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Research Strategies for Narrative Criminology

Research Strategies for Narrative Criminology
Lois Presser
University of Tennessee
Sveinung Sandberg
University of Oslo
For: Advances in Criminological Theory:
The Value of Qualitative Research for Advancing Criminological Theory
The meaning that we give to things inspires and constrains our every action. One of the
principal ways we make meaning is through stories or narratives.1 Enter narrative criminology,
an emergent perspective that explains criminal and other harmful action in terms of the stories
that we tell about ourselves (Presser 2009; Presser and Sandberg forthcoming; Sandberg 2010).
Its premise is that stories motivate and legitimize harm.
Narrative is a recounting of experience that evaluates that experience, and in so doing
evaluates those who are associated with the experience, most of all ourselves. Criminologists
have tended to use narrative as a report on individual lives. In particular, narratives are seen to
reveal criminogenic factors in the individual’s past, such as parental neglect, financial hardship,
or the influence of peers. These factors are ‘the main thing’; the narrative is a means to finding
out about them. In contrast, for narrative criminologists, narratives themselves may be
criminogenic – or, conversely, peace- or desistance-promoting – factors. On this view, it is
because narratives set out who we are that they animate what we do in the world.
When narrative is seen simply as a report, the researcher’s priority is to faithfully solicit
the narrative and perhaps also to make sure the story is ‘true’ by comparing it with other data
sources. However, when we consider the narrative itself as influential, we are fairly unconcerned
with its veracity. Whether true or false, the narrative itself is consequential (Sandberg 2010).
Our stories motivate our own actions; they also affect the actions of others. Nowhere is the
power of narrative regardless of its truth value clearer than in the case of mass harm. Stories told
by elites – generally called ‘propaganda’ when observers judge them to be false – mobilize large
numbers of people to support harmful action, either with direct participation, enthusiastic
consent, or passive tolerance. As Frank (2010) observes: “Stories have the capacity to arouse
people’s imaginations; they make the unseen not only visible but compelling” (p. 41). The
history of stories inspiring and legitimizing devastation is a long and alarming one. Hence the
broad purview of narrative criminology: harm and not just crime, legal and not just illegal
activity, mass harm and not just individual harm.
When we consider narrative as influential, we wonder what about it makes it so. We ask
how story characteristics, elements, and plots inspire action. Methodologically, then, studies in
narrative criminology distinguish themselves by closer analysis of narrative than is undertaken in
most other criminological research. This chapter examines what close analysis of narrative
might consist of when the analysis is meant to theorize patterns of harm.
Narrative criminologists are interested both in what is narrated and in how it is narrated
(Riessman 2008). They believe that both substance and form are consequential. Hence, they
seek to discern the thematic, linguistic and interactional nuts and bolts of storytelling. Following
suit, this chapter offers guidelines for discerning the particulars of narratives and narration. We
begin our discussion after data have already been collected, because while methods for collecting
narratives are important they are more or less standard across theoretical frameworks.2 However,
a narrative criminological framework calls for relatively distinctive strategies of analysis. We
examine five foci of analysis: (1) elements or parts of narrative; (2) subject and verb choices that
represent agency; (3) genres or types of narrative; (4) narrative coherence and plurivocality; and
(5) the storytelling context. These are not the only things that narrative criminologists
concentrate on, but they capture a good deal of their attention. These five foci have theoretical
significance inasmuch as they communicate something about the agent, her/his actions and its
target. We use examples from published and unpublished empirical work to illuminate analysis
along one or more of these lines. We pay particular attention to an interview with Ola, a young
man recalling his experiment with amphetamines. Toward the end of the chapter we consider the
goal of achieving rigor in narrative criminological analysis.
Elements of Narrative
One way to approach narrative is through its infrastructure. Researchers may examine
constituent parts of narrative or less essential elements like characters, metaphors or reported
speech. When studying the different elements of narratives, just a few of which are discussed
here, the emphasis is on how these enable and constrain meaning-making.
Parts of Narrative
The best known conception of narrative structure is surely that of sociolinguist William
Labov (1972), for whom a complete narrative is composed of these parts: an abstract (summary),
orientation (context), a complicating action (new event or problem), evaluation (significance), a
result or resolution (solution to the problem), and a coda (cue that the story has ended). Consider
these six elements in the story of a ‘bad trip’ while on amphetamines told by Ola (a pseudonym),
as part of a larger study by author Sveinung Sandberg. We present this story in full, as it was
told during an interview, in order to make various points about narrative criminological method
throughout the chapter. The interview was designed to glean stories of illicit drug and alcohol
use. In this case Ola’s interviewer – Sandberg’s research assistant – was an old acquaintance
from childhood days, the interview was conducted at the interviewer’s home, and the interview
was sandwiched between more casual and collegial talk. Ola’s story was prompted by a rather
general question about what kind of illegal drugs he had tried. It was one in a series of stories
that Ola shared of binge drinking and drug use which went mostly uninterrupted by the
Ola I can count on one hand how many know [that he has used of
amphetamines]. But now I can tell you, because I don’t do it anymore,
that’s why I can tell. But I’m still not sure, had it [the interview] not been
anonymous, then I would not have told you, that’s for sure.
