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What is Narrative Case Study

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"`Not so much a handbook, but an excellent source of reference' - British Journal of Social Work This volume is the definitive resource for anyone doing research in social work. It details both quantitative and qualitative methods and data collection, as well as suggesting the methods appropriate to particular types of studies. It also covers issues such as ethics, gender and ethnicity, and offers advice on how to write up and present your research."

Narrative Case Studies

  • In: The Handbook of Social Work Research Methods
  • Chapter DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781412986182
  • Subject: Social Work
  • Keywords: fathers ; mothers ; parenting ; parents ; trauma
  • Show page numbers Hide page numbers

The narrative case study is a research instrument that is used for the in-depth study of various social and clinical problems, to understand stages or phases in processes, and to investigate a phenomenon within its environmental context (Gilgun, 1994). The case study method, which has been termed “the only possible way of obtaining the granite blocks of data on which to build a science of human nature” (Murray, 1955, p. 15), has been used in fields such as clinical psychoanalysis, human behavior theory, and Piagetian cognitive development theory. Case studies also have been used to advantage in diverse professions such as medicine, law, and business, where they hold a time-honored role in both research and teaching (Gilgun, 1994). One popular writer, the neurologist Oliver Sacks, has received critical acclaim for his richly detailed and compelling case studies of patients with various types of brain diseases and syndromes, ranging from postencephalitis to autism. In its simplest form, the case study is a story told for the purpose of understanding and learning. It captures essential meanings and qualities that might not be conveyed as forcefully or as effectively through other research media. Fundamentally, the narrative case study provides entrée to information that might otherwise be inaccessible. It makes possible [Page 294] the capture of phenomena that might not be understood as readily through other means of study.

The narrative case study has been a tradition in social work that spans several generations of social work theorists. Authors such as Mary Richmond, Annette Garrett, Helen Harris Perlman, Florence Hollis, and Selma Fraiberg have, inter alia, used case exemplars to illustrate a range of issues and problems in diagnosis and intervention. Case studies continue to hold a prominent role in the dissemination of clinical knowledge in social work education. Although somewhat less common today, the use of casebooks to augment textual and other didactic materials in the clinical instruction of social work graduate students historically was a common practice. Spence (1993) observes that the traditional case report remains the “most compelling means of communicating clinical findings, and the excitement attached to both reading and writing case histories has lost none of its appeal” (p. 37). The value of the case study, it might be argued, lies in its experience-near descriptions of clinical processes. Such descriptions are phenomenologically distinctive and permit the student to identify with the experience of the worker and the reality of the clinical encounter, albeit vicariously. Case studies provide examples of what already has been encountered and how difficult situations were handled. Narrative case studies have been used extensively in several different social work literatures including child and family welfare, family therapy, individual therapy, group work, cross-cultural studies, and practice evaluations.

The Case Study Defined

The narrative case study is defined as the intensive examination of an individual unit, although such units are not limited to individual persons. Families, treatment teams, clinical interview segments, and even whole communities are legitimate units for investigation (Gilgun, 1994). It also can be argued that a defining characteristic of the case study in social work is its focus on environmental context, although certain exceptions may exist (e.g., single-case experimental research designs, where context is either not emphasized or deemed to be irrelevant). Case studies are held to be idiographic (which means that the unit of study is the single unit); multiple variables are investigated; and generalization is fundamentally analytic, inferential, and impressionistic rather than statistical and probabilistic. When generalization takes this form, the findings extrapolated from a single case subsequently are compared for “goodness of fit” with other cases and/or patterns predicted by extant theory or prior research (Gilgun, 1994). Nomothetic research, by contrast, systematically investigates a few variables using groups of subjects rather than individual units. Nomothetic [Page 295] research, currently the dominant mode of investigation in the social and behavioral sciences, attempts to distill general laws from its findings. Large probability samples are especially valued inasmuch as they permit the use of powerful statistics. These, in turn, strengthen the claim of probabilistic generalizability (Gilgun, 1994).

