What is a “narrative interview?”

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods, Research Methodology

A narrative interview consists of the researcher asking an open-ended question that invites the interviewee to respond in a narrative form (i.e. by retelling experiences of events as they happened).

This material is the for the “old syllabus.” Students in the new IB Psychology syllabus (first exams May, 2019), do not need to know about narrative interviews (but they do need to know about unstructured interviews).

What is a narrative interview? 

Find heaps of teaching resources for qualitative methods in our teacher support pack.

A “narrative” is a spoken or written summary of connected events. So a narrative interview asks questions that require participants to summarize their experiences of one or more phenomena (events) and tell this story to the researcher.

A narrative interview’s aim is to gather data on an individual’s particular experiences by asking them questions designed to have the participant respond in a narrative – a summary of events that are bound together by a common theme or meaning.

They might ask questions like:

  • Can you tell me about your experiences of…?
  • Can you tell me about ….? Who was involved? What happened? How did you feel?

How is a narrative interview conducted?

This summary from Feher, 2011 (European Journal of Homelessness) gives a good summary of how the narrative interview process works (in this case when interviewing homeless people). (Link to full article)

“The narrative interview consists of three sub-sessions. In the first one the interviewer poses a single, carefully constructed, introductory, narrative question and
then remains silent for a long period of time. In this question the interviewer orientates the interviewee by telling them what the focus of the interview is. The initial
question could be something like: “Please tell me the story of your life… how you
have become homeless?” The interviewee is given complete freedom in their
response, and in remembering and constructing the story that they feel best
responds to the question. The interviewer is fully present, but does not influence
the story-telling by asking questions. If the interviewee needs help or does not know
how to continue, the interviewer can ask them to expand on the last event (“Do you
remember anything else about this?”), or simply help them to move on by asking:
“And what happened after that?” When the story is finished (usually marked by a
closing sentence such as “This was the story of my life”), the interviewer might ask
the interviewee to speak more about certain events that have been mentioned and
then wait for the story to be developed without asking further questions. This subsession is called the narrative follow-up. Questions in this sub-session remain
strictly narrative in nature….

The third sub-session is optional. If the interviewer feels that more, non-narrative material is needed, they can conduct a second interview – this time a semi-structured, in-depth interview. This could be the case, for example, if the research requires the birth date of the respondent or more information about their family, or even if the interviewee has not spoken about certain areas of their lives that could be important, such as their childhood.” (Feher, 2011)

In summary, there are three phases to a typical narrative interview:

  1. Narrative phase: A single, carefully constructive narrative question is asked and the participant is given freedom to respond without intrusion from the research.
  2. Narrative follow-up: Additional question are asked to gather more information if necessary.
  3. Optional second interview: More structured questions are asked to reveal specific data.

You can see this original study about Doctor training in the UK for a summary of questions asked in a narrative interview.


It is believed that people build their schema of the world by the stories they tell, listen to and read. It’s through these stories that people make sense of what is happening around them. Therefore, people will naturally communicate their experiences of the world (it is believed) through their own narratives, so questions should be asked that enable them to do this. The purpose is to see how people order the events and experiences of their life to give them meaning. By interpreting the meaning applied to participants’ events, we can attempt to understand their subjective experiences.

Other strengths

  • It can be used to investigate how people interpret their own individual experiences in relation to the broader social and cultural context. This is because their experiences would have been shaped to fit schema which have been accumulated through their social and cultural experiences.
  • They can be used with all people because they can talk freely.


  • It results in an enormous amount of data and it can be time consuming to collect and analyse it.
  • The amount and quality of data will vary depending on the verbal qualities of the participant.
  • On the other hand, it might not offer much data if the person is unwilling to speak. This may happen if they’re not comfortable with the researcher or being tape recorded.

 How to answer Paper 3 questions on narrative interviews…(D.E.A.L)

  1. Define: 2 – 3 sentence summary of what a narrative interview is.
  2. Explain: how and why they’re used in qualitative research
  3. Apply: use details from the stimulus to support your explanation
  4. Limitations: explain limitations of using a narrative interview (also use details to support your points)

Updated Aug 2020