Ola But yeah, then Peter comes home with five grams of amphetamine, and I
almost hadn’t heard about amphetamine. The only thing I’d heard was
that it was the poor man’s coke since it was a lot cheaper. But except for
that I didn’t know what amphetamine was, I really didn’t. And like I said,
I wasn’t interested in drugs, so I hadn’t done any research on them. The
only thing I was a little interested in was cocaine, and I did try that, and I
knew what it was. But then I thought, yeah, yeah, great fun. So we’ll
share it and go out partying. And Peter didn’t take as much amphetamine
as I did that night while I took a fair amount. And one gram of coke, right,
for example, to compare, that was nothing to me at the time, that was just
enough to get the party started. So I took the same amount of
amphetamine as if it were coke because I didn’t know any better, I thought
it was the same stuff. So in the course of the night I’d had maybe one-
and-a-half to two grams of amphetamine, right.
Complicating action
And so that went really well, and I was going to bed, it was maybe around
5, 6 in the morning, and so when I lay down I couldn’t get to sleep, there
was just no way. That was a bit odd. So that morning I just lay there with
my eyes open, and by noon I hadn’t slept for even a second, and I thought
that was a bit odd. And then I felt really hungry, so I got up, went to the
kitchen, Peter was still sleeping, and I made myself this really great
baguette. Cheese, ham, lettuce, mayo, the whole works, and I sat down on
the couch. At least I was going to treat myself to a first-class meal, and
I’m really hungry, and I take a bite out of the baguette, and I can’t
swallow. There’s just no way, like, I understand how an anorexic feels to
put it that way. It was like a faucet in my throat that had been shut off,
there was no possibility of even swallowing. So I had to spit out the food,
and then I started getting stressed, I was thinking like: OK, I haven’t slept,
now I can’t fucking eat, what’s going on? So I googled amphetamine for
the first time that morning. And so I read that a line of amphetamine,
which is maybe the equivalent of a hundred milligrams, that’ll last for 6
hours, and to compare, a line of cocaine with a hundred to a hundred-and-
fifty milligrams, that’ll last for 20 minutes. And I’d taken one-and-a-half
to two grams of amphetamine. So I kept on reading and it said that if it’s
your first time using amphetamine then anything more than one gram of
amphetamine is lethal. To put it mildly, I started feeling anxious.
Interviewer Yes, you probably started sweating at that point...
Complicating action/orientation
Ola Yes, and that was just the beginning of five days of hell. I couldn’t sleep
for five days, I couldn’t eat for five days. Peter didn’t feel sick at all
because he’d taken maybe two lines of amphetamine. And I was lying
there for five days on the couch in our living room, in a fetal position, and
Peter had to feed me soup, that was the only stuff I could handle. I
couldn’t even prepare the soup myself, he had to make it and feed it to me
like I was a baby.
Interviewer Because you couldn’t even move to...
Ola I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything. And it really never stopped, five
days – that’s quite a few hours.
And I remember on day five, I was so worn out, so broken down and so
worn out, that I thought: I’m going to die any minute now, that’s what I
kept thinking, I’m dying right now. And I was shitting myself with fear
that anyone was going to find out about it, and definitely my parents.
They would never...they’d be crushed. But on the fifth day I was so
broken down that I said to Peter, “I’m going to the hospital, I’m telling
them everything.” And I knew – or at least I thought – that the hospital
was going to call my parents, but I was so worn out that I didn’t give a
fuck, and that just shows how ill I was. But then Peter said, “Give it
another half a day, and if it hasn’t gotten any better by then, I’ll take you
to the hospital.” And in the course of those hours, the whole thing passed.
So on day six I could sleep, I could eat as well.
And on day six I remember...I had one gram of the amphetamine left, I
remember I poured it out into the toilet, and I just told myself that I will
never ever take any other drugs besides cocaine ever again, if someone put
a gun to my head, I wouldn’t do it again.
So really, the end of the story is that trying amphetamine was really the
best thing that could have happened to me. Because it’s made me a fanatic
about drugs, I really couldn’t take anything at all. Cocaine? Yeah, I’d be
inclined to, but it gave me a real wake-up call even about that, and in
hindsight it could have gone really badly, it started going badly.
Ola’s story is a typical narrative representing “cause and effect relations” through a “sequencing
of events” (Polletta et al. 2011, p. 111). Drug use caused serious physical and mental distress.
Ola himself, and not the researcher, draws this causal connection. Indeed, Ola demonstrates a
narrative consciousness. Note, for example, his reference to “the end of the story” to mark the
conclusion of the interrelated narrated events. The story has all of the parts of narrative Labov
(1972) described, though the order is somewhat different and some parts are difficult to
categorize. Also, Ola places a good deal of emphasis on what might have been, and not merely
what actually happened. Indeed, the nearness of death and other trouble such as his parents
learning about his drug use informs Ola’s evaluation of the story – that drug use is not for him.
Stories are often more disorganized than this one, but disorganization is oftentimes no problem
for the audience because they are familiar with similar stories and able to fill in the ‘missing
pieces’ themselves. The basic structure of the narrative is thus fundamental for understanding
the meaning of a story, even when elements are absent.
Narrative criminologists, like most students of narrative, pay particular attention to the
story’s evaluation – its point. Ola’s point is that he is not much of a drug user (“I just told myself
that I will never ever take any other drugs than cocaine ever again”). Narrators can cue their
evaluation, as Ola does, through dramatic highlighting, possibly achieved through the use of
reported speech and specifically by quoting a significant opinion “even if the person quoted is
oneself” (Shuman 2012: 135-137). Reported speech also emphasizes the authenticity of the tale,
as, for example, when Ola reports the dialogue he had with Peter about whether or not to go to
the hospital (“But on the fifth day I was so broken down that I said to Peter “I’m going to the
hospital, I’m telling them everything”). Replaying the situation makes it more trustworthy,
giving the impression that we get to ‘hear’ what was actually said.