Postmodernism and the Narrative Case Study

Although many journals in social work continue to place an emphasis on nomothetic research, clinical social work, psychology, and other human services appear to be in a transitional period where basic assumptions about what constitutes science and scientific inquiry are being challenged. The positivist worldview, which has exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on modern scientific thought, also has imposed significant restraints on the nature of research within the clinical professions (Howard, 1985; Mahoney, 1991; Niemeyer, 1993; Polkinghorne, 1988). As theorists have become increasingly aware of such restrictions, efforts to cultivate and distill methods of investigation that are less bound by the assumptions of positivist science have increased (Niemeyer, 1993). Consequently, clinical scholars have begun to consider issues or approaches such as self-agency, hermeneutics, semiotics, and theories that emphasize intentional action and narrative knowing. Anderson (1990) even goes so far as to declare, “We are seeing in our lifetimes the collapse of the objectivist worldview that dominated the modern era” and that it is being supplanted by a constructivist worldview (p. 268). This position seems rather extreme, although there clearly has been a sustained transdisciplinary interest in constructivism over the past 20 years or so. The common assumption shared by all constructivist orientations has been described in the following manner: No one has access to a singular, stable, and fully knowable reality. All of our understandings, instead, are imbedded in social and interpersonal contexts and are, therefore, limited in perspective, depth, and scope. Constructivist approaches appear to have a common guiding premise that informs all thinking about the nature of knowing. In effect, constructivist thinking assumes that all humans (a) are naturally and actively engaged in efforts to understand the totality of their experiences in the world, (b) are not able to gain direct access to external realities, and (c) are continually evolving and changing (Niemeyer, 1993). Therefore, constructivism and the study of case narratives are the study of meaning making. As social workers and as humans, we are compelled to interpret experience, to search for purpose, and to understand the significance of events and scenarios in which we play a part. Although incompatible with the aims of nomothetic [Page 296] research investigation, the narrative case study might prove to be especially well suited for the requirements of a postmodern era.

Limitations of the Narrative Case Study

Several significant limitations of the narrative case study have been identified in both the clinical social work and psychoanalytic literatures. One of these is the heavy reliance placed on anecdote and narrative persuasion in typical case studies, where a favored or singular explanation is provided (Spence, 1993). In effect, the story that is being told often has but one ending. In fact, the narrative case study might “function best when all the evidence has been accounted for and no other explanation is possible” (Spence, 1993, p. 38). Spence (1993) also believes that the facts presented in typical case studies almost invariably are presented in a positivist frame. In other words, a somewhat artificial separation occurs between the observer/narrator and the observed. Although clinical realities are inherently ambiguous and subject to the rule of multideterminism (a construct in which any psychic event or aspect of behavior can be caused my multiple factors and may serve more than one purpose in the psychic framework and economy [Moore & Fine, 1990, p. 123]), “facts” in the case narrative are presented in such a manner as to lead the reader to a particular and, one might argue, inevitable solution.

Another criticism of the narrative case study has been what Spence (1993) terms the “tradition of argument by authority.” The case narrative has a “closed texture” that coerces the reader into accepting at face value whatever conclusions the narrator himself or herself already has made about the case. Disagreement and alternative explanations often are not possible due to the fact that only the narrator has access to all of the facts and tends to report these selectively. In Spence's view, this “privileged withholding” occurs for two interrelated reasons: (a) the narrator's need to protect the client's confidentiality by omitting or altering certain types of information and (b) the narrator's unintended or unconscious errors of distortion, omission, or commission. The effect, however, is that the whole story is not told. Sigmund Freud, whose detailed case studies of patients with obsessive-compulsive, phobic, hysterical, and paranoid disorders are recognized as exemplars of the psychoanalytic method, appears to have anticipated this limitation. Freud (1913/1958) remarked, “I once treated a high official who was bound by his oath of office not to communicate certain things because they were state secrets, and the analysis came to grief as a consequence of this restriction.” Freud reasoned,

The whole task becomes impossible if a reservation is allowed at any single place. But we have only to reflect what would happen if the right of asylum existed at any point in a town; [Page 297] how long would it be before all the riff-raff of the town had collected there? (p. 136, as cited in Spence, 1993)

