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Narrative Inquiry in Music Education

Troubling Certainty

Editors: Barrett, Margaret S., Stauffer, Sandra L. (Eds.)

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  • The first collection of narrative inquiry examples in the field of music education
  • Accompanies each example by a critical commentary that situates the work in the field
  • Presents meta-reflective commentaries from key theorists in Music and Social Science
  • Presents an innovative view of narrative inquiry in "resonant work"
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About this book

This text provides a forum for the presentation and discussion of narrative inquiry approaches to research in music education, and contextualizes this work within the larger conversations of music education research and practice. In an innovative dialogic approach the text is divided into 3 parts, each presenting a different perspective on the uses and purposes of narrative in and for music education. Section I explores the origins of narrative research across a range of fields of inquiry and presents a conception of narrative inquiry as "resonant work". Section II provides 7 examples of narrative inquiry research, each of which is accompanied by a reflective commentary. The commentaries provide an interpretive perspective of the narrative accounts, suggest further questions that arise from the inquiry, and provide insight into the potential uses of the narrative account for the theory and practice of music education. Section III brings together the perspectives of two eminent theorists and practitioners.


Psychology of Music 2009, 37: 504

Book review by David Baker, Institute of Education, Reading University

M.S. BARRETT and S.L. STAUFFER (eds), Narrative Inquiry in Music Education:

Troubling Certainty. New York: Springer, 2009. ISBN 9781402098611 (hbk)

The editors (Margaret Barrett and Sandra Stauffer) offer Narrative Inquiry in Music

Education: Troubling Certainty as an exploration of a ‘turn’ or newfound direction

in music education research. This new pathway, they suggest, can exist alongside

other methodologies such as the psychometric tradition that focuses on objective

measurement. As a researcher involved with life histories and postmodernism,

I am heartened by their position and book. It is a standpoint that values the many

different approaches to music education research. The diversity in social science

research has always been something very appealing to me. Too often, perhaps, we

are simply offered an impasse between advocates of contrasting paradigms. Sadly,

this is my experience of some university departments (but not all). By aiming

to ‘cultivate ground for narrative inquiry to seed and flourish alongside other

methodological approaches’ (p. 1) and ‘to "trouble" certainty’ (in the most peaceful

manner) (p. 2), Barrett and Stauffer have produced an extremely valuable text.

The book is not a straightforward read, however; it covers complicated theoretical

and philosophical matters. Primarily, its audience will be postgraduate students,

social researchers and staff members within universities. I am a tutor for a course

attended by music teachers, some of whom continue to undertake Master of

Arts degrees under my supervision. I sense that colleagues will enjoy this volume

greatly, yet some students will glean more than others, particularly in respect of

the epistemological dimensions. It is a worthwhile and constructive book, nonetheless,

that draws upon the perspectives of a wealth of very dependable world

authorities. Chapters are by captivating writers such as Graham Welch (Institute of

Education, London), Jean Clandinin (University of Alberta) and Peter Dunbar-Hall

(Sydney Conservatorium of Music).

Narrative Inquiry is divided into three parts. Part I explores the origins of narrative

research, making reference to fields of anthropology, psychology, historical

studies and sociology. Barrett and Stauffer illustrate well how narrative research

is respectful to those involved, beneficent to society, rigorous and resonant for its

audiences. From my experience specifically with biographical research (2005a,

2005b, 2006), narratives can be highly resonant and powerfully catalytic also.

Developing a narrative account can empower a storyteller to interpret, understand

and change his or her own circumstances; the process also provides a ‘voice’ and

elucidates the insider’s perspective for others. I have collaborated with UK Local

Education Authority employees to produce narrative accounts that delivered these

benefits. This form of enquiry deserves its esteemed place in the social sciences and


In exploring origins, though, Part I of this volume might have tracked paradigmatic

shifts across time to the current position whereby narrative investigations

are considered wholly acceptable. I reflect that single cases (Shaw, 1930; Thomas

& Znaniecki, 1927) emanated from the Chicago School so fleetingly in the field of

life histories, disappeared and then reappeared abundantly in ‘paradigmatically favourable’

times. That particular narrative technique was distrusted in its infancy.

It appeared ‘to provide no wider link to theoretical understanding [and] have little

power of generalizability’ (Faraday & Plummer, 2003, p. 34). Indeed ‘the need to

understand the nuances of … experience at the level of the contextualised individual

or group’ has been overlooked in the past; as Graham Welch asserts in Narrative

Inquiry (p. 57), though there is now a long tradition of this in mainstream education

research (although less so in music education). Through framing Narrative Inquiry

in terms of the wider history and diversification of qualitative research at the onset

of the book (see Denzin & Lincoln’s ‘moments’ (2000)), key differences would have

been underscored between this ‘turn’ and other modes of investigation with regard

to theory, quality criteria and intentions. In doing so, this excellent text would have

become more accessible to less experienced audiences.

Part II, the largest part of Narrative Inquiry, offers seven examples of studies by

early-career researchers in music education; each study is accompanied by a

reflective commentary written by a notable scholar. These contemplative chapters

will, undoubtedly, enrich readers’ understanding and stimulate further questions.

The multidimensional approach of this part of the volume is particularly engaging

and thought-provoking. The editors’ promise is fulfilled, therefore, as readers are

presented with extremely fertile ground for cogitation. Narrative research in music

education will, no doubt, grow admirably under such rich circumstances.

David Cleaver’s piece (Chapter 3) is a good illustration of the tenor of Part II.