The fact that narrators make a point concerning an experience is itself a finding; some do
not. Compare the highly moralized story of Ola with ones whose evaluation is scant or non-
existent. Presser (2013), for example, observes that when research participants who weighed in
on a variety of harmful actions reported the harm they did to nonhumans, such as hunting or
eating meat, they typically failed to offer an evaluation of it. Don provides a vivid example in
the following exchange:
Interviewer Have you ever killed an animal yourself or taken part in the –
Don Yes.
Interviewer - procedure?
Don Yes.
Interviewer Can you tell me about that?
Don Uh, well. We used to slaughter our own pigs. We used to slaughter our
own cows. We used to slaughter our own chickens. Turkeys. I – I used to
raise turkeys myself for food.
Interviewer And did you kill them?
Don Yes.
Interviewer Do you mind telling me about that?
Don Uh. I don’t know- what do you – what do you want – what do you want to
Interviewer I mean an example of the time you killed an animal – or times.
Don Well it just – during chicken season – we used to raise a hundred, a
hundred and fifty chickens. So, yeah: we had to go around, catch the
chickens, cut their heads off and then – de-feather ‘em and clean ‘em and
get ‘em ready to sell. The same with the pigs and same with the cows: it’s
all the same.
Don avoids offering an evaluation of his killing nonhuman animals, despite the interviewer’s
repeatedly prompting him to do so. White (1980) would say that instead of a story, Don’s
recounting is a chronicle, which reviews past events but makes no moral point. The researcher
distinguishes between chronicles and stories by asking whether or not actions are framed in
terms of values and principles. Harm is easier to commit when recounting is done as a chronicle
and not a story; where the moral dilemma of harmful action is not acknowledged, speakers might
well be expected to persist in doing the relevant harm in the future. Hence the importance of this
sort of structural analysis for criminological theorizing. Note the difference between this sort of
structural analysis and one that attends to content by asking what the speaker’s values and
principles are.
Metaphors, Characters and Symbolic Boundary Work
Metaphors, characters and symbolic boundaries are not integral building blocks of narrative in
the way that the Labovian elements are. That is, they are found in narrative, though elsewhere as
well. However, metaphors amplify the impression that a narrative makes, whereas characters
and boundary work are essential to understanding narrative plots.
Use of metaphors has us “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of
another” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, p. 5). The analyst locates metaphors by ‘asking the data’
whether the speaker literally means what s/he says. Looking back at Ola’s story: does he really
expect someone might “put a gun to (his) head”? Was he actually, physically “shitting (himself)
with fear”? If the answer to these questions is no, the analyst can proceed to ask what role these
surreal representations play for the tale being told.
The most striking metaphors in Ola’s story associate his wretched condition while on
amphetamines with early childhood. Ola was in a “fetal position” at one point and had to be fed
“like a baby” at another, indicating a state of complete helplessness. Other widespread
metaphors for bad trip stories, such as being a zombie or going crazy, have very different
implications. A baby cannot do any harm, which means that although this was an acutely
unpleasant experience it did not involve risk to anyone but himself.
Metaphorically or not, people get characterized in narratives. Otherwise stated,
narratives construct characters or person/subject/object types. The researcher can locate
characters by asking who or what is driving the story forward, who is acting, and who or what is
(potentially or actually) acted upon. Characters are similar across genres and standard stories,
from folklore and ancient fairytales to personal narratives and political narratives. Propp (1968)
describes the prototypical characters that might populate a narrative: the hero, who embarks on a
transcendent quest and wins a prize, such as the princess; the villain, who battles the hero; the
donor, who prepares the hero or gives him some magical object; the helper, who helps the hero in
his quest; the princess, whom the hero marries, often after searching for her over the course of
the story; the false hero, who seems to be a good character early on but later emerges as evil; and
the dispatcher, who sends the hero off. Notwithstanding the importance of stories for
characterizing who people are, characters may also be objects. Just so, in Ola’s story, the villain
may be seen as amphetamines. The helper is Peter; the princess or sought-after object is
normality or self-control, and the hero is Ola himself.
Characters forge self-understanding. Sandberg (2009) observes that street criminals often
conjure themselves as either victims – of poverty, discrimination and marginalization – or as
heroes in street culture. These two rather unfortunate positions were the most readily available
characters to take up, and such a narrative environment hampered their ability to get out of
crime. Characters limit the available positions subjects can take up in discourse, and thus
influence their perceived repertoire of action. Characters are also important for narrative
criminology because intentional harm to others – the paradigmatic construction of crime –
appears to require a story populated, at a minimum, by a hero and a villain. As Smith (1997)
observes, one of the “narrative conditions” of legitimate violence in civil society is that it be
“undertaken by a quasi-heroic ‘pure’ figure against an ‘evil other’” (p. 110). Thus, for example,
Hitler’s National Socialists were “lords of the earth” in virtuous struggle against their enemies
(Hitler 1999/1925, p. 652). Hitler contrasted their “heroic virtue” with “cunning craftiness; the
one results in Aryan states based on work and culture, the other in Jewish colonies of parasites”
(Hitler 1999/1925, p. 153). Lamont and Molnár call the construction of oneself or one’s group in
opposition to others or other groups “symbolic boundary drawing” (Lamont and Molnár 2002).