Using the Narrative Case Study as a Qualitative Research Tool

Although some authors have observed that case studies are not limited to qualitative research applications, the basic focus in the remainder of this chapter is on the narrative case study in the context of qualitative research. The case study allows for the integration of theoretical perspective, intervention, and outcome. In an effort to establish a link between a unique clinical phenomenon and its context where one might not be immediately evident, the case study can be used to hypothesize some type of cause and effect. In clinical work, case studies often are the only means by which to gain entrée to various dimensions of therapeutic process and of certain hypothesized aspects of the complex treatment relationship between the social worker and the client (e.g., the transference-countertransference axis). The dissemination of such data thus becomes an important method both for theory building and as a vehicle for challenging certain assumptions about treatment process, diagnosis, and the therapeutic relationship, inter alia. Despite the limitations noted earlier and the fact that there appears to be little uniformity in the structure of published case studies, the narrative case study, nevertheless, continues to make significant (some would argue seminal) contributions to social work practice theory and clinical methods.

Guidelines for Determining Goodness of Fit

It first must be determined whether the narrative case study is the most appropriate research tool for the theme or issue that is being explored. Narrative case studies should be written so that it is possible to make useful generalizations. It should be possible to use the case study as the basis for additional research, an important point that argues against the closed texture issue identified by Spence (1993). For example, in hypothesizing that a particular variable or a specific sequence of events is responsible for a particular outcome, the structure of the case study should permit the subsequent testing of such a hypothesis via additional qualitative or quantitative means.

One might consider the case of a man who has developed a fear of riding in cars following an automobile accident in which another motorist was killed. In his case, he eventually becomes fearful not only of riding in cars but also of being near streets or, perhaps, even of seeing films of others riding in cars. These, as well as other phenomena associated with automobiles and accidents, eventually lead to states of nearly incapacitating anxiety. The clinician might hypothesize that, following a traumatic experience such as a serious automobile accident, the development of acute [Page 298] anxiety might not be limited solely to driving in cars but might extend or generalize to other, nominally more benign stimuli (e.g., pictures of cars, engine sounds). One might design another study to determine the statistical probability of developing such symptomatology following a serious auto accident by interviewing a large sample of accident victims to determine how similar their experiences were. However, suppose that in our case, the man developed not only a fear of cars and associated phenomena but also a fear of leaving his house or of being around unfamiliar people. This might be somewhat more difficult to explain without obtaining additional data. One might wish to have further information regarding whether there is a history of emotional problems or other traumata predating the most recent traumatic experience, the individual's physical health status, current or past use of drugs and/or alcohol, and quality of current interpersonal relationships including those with family members. It also might be helpful to have more remote data such as early life history and history of losses. In effect, as more variables are added to the equation, the narrative case study becomes that much more attractive as a basic research instrument, uniquely equipped to identify an extensive range of variables of interest.

In such an instance, the narrative case study permits the researcher to “capture” exceedingly complex case situations, allowing for a considerable degree of detail and richness of understanding. Elements of the recent and remote past can be interwoven with particular issues in the present, thereby creating a rich tapestry and an equally sound basis for additional investigation. In fact, the narrative case study is especially useful when complex dynamics and multiple variables produce unusual or even rare situations that might be less amenable to other types of research investigations.

Specific Guidelines for Practice Utilization

One very common type of case study is chronological in nature, describing events as they occur over a period of time. Making inferences about causality, or about the linkage between events and particular sequelae, may be enhanced by the use of such an organizing framework. A second type of structure for organizing the narrative case study is the comparative structure , in which more than a single commentary is provided for the case data. Such an organizing framework may be a method for combating the problem of the narrator's tendency to arrive at a singular explanation for the clinical facts and their meaning.

One somewhat more complex sequence for the structure of the narrative case study might consist of the following components: (a) identification of the issue, problem, or process being studied; (b) review of relevant prior literature; (c) identification of methods used for data collection such as written process notes, progress notes, other clinical documentation, archival records, client interviews, direct observation, [Page 299] and participant observation; (d) description of findings from data that have been collected and analyzed; and (e) development of conclusions and implications for further study.

