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Between a rock and a hard place : navigating the ethical demands of narrative inquiry and creative nonfiction
conference contributionposted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by Janene CareyJanene Carey
Narrative inquiry, which has been simply defined as ‘stories lived and told’, is a field of qualitative research with a well-established philosophical, ethical and methodological base. As such, it has much to offer creative arts researchers who are seeking an appropriate theoretical framework for investigating lived experience and presenting research outputs in storied form. However, when the genre of the resulting story is creative nonfiction, certain tensions arise between narrative inquiry practice and the writing of vivid, insightful creative nonfiction animated by the author’s personal voice. Narrative inquiry is rooted within the academy, so its principles are aligned with those upheld by Human Research Ethics Committees: assuring free consent, guarding confidentiality, and protecting participants from harm. In contrast, creative nonfiction practitioners, along with journalists and biographers, are less likely to be concerned about subject’s rights, and more likely to valorise author’s rights, reader’s rights, truthfulness and the ‘necessities of the text’ when ethics are discussed. For the creative component of my doctoral thesis, I investigated people’s experiences of caring for terminally-ill family members at home. I developed a conception of my project as a biographical type of life writing within the field of narrative inquiry, with a creative nonfiction book manuscript and accompanying exegesis as the research outcomes. Consideration of how conflicting loyalties and competing values can create moral quandaries in which author’s rights are pitted against subject’s rights led me to the research problem at the heart of my thesis. Expressed in terms of the elements juggled, what I endeavoured to do was to take a non-exploitative, non-maleficent approach to the task of producing non-superficial, non-rose-tinted, nuanced accounts of home-based palliative caregiving. This paper presents narrative inquiry as a useful, credible and appropriate theoretical framework for creative arts researchers, particularly when undertaking the ethically-challenging task of writing other people’s lives. I argue that consulting and negotiating with my research participants throughout the draft writing stages enhanced their trust in me, and greatly increased the richness of what I was able to include. I also present an example of how fraught the process of soliciting feedback and negotiating the final version of a story can become, when divergence occurs between the viewpoints of subject and author.