Boundary work is important for dramatic storytelling.
Ola’s story establishes him as a cocaine user but not an amphetamine user. Moreover, he
is a responsible, self-possessed user, one who ordinarily knows his limits. Copes and colleagues
(2008) found that participants in the crack cocaine economy construct a ‘hustler’ identity for
themselves by contrasting it with a stigmatized ‘crackhead’ identity. By emphasizing being
clean, having things, being cool, being criminally able and having heart they socially distanced
themselves from those degraded others. This symbolic boundary drawing justified violence for
crackheads: they did not deserve the same respect and recognition as others. Representations of
selves and others, drawn from a cultural menu of subjectivities, construct the justifiable harm and
the harm-worthy victim, respectively. Symbolic boundary drawing is a useful way to reframe
critical criminological perspectives including conflict, labeling and constitutive theories – where
positioning some as Other is criminogenic. Narratives that draw boundaries are the vehicles for
such positioning.
Functional parts, metaphors, characters and even boundary drawing are relatively discrete
elements of the story. We turn now to linguistic characteristics of stories that are typically more
systemic, which condition harmful conduct by representing one’s capacity to act – that is, one’s
Linguistic Choices for Representing Agency
Talk of one’s agency constructs responsibility for and legitimization of harm. One can
communicate agency or passivity semantically and manifestly, with such statements as “I
couldn’t help myself.” Ola signals passivity by delegating action to Peter at the start of the story
(“Peter comes home with five grams of amphetamine, and I almost hadn’t heard about
amphetamine”). But speakers also use more subtle devices for constructing agency and lack
thereof, including dropping subjects out of sentences, using passive or first-person plural
constructions, and nominalizing activity (i.e., treating processes as entities). That is to say,
speakers communicate about agency through their specific linguistic choices.
In analyzing narratives of crime told by male prisoners in Washington, D.C, O’Connor
(2000) attends to shades of agency that speakers communicate through such things as pronoun
choice and change, verbs, and frame breaks – or stops in the reported flow of action to evaluate
the action. Deflecting or passivizing structures “shift the focus from the speaker’s agentive act
(robbing, shooting, etc.) to his position as acted upon by the criminal justice system” (O’Connor
2000, p. 40): for example, the quite common statement, “I caught a charge” as opposed to
statements of having committed a crime (p. 53). A more agentive self-construction is reflected in
the speaker’s use of irony. A man O’Connor calls Kingston states that after having served a
prison sentence: “I was IN my thirty-first day in the streets, and I was IN my first bank.”
O’Connor offers this evaluation: “The emphasis on in and the resonance of thirty-first day with
first bank is effectively showcasing the pathetic situation he now sees in his past acts” (p. 63;
emphasis in original).
The protagonist’s storied agency may also be conceived in relative terms. One is capable
or incapable of acting in relation to other people, objects, institutions, “forces,” and so on. The
analyst would inventory who and what matters to the event besides the agent. These others may
be benchmarks of one’s agency or agents affecting one’s agency. As discussed above, Ola’s
friend Peter is the active procurer of drugs, while Ola himself is passive and therefore somewhat
innocent. Construction of agency is obviously a key aspect of stories of illicit conduct. Stories
of deviant conduct that attribute responsibility to agents other than oneself may permit the
behavior in future, unless the storyteller has rediscovered agency (Maruna 2001). In that case
the journey from passivity to activity may mark reform.
Narrative Genres
Some narrative criminologists ask how the stories before them compare with standard
types or genres. A concept from literature, a genre assigns broad parameters of meaning to
narrative with an emphasis on dramatic arc and affect. Ola’s previously described ‘bad trip’
story takes the form of a romance, with a happy ending following grave troubles. Genre can
characterize either content (what is said) or form (how is it said). We can identify a genre by
asking how the story we are examining compares to other stories. Such a question reveals that
not only is Ola’s story a romance (form), it is also a recovery story often heard in drug treatment
where a turning point in drug use is linked to extensive or particularly bad experiences with a
drug (content). These are, again, similar to religious stories of repentance and salvation.
McAdams (2006) observes that while redemptive stories can promote rehabilitation, recovery,
good deeds, and remarkable achievements, they can also justify violence.
Drawing on literary theory and especially that of Northrop Frye, Smith derived (2005)
four narrative genres to explain the decision of national leaders to go to war. He found that
leaders used low mimesis, tragedy, romance, and apocalyptic narrative genres to frame these
crises. The low mimetic narrative represents life as “drab and routinized and characters (as)
reliable and stoic. Actions are held to be pragmatic and constrained” (Smith 2005, p. 24). As
such: “It is a genre that sits uncomfortably with military action because it does not provide a
convincing and legitimate justification for blood sacrifice” (ibid., p. 25). Very different is
tragedy, where emotions run high and much is at stake. But tragedy does not stimulate war any
more than low mimesis does, because it emphasizes suffering and the human error that too often
produces it. Romance is characterized by triumph over adversity and optimism, including “a
sense that crises can be resolved without recourse to large-scale and systematic violence” (p. 26).
Only the apocalyptic narrative spurs and sustains war. “When radical evil is afoot in the world
there can be no compromise, no negotiated solution, no prudent efforts to effect sanctions or to
maintain a balance of power” (p. 27). Smith uses this typology of genres to explain the decision
of national leaders to go to war in three international conflicts of the twentieth century – the Suez
crisis, the Gulf War, and the War in Iraq.
