified as qualitative evidence) often also includes structured questionnaires asking about thoughts, feelings, or behavior, as well as personality measures (with both of these latter types of evidence classified as quantitative in nature).

While refinements in such subjective report techniques are being regularly developed, their use dates back to the beginning of fields such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology (Howard 1991). Case study reports that are published in these fields historically have involved emphasis on subjective reports and narrative type evidence.

These subjective report methodologies have been well received for their depth of information and perspective on individuals’ thoughts and feelings. They are also often favored by research participants who wish to ‘tell their story’ about some area of their life. On the other hand, such reports have been criticized because the evidence obtained may not be easily replicable by other investigators. Further, such evidence often requires coding, a step that introduces subjective decision making by independent raters evaluating the written, spoken, or video material.

The contemporary study of subjective reports increasingly is focusing on the process of production of such reports and the qualities of those reports. For example, there are theories of how people develop accounts of losses in their lives (Bochner et al. 1997). Reports that show a style emphasizing active decision making and positivity have been found to be associated with greater psychological and physical health in the aftermath of experiencing a major loss such as the death of a spouse (Bonanno and Kaltman 1999).

4. Probable Future Directions

As shown by an increasing number of users of these techniques, accounts and narratives can be used to study diverse human social phenomena that otherwise would not be easily amenable to scientific study (e.g., Baumeiser 1997). The value of these ideas also is embraced strongly by scholars stressing how people socially construct key elements of their lives, such as their marriages. As such, the future of accounts and narrative ideas and techniques is exceedingly bright. This future should involve greater integration across fields of work including psychology, sociology, communication studies, family studies, social work, and ethnography and cultural anthropology in general. Beyond this scholarly interface, many biographers, journalists, and investigative reporters use accounts and narratives. A future direction may involve bridges between this more popular writing with scientific writing emphasizing these ideas (Coles 1989). Methodologists also are increasingly showing the merit of different techniques of coding and thereby enhancing the case for generality of accounts and narrative evidence.

On the theoretical side of the accounts-narrative topic, researchers such as Nolen-Hoeksema et al. (1997) have pointed to the negative consequences of people’s continued ruminating and whining about their losses and distress. Thus, a question for future work concerns the optimal degree of narrative work and confiding in others about such issues as major losses. It is likely that people may burden close others with repeated story-telling, unless their relationship is built on acceptance of that activity and it is reciprocal in nature.

Overall, both as methodological and theoretical ideas, narratives and accounts have become increasingly accepted during the last two decades of the twentieth century and have enriched the understanding of human behavior in the literature of the social and behavioral sciences.


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  4. Bonanno G A, Kaltman S 1999 Toward an integrated perspective on bereavement. Psychological Bulletin 125: 760–76
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  6. Coles R 1989 The Call of Stories. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
  7. Harvey J H 2000 Give Sorrow Words: Perspectives on Loss and Trauma. Brunner Mazel, Philadelphia
  8. Harvey J H, Weber A L, Orbuch T L 1990 Interpersonal Accounts: A Social Psychological Perspecti e. B. Blackwell, Oxford
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  12. Pennebaker J 1990 Opening Up. Morrow, New York
  13. Schonbach P 1990 Account Episodes: The Management or Escalation of Conflict. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  14. Shotter J 1984 Social Accountability and Selfhood. B. Blackwell, Oxford
  15. Stroebe M S, Hansson R O, Stroebe W, Schut H (eds.) 2000 Handbook of Bereavement. Cambridge University Press, New York
  16. Weiss R S 1975 Marital Separation. Basic Books, New York


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