Certainly, other frameworks also exist inasmuch as case studies are heterogeneous, and serve a variety of purposes Runyan (1982) observes that case studies may be descriptive, explanatory, predictive, generative, or used for hypothesis testing. Furthermore, case narratives may be presented atheoretically or within the framework of particular developmental or clinical theory bases.

Clinical Case Illustration

The case study method was selected in this instance for two reasons. First, this case was deemed by the therapist (the first author) to have a highly unusual and complex clinical profile. Second, there is a paucity of clinical and theoretical literature focusing generally on countertransference issues and reactions in the treatment of children and adolescents. The case is described in the first person by the first author (for a more detailed discussion of this case, see Brandell, 1999).

Dirk was not quite 20 years old when he first requested treatment at a family service agency for long-standing insomnia and a “negative outlook on life.” He often felt as though he might “explode,” and he suffered from chronic anxiety that was particularly pronounced in social situations. He reluctantly alluded to a family “situation” that had exerted a dramatic and profound impact on his life, and as the early phase of his treatment began to unfold, the following account gradually emerged. When Dirk was perhaps 13 years of age, his father (who shall be referred to as Mr. S.) was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate. Unfortunately, neither parent chose to reveal this illness to Dirk, his two older brothers, or his younger sister for nearly 1½ years. Mr. S., an outdoorsman who had been moderately successful as a real estate developer and an entrepreneur, initially refused treatment, and his condition gradually worsened. By the time he finally consented to surgery some 18 months later, the cancer had metastasized and his prognosis was terminal. A prostatectomy left him impotent, increasing the strain in a marriage that already had begun to deteriorate.

Within several months of his father's surgery, when Dirk was perhaps 14 or 15 years old, Ms. S. (Dirk's mother) began a clandestine affair with a middle-aged man who resided nearby. The affair intensified, and presumably as a consequence of Ms. S.'s carelessness, Mr. S. learned of the affair. He also learned that she was planning a trip around the world with her lover. Although narcissistically mortified and enraged, he chose not to confront his wife right away, instead plotting secretly to murder her. On a weekday morning when Dirk and his younger sister were at school (his older brothers no longer resided in the family home), Mr. S. killed his wife in their [Page 300] bedroom with one of his hunting rifles. He then carefully wrapped her body up, packed it in the trunk of the family car, and drove to a shopping center, where he took his own life. The news was, of course, devastating to Dirk and his siblings, and it was made even more injurious due to the relentless media coverage that the crime received. Every conceivable detail of the murder-suicide was described on television and in the local press. Suddenly, Dirk and his siblings were completely bereft of privacy. Nor was there any adult intercessor to step forward and protect them from the continuing public exposure, humiliation, and pain.

These traumatic injuries were compounded by the reactions of neighbors and even former family friends, whose cool reactions to Dirk and his siblings bordered on social ostracism. The toll on Dirk's family continued over the next several years. First, the elder of Dirk's two brothers, Jon, committed suicide at the age of 27 years in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Mr. S.'s suicide. Some months later, Dirk's surviving brother, Rick, a poly-substance abuser, was incarcerated after being arrested and convicted of a drug-related felony. Finally, Dirk and his sister became estranged from each other, and by the time he began treatment, they were barely speaking to one another. Dirk, in fact, had little contact with anyone. After his parents' deaths, he spent a couple of years in the homes of various relatives, but eventually he decided to move back into his parents' house, where he lived alone. Dirk had been provided for quite generously in his father's will. He soon took over what remained of the family business, which included a strip mall and a small assortment of other business properties. At the time when he began weekly therapy, Dirk had monthly contact with some of his tenants when their rents became due and made occasional trips to the grocery store. He had not dated since high school and had only episodic contact with his paternal grandmother, whom he disliked. He slept in his parents' bedroom, which had not been redecorated after their deaths. There even was unrepaired damage from the shotgun blast that had killed his mother, although he did not at first appear discomfited by this fact and maintained that it was not abnormal or even especially noteworthy. He explained that he was loath to change or repair anything in the house, which he attributed to a tendency toward “procrastination.” People were unreliable, but his house, despite the carnage that had occurred there, remained a stabilizing force. Change was loathsome because it interfered with the integrity of important memories of the house and of the childhood lived within its walls.