Genre analysis clearly has room to grow. The well-known genres can launch inquiry, but
others may yet emerge. We might find that hybrid genres are possible: for example, a tragic
apocalyptic narrative. As Fairclough (1992: 125) observes, “there is not, and could not be, a
determinate list of genres, styles, or discourses.” In the spirit of exploration and in recognition of
both the cultural rootedness and the creativity of discourse, narrative criminologists remain open
to the form and substance of the stories we hear.
Coherence and Plurivocality
A principal function of narratives is the unifying work that they do – that is, their
contribution to coherence. By constructing a life story, we know ourselves as one person over
time. In addition, by telling stories “we seek to tie together the more disparate strands of our
lives, of our history” (Kerby 1991, p. 105). Respectively, McAdams (2008) distinguishes two
different kinds of ‘tying together’ – synchronic and diachronic integration. Ola works to achieve
diachronic integration, as he assimilates a traumatic and reckless episode into a longer life story.
In his life story, he is a straight person (“And like I said, I wasn’t interested in drugs”). He
reconciles his bad trip with that narrative identity using the kind of discursive forms discussed
earlier, such as minimization of his agency. Another sort of coherence that stories contribute to
is that of the group. A collective story helps a group of people to know itself as a group. The
group’s story brackets individual differences in favor of collective experience and values.
Whereas our stories strain for coherence, they do not necessarily achieve it and never do achieve
it once and for all, because they are ever in flux, constantly updated, being told and understood
differently in each social space. Nonetheless, stories generally inspire action when they make
sense to people, and they make sense to people when they wrap things up in a satisfying way (cf.
Polletta 2006).
Stories are generally ambiguous and open to interpretation. Scholars point to their
plurivocality (Riessman 2008): they often contain several voices in dialogue with one another
(Frank 2010). In Ola’s story, what at first seems to be a clear point in the coda concerning
abstinence in fact is a rather open-ended internal dialogue. One voice states that the experience
made him avoid all kinds of drugs (“I really couldn’t take anything at all”) while another voice
indicates that he might use cocaine (“Yeah, I’d be inclined to”), before returning to the first voice
(“a real wake-up call even about that”). The story is thus open as to what the coda ‘says’ – and
thus open as to the implications for his future behavior. One might say that Ola is hedging his
bets, but we see him as exploring an unpleasant experience and trying on different meanings for
that experience. A single story can be different things for the storyteller.
And, of course, stories are good at being different things for different people. In this
regard, ambiguity and polyvocality are resources for storytellers. They can make for stories that
are good at mobilizing or inviting the empathy of others, inasmuch as they involve audiences in
the interpretation of the story (Polletta et al. 2011). But these qualities can also produce stories
that are difficult to recognize and believe in. They may not ‘ring true’. The extent to which a
narrative is read as coherent and polyvocal partly depends on the perspective of its audience. If
enough of the story’s form and content are familiar, it may be construed as unified and
straightforward. Similarly, analysis of the narrative for coherence and polyvocality is something
researchers can assess incoherences and multiple voices, or they can choose not to, depending on
data at hand and theoretical inspiration (Sandberg 2013).
The Storytelling Context
Stories are co-produced – tailored to the storytelling occasion and thus influenced by
setting, the purpose of storytelling, and those with (or to) whom we communicate. Ola’s story of
traumatic amphetamine use is clearly not his creation alone. Indeed, earlier we classified the
interviewer’s questions as part of the story (i.e., complicating action, orientation). The
interviewer first raises the issue of illegal drug use and subsequently communicates that the story
is appropriate and interesting (e.g., “Yes, you probably started sweating at that point”), thereby
prompting Ola to continue. In more structured research interviews, interviewers may play an
even more prominent role in the story that gets told. They contribute some of its most important
parts, such as the orientation, and weigh in on the meaning or significance of the story as it gets
Ola’s story would most likely have been different had the context been more formal or had
he not known the interviewer – almost certainly less colourful, and possibly missing some of his
self-critical evaluation as well. Ola and the interviewer were, after all, former friends who had
not seen each other in several years. They were nearly the same age, had grown up together, and
the interview was conducted in the interviewer’s apartment. They spent some time catching up
before the interview started. Notwithstanding the research protocol, which involved prompts
geared to soliciting accounts of drug use in the context of whole lives, the two men were sharing
stories to entertain each other and have a laugh. Stories of wild drinking and illicit drug use are
“privileged stories” (Gubrium and Holstein 2009, p. 23) in encounters between ‘old pals’.
The fact that stories are co-produced has one immediate implication for research practice,
which is that researchers should include as much of that context within the frame for analysis as
is possible and feasible. We recommend coding the social interactions that make the storytelling
possible (e.g., capture by the criminal justice sytem) as well as those in the immediate setting of
the research.
Former violent offenders in Presser’s (2008) research assimilated the interviews with her
into life stories of reform and related identities as morally decent. For example, Dwight, whose
criminal history included rape, aggravated assault, and robbery, scripted a life story that would
lead him to give back to others. When Presser asked about his future plans, he referred to the
research interview (Presser 2008, p. 128):
Interviewer What is [it that] you want to do?
Dwight What we doin’.
Interviewer You want to – uh – what?
Dwight Share the – the – the experience – and reach out an’ help – an’ help
others – uh.