Cleaver (University of Southern Queensland) provides the story of ‘Jan Peterson’

(a pseudonym). ‘Jan’ is a musically dedicated school student. We learn of a family

script and trans-generational plot concerning participation in music (p. 41). Cleaver

mentions hearing of these familial plots when working as a teacher (p. 42). He also

discusses his wife’s memories of music in the home in County Cork, Ireland. Graham

Welch (Chapter 4) notes the challenge presented to readers:

The sectionalisation of the text delineates different foci in the researcher’s exploration of the topic.

At one moment, there is sharing of insights into details of the participant’s

musical life, drawing on established qualitative methodologies … This is contrasted with

a more reflective view of himself and his own biography in relation to the participant

[Jan], such as … reflecting on the experience afterwards in conversation with his wife.

This duality in the text challenges us to understand what each might be contributing to

the other. (p. 59)

Cleaver’s chapter will resonate with readers’ experiences. I identified traits of myself,

both as a music student and teacher within the narratives in this book. David

Cleaver’s story of ‘Jan’ reminded me of childhood. The stories of Kaye Ferguson’s

student teachers, ‘Anne’ and ‘Josh’, reverberated for me as they struggled ‘between

performer and teacher self-views’ (p. 99). Readers’ own understandings will arise

through marrying the constituent threads of presented research, evaluating their

own biographies, and considering the accompanying appraisals. An injection of

critique is a desirable quality in Narrative Inquiry; Welch, for instance, is not disposed

to full acceptance of Cleaver’s thoughts. He remarks:

the portrayal of the mother harks back to a Durkhiemian functionalist viewpoint in

which society is viewed as a system of social institutions and in which the child might

be socialised … into the dominant views of the value of music that are held by the

family. Not all families are as supportive as in this particular case. Borthwick’s doctoral

thesis [cited in Davidson & Borthwick, 2002], for example, suggests that different

children within a ‘musical’ family have diverse experiences and that these are not

always positive. (p. 60)

Jean Clandinin and Wayne Bowman (Brandon University, Manitoba) consider

the subtitle ‘troubling certainty’ in their final chapters. People experience what

might appear the same circumstances in diverse ways; accounts are unique and

constructed. Narratives communicate the personal, the insider’s viewpoint, rather

than general and generic; they are useful for capturing lived experience. A political

dimension is evident with narrative research as storytellers are afforded a ‘voice’

that might challenge dominant conceptions. Troubling certainty means using these

unique voices to make music education ‘more inclusive of the lives of all people,

regardless of … how they are positioned on the landscape. [The editors] … imagine

troubling as a way to give pause for thought’ (p. 208). Certainly, this volume is

successful in that respect.

Part III consists of two superb chapters by Jean Clandinin and Wayne Bowman.

Clandinin (Chapter 17) is concerned with the ways in which educators are prepared

for ‘wide awakeness’ in their theory and practice. Prompting ‘wide awakeness’

means persuading educators ‘… to look beyond the familiar, to attend to … alternative

accounts of the ways in which lives are lived and storied in and through

music and education’ (p. 2).1 Bowman’s chapter (Chapter 18) is a highlight, I feel.

In his chapter, Bowman takes a step back from naïve advocacy and asks probing

questions of the possibilities of narratives. We are encouraged to determine whether

or not mere resonance for audiences is enough. Is there a potential for mischief as

well as affirmation? Furthermore, is it possible to embrace the particular without

renouncing generality? These are absorbing and provocative questions.

Narrative Inquiry in Music Education is a tremendous book that contributes

splendidly to the field of qualitative research. It benefits from well-presented and

conducted research alongside critique and stimulating reflection. The commentaries

do ‘provide us with a view, a window into the narrative accounts’ (p. 3), with

discussions that are both authoritative and revealing. Moreover, the substantive

issues addressed by the early-career researchers are of great interest to music

educators. I bid readers of this journal to consider the volume.


1. The term ‘wide awake’ comes from Maxine Greene (1995).


Baker, D. (2005a). Music service teachers’ life histories in the United Kingdom with

implications for practice. International Journal of Music Education, 23(2), 251–266.

Baker, D. (2005b). Peripatetic music teachers approaching mid-career: A cause for concern?

British Journal of Music Education, 22(2), 141–153.

Baker, D. (2006). Life histories from a music service: The past in inductees’ present. British

Journal of Music Education, 23(1), 39–50.

Davidson, J. W., & Borthwick, S. J. (2002). Family dynamics and family scripts: A case study

of musical development. Psychology of Music, 30(1), 121–136.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2000). Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative

research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.;

pp. 1–28). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Faraday, A., & Plummer, K. (2003). Doing life histories. In N. Fielding (Ed.), Sage benchmarks

in social research methods, Vol. 2: Interviewing (pp. 33–54). London: Sage.

Greene, M. (1995) Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San

Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shaw, C. (1930) The jack-roller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thomas, W. I., & Znaniecki, F. (1927). The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

David Baker

Institute of Education, Reading University


Table of contents (21 chapters)

Table of contents (21 chapters)

Buy this book

eBook 96,29 €
price for Spain (gross)
  • ISBN 978-1-4020-9862-8
  • Digitally watermarked, DRM-free
  • Included format: PDF
  • ebooks can be used on all reading devices
  • Immediate eBook download after purchase
Hardcover 124,79 €
price for Spain (gross)
Softcover 124,79 €
price for Spain (gross)

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Bibliographic Information

Bibliographic Information
Book Title
Narrative Inquiry in Music Education
Book Subtitle
Troubling Certainty
  • Margaret S. Barrett
  • Sandra L. Stauffer
Springer Netherlands
Copyright Holder
Springer Science+Business Media B.V.
eBook ISBN
Hardcover ISBN
Softcover ISBN
Edition Number
Number of Pages
VIII, 246