Dirk was quite socially isolated and had a tremendous amount of discretionary time, two facts that were alternately frightening and reassuring to him. Although he wanted very much to become more involved with others and eventually to be in a serious relationship with a woman, he trusted no one. He believed others to be capable of great treachery, and from time to time, he revealed conspiratorial ideas that had a paranoid, if not psychotic, delusional resonance to them. He lived in a sparsely populated semirural area, and for the most part, he involved himself in solitary pursuits [Page 301] such as stamp collecting, reading, and fishing. He would hunt small game or shoot at targets with a collection of rifles, shotguns, and handguns that his father had left behind, and at times he spoke with obvious pleasure of methodically skinning and dressing the small animals he trapped or killed. There was little or no waste; even the skins could be used to make caps or mittens. He maintained that hunting and trapping animals was by no means unkind; indeed, it was far more humane than permitting the overpopulation and starvation of raccoons, muskrats, opossums, foxes, minks, and the like. Occasionally, he would add that he preferred the company of animals, even dead ones, to humans. They, unlike people, did not express jealousy and hatred.

As the treatment intensified, Dirk began to share a great deal more about his relationships with both parents. Sometimes, he would speak with profound sadness of his staggering loss. Needing both to make sense of the tragedy and to assign responsibility for it, he then would become enraged at his mother's lover. It was he who was to blame for everything that had happened, Dirk would declare. At other times, he described both of his parents as heinous or monstrous, having total disregard for the rest of the family's welfare.

Things never had been especially good between Dirk and his mother. She had a mild case of rubella during her pregnancy with Dirk, which he believed might have caused a physical anomaly as well as a congenital problem with his vision. Perhaps, he thought, she had rejected him in his infancy when the anomaly was discovered. The manner in which his mother described the anomaly, which later was removed, made him feel as though his physical appearance displeased, and perhaps even disgusted, her. Although he spent a great deal of time with her growing up, he recalled that she often was emotionally distant or upset with him.

From this time onward, he had gradually become less trusting of his mother and grew closer to his father, whom he emulated in a variety of ways. He often had noted that he and his father were very much alike. He had thought the world of this strong “macho” man who demanded strict obedience but also was capable of great kindness, particularly in acknowledgment of Dirk's frequent efforts to please him. It was quite painful for Dirk to think of this same strong father as a cuckold. It was even more frightening to think of him as weakened and castrated, and it was profoundly traumatic to believe that he could have been so uncaring about Dirk and his siblings as to actually carry out this unspeakably hateful crime of vengeance.

Early in his treatment, Dirk was able to express anger and disappointment with his mother for her lack of warmth and the painful way in which she avoided him, even shunned him. She had made him feel defective, small, and unimportant. This material was mined for what it revealed of the nature of Dirk's relational (selfobject) needs. We gradually learned how his mother's own limited capacity for empathy had interfered with the development of Dirk's capacity for pleasure in his own accomplishments, [Page 302] for healthy self-confidence and the indefatigable pursuit of important personal goals. In fact, Dirk avoided virtually any social situation where he thought others might disappoint him, where his mother's inability to mirror his boyhood efforts and accomplishments might be traumatically repeated. This was an important theme in our early explorations of Dirk's contact-shunning adaptation to the world outside his family home. However, this dynamic issue was not at the core of the transference-countertransference matrix that gradually evolved in my work with Dirk.

