Narrative vigilance: the analysis of stories in health care


John Paley, Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK. Tel.: 44 (0) 1786 466399; fax: 44 (0) 1786 466344; e-mail: or


Abstract  The idea of narrative has been widely discussed in the recent health care literature, including nursing, and has been portrayed as a resource for both clinical work and research studies. However, the use of the term ‘narrative’ is inconsistent, and various assumptions are made about the nature (and functions) of narrative: narrative as a naive account of events; narrative as the source of ‘subjective truth’; narrative as intrinsically fictional; and narrative as a mode of explanation. All these assumptions have left their mark on the nursing literature, and all of them (in our view) are misconceived. Here, we argue that a failure to distinguish between ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ is partly responsible for these misconceptions, and we offer an analysis that shows why the distinction between them is essential. In doing so, we borrow the concept of ‘narrativity’ from literary criticism. Narrativity is something that a text has degrees of, and our proposal is that the elements of narrativity can be ‘sorted’ roughly into a continuum, at the ‘high narrativity’ end of which we find ‘story’. On our account, ‘story’ is an interweaving of plot and character, whose organization is designed to elicit a certain emotional response from the reader, while ‘narrative’ refers to the sequence of events and the (claimed) causal connections between them. We suggest that it is important not to confuse the emotional persuasiveness of the ‘story’ with the objective accuracy of the ‘narrative’, and to this end we recommend what might be called ‘narrative vigilance’. There is nothing intrinsically authentic, or sacrosanct, or emancipatory, or paradigmatic about narrative itself, even though the recent health care literature has had a marked tendency to romanticize it.