The interview itself was part of Dwight’s vision of the good life. It is quite likely that the
interview occasioned such a redemptive tale and with it Dwight’s identity came into being as a
result of the interview. Ola treats the interview as evidence of his true nature: “I can tell you
because I don’t do it anymore, that’s why I can tell.” The interview itself represents the essential
– non-amphetamine-using – Ola.
In addition to investigating speakers’ references to the research, the analyst can discern
ways in which what the researcher says and does, in interviews as well as encounters with
archival data, influences “the” story. In short, researchers should at the very least acknowledge
that stories, including criminogenic stories, always bear the residue of storytelling settings and
interlocutors. Ideally, they should analyze the influence of the setting besides. Such analysis
compels at least three questions: What characterizes the storytelling situation, who is the story
being told to, and why is it being told? Storytelling context should at least be reported in
publications so that readers can determine how they might understand the stories told.
Conclusions: Toward a Narrative Understanding of Crime
Narrative criminologists recognize that “the past is a selective reconstruction” (Riessman
1993: 64). Rather than viewing such reconstruction as a source of error, however, it is seen as
conditioning future action. The basic perspective is that language is crucial in shaping and
forming action. Stories “emplot lives: they offer a plot that makes some particular future not
only plausible but also compelling” (Frank 2012: 10). Because we act upon our stories, stories
are crucial for understanding criminal behavior. Narrative criminologists seek to draw
theoretical connections between storied discourses and patterns of harmful and/or illegal
The crime-related effects of stories can be read from both their structure and content.
Close studies of language have played only a minor role in mainstream criminology. Narrative
criminologists delineate details of language use, illuminating how they forge a blameless self, a
blameworthy victim, a neutral, honorable or at least inevitable harm, and so on. Analysis can
entail investigating elements or parts of narrative, linguistic (e.g., subjective and verb) choices
that communicate about agency, genres of narrative, and narrative coherence. This is no
exhaustive list of focal areas but rather the most common in a relatively young field.
We have emphasized qualitative analysis of narrative data, but narrative criminologists
can avail themselves of just about any method of doing social research that exists. That is to say,
whereas all narrative criminologists use qualitative (narrative) data, they may take qualitative
and quantitative analytical approaches to the data (see Franzosi 2012). They may illuminate
patterns in discursive fashion, highlighting variability, or they may weigh in on the
representativeness of patterns – or they may do both in mixed-methods projects. We have also
emphasized causal analysis – the search for relationships between storytelling and other behavior
– yet that is surely not the only path narrative criminologists may pursue. At this early stage in
the development of narrative criminology, descriptive work is just as valuable. We need case
studies that deconstruct the narratives of the various agents, individual and collective, who do
and tolerate crime and other harm.
Whereas narrative criminologists are in the business of mapping out the relationships
between stories and action, they understand these relationships to be reciprocal and volatile.
Discourse and “life” are mutually conditioning, meaning that discourses/stories influence how
we understand our experiences and our experiences influence the story. To make matters even
more complicated, we seek out experiences for their ‘narrative payoffs’ (Jackson-Jacobs 2004).
That is, the desire to tell a certain self-story influences the experiences we ‘go for’. These
complex relationships between narrative and experience do not prevent us from establishing
narrative effects. We are not stopped in our tracks by the ever-changing nature of the story.
Narratives are no more dynamically entwined with experience than are other, more tried-and-true
research objects such as attitudes; we dare say that narrative criminologists are only more
reflexive about them.
Caveats aside, narrative analysis, as interpretive analysis, may call for a different
approach to rigor than is typical for most criminologists. As Riessman (1993) states: “There is
no canonical approach in interpretive work, no recipes and formulas, and different validation
procedures may be better suited to some research problems than to others” (p. 69). Maruna
(2001) had a team of research assistants code the same narratives to monitor and improve the
reliability of analysis, but other scholars will view narrative research as inappropriate for such a
scheme. In this vein Linde (1993) says of narrative analysis: “The investigator cannot hope to
come up with a single correct interpretation, but can attempt to produce one or more
interpretations that will be adequate for the analytic purposes of the investigation” (p. 96). The
latter perspective rejects the possibility, and even the desirability, of ‘the’ findings waiting to be
discovered in the data. We are sympathetic to both views. Researchers can choose to use
structured interview guides, clearly identifiable categories and/or multiple coders. Those
concerned with multiple voices and possible interpretations might opt for more traditional
ethnographic approaches to data collection and analysis. Whereas the former take a positivist
stance that the latter eschew, in both cases rigor involves systematic and intellectually honest
engagement with all the data available to the researcher.
We use narrative and story synonymously.
2 For a discussion of how to solicit narratives see Presser (2010) and Riessman (2008).
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... A story (which is one of the principal types of narrative) has a structure or content that is susceptible to analysis, as amply shown in the humanities and social sciences (LABOV, 1972;LABOV and WALETZKY, 1997;MISHLER, 1995;RIESSMAN, 2005), including criminology (ALTHOFF et al., 2020;PRESSER and SANDBERG, 2015b). In particular, "Narrative Criminology" (PRESSER, 2009) has sought to use narrative analysis to study offenders' subjective interpretations of their crimes and the ways in which their meanings are created and communicated through stories (FERRITO et al., 2017;PRESSER and SANDBERG, 2015b). ...