During the early spring, about 5 months into his treatment, Dirk gradually began to reveal more details of his relationship with his father. His father, he observed, was really more like an employer than a parent, forever assigning Dirk tasks, correcting his mistakes, and maintaining a certain aloofness and emotional distance from him. Although up until this point Dirk had tended to place more responsibility for the murder-suicide on the actions of his mother and her lover, he now began to view his father as having a greater role in the family tragedy. For the first time, he sounded genuinely angry. However, awareness of this proved to be exceedingly painful for him, and depressive thoughts and suicidal fantasies typically followed such discussions: “My father could have shot me…. In fact, sometimes I wish he had blown me away.”

During this same period, burglars broke into the strip mall that Dirk had inherited from his father's estate. This enraged Dirk, almost to the point of psychotic disorganization. He reacted to it as though his personal integrity had been violated, and he reported a series of dreams in which burglars were breaking into homes or he was being chased with people shooting at him. His associations were to his father, whom he described as a “castrating” parent with a need to keep his three sons subservient to him. Dirk observed, for perhaps the first time, that his father might have been rather narcissistic, lacking genuine empathy and interest in his three boys. He was beginning to think of himself and his two older brothers as really quite troubled, although in different ways. He then recounted the following dream:

[A man who looked like] Jack Benny was trying to break into my house to steal my valuables. He wanted me to think that he had rigged some electrical wire with a gas pipe to scare me and, thereby, force me to disclose the hiding place where my valuables were…. He was a mild-mannered man.

We hypothesized that Benny, a mild-mannered Jewish comedian whose initials were identical to my own, also might represent me or, in any event, aspects of Dirk's experience of the treatment process. In an important sense, I was asking Dirk to reveal the hidden location of treasured memories, feelings, and fantasies that he had worked unremittingly to conceal not only from others but also from himself. These interpretations seemed to make a good deal of sense to both of us, yet my recollection [Page 303] at the end of this hour was that I somehow was vaguely troubled. It also was approximately at this point in Dirk's treatment that I began to take copious notes. I rationalized that this was necessary because I felt unable to reconstruct the sessions afterward without them. However, I now believe that this note taking also was in the service of a different, fundamentally unconscious motive. From time to time, Dirk would complain that I was physically too close to him in the office or that I was watching him too intently during the hour, which made him feel self-conscious and ashamed. On several occasions, I actually had moved my chair farther away from him at his request. Again, in response to his anxiety, I had made a point of looking away from him precisely during those moments when I ordinarily would want to feel most connected to a client (e.g., when he had recalled a pioignant experience with his father or was talking about the aftermath of the tragedy). I also noted that it was following “good” hours—hours characterized by considerable affectivity and important revelations—that he would request that our meetings be held on a biweekly basis. When this occurred, probably a half dozen times over the 2 years he was in treatment with me, I recall feeling both disappointed and concerned. My efforts to convince him of the therapeutic value in exploring this phenomenon rather than altering the frequency of our meetings were not simply fruitless; they aroused tremendous anxiety, and several times Dirk threatened to stop coming altogether if I persisted. In effect, my compulsive note taking represented an unconscious compliance with Dirk's articulated request that I titrate the intensity of my involvement with him. At times, our interaction during sessions bore a marked similarity to his interactions with both parents, particularly his father. Like his father, I had become increasingly distant and aloof. On the other hand, Dirk exercised control over this relationship, which proved to be a critical distinction for him as the treatment evolved.

It was during a session in late July, some 9 months into treatment, that I reminded Dirk of my upcoming vacation. As we ended our hour, he remarked for the first time how similar we seemed to each other. I did not comment on this observation because we had reached the end of the hour. However, I believe that I felt rather uneasy about it. During the next session, our last hour prior to my vacation, Dirk reported that he was getting out more often and had been doing a modest degree of socializing. He was making a concerted effort to be less isolated. At the same time, he expressed a considerable degree of hostility when speaking of his (then-incarcerated) brother, whom he described as “exploitative” and deceitful. Toward the end of this hour, he asked where I would be going on vacation. On one previous occasion, Dirk had sought extra-therapeutic contact with me; that had been some months earlier when he called me at home, quite intoxicated, at 2 or 3 a.m. However, during his sessions, he rarely had asked me questions of a personal nature. I remember feeling compelled to answer this one, which I believed represented an important request. It was while I was on vacation some 800 miles away, in a somewhat isolated and unfamiliar setting, [Page 304] that I experienced a dramatic countertransference reaction inextricably linked to my work with Dirk. Although space does not permit a more detailed discussion here, at its core, this reaction faithfully reproduced two important elements of our work: Dirk's paranoia and the highly significant and traumatogenic elements of his relationship with both parents.