... A story (which is one of the principal types of narrative) has a structure or content that is susceptible to analysis, as amply shown in the humanities and social sciences (LABOV, 1972;LABOV and WALETZKY, 1997;MISHLER, 1995;RIESSMAN, 2005), including criminology (ALTHOFF et al., 2020;PRESSER and SANDBERG, 2015b). In particular, "Narrative Criminology" (PRESSER, 2009) has sought to use narrative analysis to study offenders' subjective interpretations of their crimes and the ways in which their meanings are created and communicated through stories (FERRITO et al., 2017;PRESSER and SANDBERG, 2015b). Narrative criminologists are interested in the stories that offenders tell about their crimes, because those stories reveal the ways in which offenders make sense of their experiences and construct their identities and sense of self (PRESSER, 2004;SANDBERG et al., 2015). ...
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This article takes up the call for narrative criminology to study the complex and sometimes contradictory stories told by offenders about their crimes. Employing LABOV’s structural model of stories and SCHÖNBACH’s typology of accounts, it examines an interview with a murderer in Venezuela and compares two stories that were narrated within it: one about the murder, which was developed quite extensively, and one about the murderer’s family life, which was much less complete. While most of the first story accounted for the murder by calling on values and norms that attach to the criminal subculture, it also evaluated the crime from the perspective of a conventional framework that recognized the importance of family. Relatedly, the second story about the murderer’s family life was set within that same family framework, revealing a conflict between different normative demands made on the murderer. He resolved it by finally giving primacy to his subcultural values and identity. More abstractly, our case study shows how several stories may be interleaved within one narrative, and how several different types of account may be used simultaneously in the moral work that the stories are designed to perform.
... The main aim of this paper is to demonstrate four types of narrative analysis and traditions. I do this primarily by engaging in detail with an interview with Fredrik and his many different stories of violence (see also Presser & Sandberg, 2015b). The narrative approaches demonstrated are the same for larger data sets and other kinds of stories and offenders. ...
... Al final, este análisis de posicionamiento muestra la forma tan compleja cómo las identidades están relacionadas con la pertenencia a contextos desviados y convencionales Palabras clave: identidad narrativa; Teoría del posicionamiento; criminología narrativa; tentativa de homicidio; género y el intercambio de historias en la comisión, mantenimiento y desistimiento del delito y de otros comportamientos perjudiciales (Sandberg y Ugelvik, 2016, p. 129), y al estudio de los procesos de construcción y negociación de la identidad y de la imagen de los infractores -y de otras personas desviadas-a través de dichas historias. Partiendo de la idea de que las historias son importantes para interpretar lo que nos hace quiénes y qué somos (Bruner, 1990;De Fina, 2015;Riessman, 2003), la criminología narrativa ha explorado cómo algunos transgresores (incluso otros actores del Sistema de Justicia Penal) introducen historias que determinan, por una parte, detalles sobre el evento o hecho delictivo y, por otra, quiénes son para una particular audiencia y quiénes son en función de ella (Bamberg y Wipff, 2020;Presser, 2004;Presser y Sandberg, 2015;Wesely, 2018). Quizá una de las cosas más importantes con esta idea es que la narrativa es un mecanismo que les permite a los infractores (y a cualquier otro tipo de personas) presentarse de la manera en que ellos esperan que se les vea. ...
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Este artículo puede considerarse parte de la criminología narrativa y en él se exploran las narrativas como lugares donde se desarrollan complejos procesos de creación de identidad. En este análisis se utiliza la noción de posicionamiento (Bamberg, 1997; Davies y Harré, 1990; Wortham 2000) para evaluar algunos de los procesos discursivos a través de los cuales se lleva a cabo la construcción de las identidades y del yo en contextos de entrevista con sujetos desviados. El interés principal de este trabajo gira en torno a las formas en que ellos se posicionan en relación con los personajes que forman parte de las historias que narran (nivel de posicionamiento 1), con respecto a su entrevistador (nivel de posicionamiento 2) y en función de discursos difundidos social y culturalmente (nivel de posicionamiento 3). Lo significativo de estos niveles de posicionamiento narrativo es que le ofrecen la oportunidad a estos sujetos de negociar la identidad o el tipo de imagen que quieren dar de sí mismos en un lugar y momento determinado. Así, con base en los datos de un corpus de entrevistas con homicidas venezolanos, se analiza la experiencia de un sujeto condenando por intentar darle muerte a su pareja, el cual adopta posicionamientos muy diferentes con respecto a sí mismo, a su víctima, familia y experiencia laboral. Especialmente, por medio de las estrategias de categorización e indexicalidad se explora cómo se describe, define y posiciona a sí mismo y a los demás personajes de sus narraciones, lo que hace posible la comprensión del yo e identidad (convencional y desviada) presente en los eventos narrados (mundo de la historia), en la actividad narrativa que se materializa en la entrevista (mundo de la narración) y en un mundo más amplio que envuelve aspectos socio-culturales. Al final, este análisis de posicionamiento muestra la forma tan compleja cómo las identidades están relacionadas con la pertenencia a contextos desviados y convencionales.
... Telling stories helps us to create order, and to give meaning to our experiences. Narratives simplify, condense and provide coherence at individual and aggregate scales (Presser 2009;Presser and Sandberg 2015;Kurtz and Upton 2017). The right story can bind diverse participants together and enable coordinated action (Annison 2021). ...
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Drawing on narrative criminology and sensemaking theory, this paper explores interpretive patterns in an interagency policing collaboration that targets ‘work-related crime’ (WRC). WRC is a policy term denoting organised crime and economic offences (i.a. tax evasion, benefits fraud, labour exploitation, and immigration law offences), and is framed as a threat to the viability of the welfare state. While the concept signals an intent to coordinate across agencies, policing takes place within local and institutional contexts. How do agents in the police and collaborating agencies render the policy concept ‘work-related crime’ meaningful and actionable? The study articulates three organisational narratives explaining WRC as fundamental criminogenic change, as stability, and as a reflexive product of the control apparatus. Key Words: narrative criminology, sensemaking, plural policing, economic crime, organised crime, crimmigration
... By doing so, this study moves away from the current positivist approach to peer support (Dadich, 2009;Van de Ven, 2018) and looks at it as a vehicle for identity change and reconstruction. This is in line with the current stream of and demand for empirical research in narrative victimology and criminology (Hourigan, 2019;Pemberton et al., 2019b;Presser, 2009;Presser & Sandberg, 2015;Sandberg, 2010;Sandberg & Ugelvik, 2016;Walklate, Maher, McColloch, Fitz-Gibbon, & Beavis, 2019). Second, through this study, we follow up on Pemberton et al.'s (2019b) request to broaden the research focus in victimology from merely the traumatic experience to the way such an experience can be embedded in the construction and perception of one's identity (see also Rock, 2002). ...
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Sensemaking is rooted in identity construction and it is a particularly interpersonal process. Moreover, traumatic experiences are known to cause people to engage in sensemaking processes and identity construction. However, knowledge of how this works in an interpersonal, community setting, is lacking. The aim of this study is to assess how peer support contributes to the sensemaking processes and identity construction in the aftermath of trauma. Data from an observational study of organised peer support groups for (co)victims of serious crimes and survivors of traumatic loss were analysed using inductive thematic analysis. Results show how participants of peer support groups move through several phases of sensemaking and identity construction in a fluid, dynamic, way. Identity work is collectively done. Through coconstruction of their identities, participants are able to make sense of a traumatic experience and progress towards a more self‐aware and self‐centred identity.
... The 23 chapters of this Handbook are empirically, geographically, topically and thematically diverse. They share an interest inand more thorough engagement withmethods than previous work within narrative criminology (but see Presser & Sandberg, 2015b). The chapters demonstrate that narrative criminology is not wedded to any one data source or form of analysis. ...
The potential for a ‘narrative turn’ in victimology carries with it all kinds of possibilities and problems in adding nuanced understandings smoothed out and sometimes erased from the vision of victimhood provided by criminal victimisation data. In this chapter, we explore the methodological and theoretical questions posed by such a narrative turn by presenting the case of June: a mother bereaved by gun violence that unfolded in Manchester two decades ago. Excavated using in-depth biographical interviewing, June told the story of the loss of her son, the role of faith in dealing with the aftermath of violence and eventually, how this story became a source for change for the community in which it was read and heard. June's story provided an impetus for establishing a grassroots antiviolence organisation and continued to be the driver for that same group long after the issue it was formed to address had become less problematic. As a story it served different purposes for the individual concerned, for the group they were a part of and for the wider community in which the group emerged. However, this particular story also raises questions for victimology in its understanding of the role of voice in policy and concerning the nature of evidence for both policy and the discipline itself. This chapter considers what lessons narrative victimology might learn from narrative criminology, the overlaps that the stories of victims and offenders might share and what the implications these might have for understanding what it means to be harmed.
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While numbers of first‐time entrants have decreased dramatically in the last decade, young people remaining in the youth justice system in England and Wales today are the most persistent, troubled offenders. Research suggests that the formation of a non‐offending or ‘prosocial’ identity is crucial for desistance among persistent offenders. This article examines how engaging in an employment programme at a social enterprise influenced the identity of offenders aged 16–18 years. Young people's self‐narratives reveal that although none possessed a strong criminal identity, they developed a more coherent prosocial identity during their employment. This can be attributed to how the employment programme reduced the social exclusion experienced by employees, demonstrating the value of such opportunities for youths.
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The number of students studying criminology at university has significantly increased. Yet, criminology students have been all but ignored in research, despite being key stakeholders and ambassadors in the criminological enterprise. Drawing on the analysis of 12 in-depth interviews, we explore why students are motivated to study criminology and how these motivations are linked to their past experiences and future aspirations. Using a narrative inquiry, three types of stories emerged through our analysis: stories about (1) building on existing interests, (2) understanding the ‘self’, and (3) securing ‘justice’ and ‘helping’ others. The stories students tell about their exposure to ‘crime’ help motivate their decision to study criminology, while their engagement with the discipline, enables them to make sense of these previous experiences and of themselves.
Police officers in the Netherlands have a double task: interrogating the suspect and drawing up the police report. As these tasks are performed simultaneously, they have to find a way to coordinate the talk and the typing. Besides, the police report must not only be a representation of the talk in the interrogation, it must also contain the relevant legal materials for it to serve as official piece of evidence. As a result, the suspect’s story is transformed into a written statement that is different from the original talk. The story of ‘the suspect’s statement’ is as much the story of the suspect as of the routine activities of police interrogators and, more generally, of the unnoticed and unintended features of the criminal law process.
The complaint narrative, in which victims describe their experiences of abuse as part of the domestic violence protection order application process, has been questioned on the basis that quality and outcome might vary depending on who completes the form. Using a mixed-methods narrative analysis approach, we advance this inquiry by examining whether distinct ‘types’ of narratives can be identified across a sample of protection order application narratives from the state of Queensland in Australia. We find three distinct narrative types that are differently associated with who makes the application and the protection order outcome. The results underscore the unevenness in the protection order process and equitable access to justice more broadly.