Although Dirk was not an easy client to treat, he was likeable. I felt this way from our first meeting, and I believe that this basic feeling for him permitted our work to continue despite his paranoia and a number of disturbing developments along the transference-countertransference axis. During the first weeks of therapy, I recall that although I found his story fully believable, I also felt shocked, overwhelmed, and at times even numbed by it. It was difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of the impact of such traumas occurring seriatim in one family.

Although I felt moved by Dirk's story and wished to convey this to him, his manner of narrating it was a powerful signal to me that he would not find this helpful, at least for the time being. It was as though he could not take in such feelings or allow me to be close in this way. I was not especially troubled by this, and I felt as though my principal task was simply to listen, make occasional inquiries, and provide a climate of acceptance. Although I believe that my discomfort with Dirk cumulated silently during those first few months of treatment, an important threshold was crossed with Dirk's revelation that he continued to sleep in his parents' bedroom. I found this not only bizarre but also frightening. When we attempted to discuss this, he was dismissive. I, on the other hand, was quite willing to let the matter rest, and it was only much later in his treatment that we were able to return to this dialogue. This fact, in combination with my awareness of Dirk's nearly obsessive love of hunting and trapping, led me to begin to view him not so much as a victim of trauma as a heartless and potentially dangerous individual. It did not occur to me until months later that each time he killed a muskrat or a raccoon, it might have served as a disguised reenactment of the original trauma and simultaneously permitted him to identify with an admired part of his father, who had taught him how to hunt and trap. Dirk, after all, had observed in an early session that he and his father were really quite similar. It may, of course, be argued that his paranoia and penchant for hunting, trapping, and skinning animals, in combination with my knowledge of the frightening traumas he had endured, might have helped to shape my countertransference-driven withdrawal and compulsive note taking. He also had requested, somewhat urgently, that I exercise caution lest he feel “trapped”; I was to pull my chair back, not make eye contact, and the like. But soon I felt trapped as well; I had altered my therapeutic modus operandi, and I became aware of experiencing mild apprehension on those days when Dirk came in for his appointments. Some of Dirk's sessions seemed interminable, and if I was feeling this way, then I think it likely that he was feeling something similar. Perhaps in this additional sense, both of us were feeling trapped.

As Dirk became increasingly aware of the depth of the injury that he believed his mother had caused him and of the rage he felt toward his father, the extent of his developmental arrest became more comprehensible. I had noted to myself at several junctures that Dirk spoke of his father, in particular, as though he still were alive. In an important sense, Dirk had been unable to bury either parent. Haunted by them, he was unable to relinquish his torturous ties to them. Eventually, the house came to symbolize not only the family tragedy that had begun there but also his relationship with both parents.

As Dirk developed greater awareness of the rage he felt for his father, a feeling that he had worked so hard to project, dissociate, and deny, he seemed to demonstrate greater interest in me and in our relationship. When he commented with some satisfaction that the two of us seemed to be similar, I suddenly recalled Dirk's earlier comment about how similar he and his father were. His associations to dream material as well seemed to equate me with his father. Like his father, I might attempt to trick him into a relationship where he was chronically exploited and mistreated and was reduced to a type of helpless indentured servitude. Although the oedipal significance of this dream was not inconsequential, with its reference to hidden valuables, I do not believe that this was the most salient dynamic issue insofar as our relationship was concerned. As mentioned earlier, I ended that hour feeling vaguely troubled in spite of Dirk's agreement that the interpretation was helpful. Although the dream was manifestly paranoid, an important truth about the asymmetry of the therapeutic relationship also was revealed. I was apprehensive because Dirk's associations had signaled the presence of a danger, and that danger now was perceived in some measure as coming from me.

Dirk's report that he was “getting out more” and was less reclusive should have been good news, although I recall reacting with but mild enthusiasm when he informed me of this shortly before my vacation. Dirk was just fine to work with so long as his paranoid fears prevented him from venturing out very far into the world of “real” relationships. However, the thought of Dirk no longer confined to a twilight existence, coupled with his increasing capacity both to feel and express rage, was an alarming one. What ultimately transformed my countertransference fantasies into a dramatic and disjunctive countertransference reaction was the haunting parallel—partially transference based, partially grounded in reality—that had emerged in Dirk's view of me as fundamentally similar to both him and his father. I now believe that my intensive countertransference reaction while on vacation had accomplished something that had simply not been possible despite careful introspection and reflection. I finally came close to experiencing Dirk's terror, although in my own idiosyncratic way. Like Dirk, I felt small, vulnerable, and alone. I was isolated and helpless, in unfamiliar surroundings, and cut off from contact with reality and the intersubjective world. Dirk was frightening, but it was even more frightening to be [Page 306] Dirk. As his therapist, I had been the hunter; suddenly, I was the hunted. I was convinced that I had betrayed Dirk in much the same way as his father had betrayed him, the trauma reenacted in his treatment. In effect, in this extra-therapeutic enactment, I felt not only as Dirk felt but also as I believe he might wish his father to feel—the dreaded and hated father against whom he sought redress for his grievances. Dirk, of course, had enacted both roles daily for well over 5 years; I had enacted them but for a single night.

The narrative case illustration used here highlights the complexity of the intersubjective milieu surrounding this young man's treatment and the relationship of past traumata to the evolving therapeutic relationship. The case study method permitted an examination of various historically important dynamic issues that might have relevance to the client's presenting symptomatology. It also revealed important parallels between features of the client's transference relationship and various unresolved issues between the client and his parents. Finally, reasons for the powerful countertransference reactions of the clinician were suggested and explored. This narrative case study is principally generative. It focuses on an exceptional case, addressing particular issues germane to the transference-countertransference matrix in adolescent treatment for which there is little antecedent clinical or theoretical literature. A range of researchable themes and issues (e.g., the impact of severe childhood trauma on personality development, handling of transference, recognition and use of disjunctive countertransference reactions) can be identified for subsequent investigation.

Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research

In-Depth Interviews

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Original research article, a narrative case study of chinese senior high school english teachers’ emotions: an ecological perspective.

narrative textual case study

  • School of Foreign Languages and Literature, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

Teacher emotion research is of great significance to teachers’ teaching effectiveness, professional development, and physical and mental health. Taken from an ecological perspective, this narrative case study used purposeful sampling to select two Chinese senior high school English teachers as research participants. Various data collection methods were used, including narrative framework, teacher interview and teacher reflection log, to describe the emotional episodes of Chinese senior high school English teachers before and after collective lesson presentation, trial teaching, and formal teaching in a teaching improvement project. The purpose of this collection of data was to explore the dynamic emotional development process and characteristics of Chinese senior high school English teachers in the interaction with ecological systems and those ecological factors that may influence their emotional development. Results indicated that the two participants developed 68 emotions: 39 positive and 29 negative emotions. At exosystem, they developed the most emotions (28 emotions). Teacher emotion changed with time quite obviously. They evolved from positive to negative and, finally, predominantly positive. Personal antecedents, contextual antecedents, and teachers’ emotional capacity are the main ecological factors that may influence the development of teacher emotion. Based on the research findings, implications for teachers’ professional development and teacher education were also provided.


Emotions are one of the core parts of human life and “are an integral part of education and of organizations more generally” ( Hargreaves, 2000 , p. 812). As Schutz and Lanehart (2002) have argued, “emotions are intimately involved in virtually every aspect of the teaching and learning process” (p. 67). Teachers are emotional beings ( Zembylas, 2005 ). They constantly experience emotional demands from students, colleagues, parents, and leaders in emotional arenas such as schools and classrooms ( Cross and Hong, 2012 ). Since the late 1990s, research on teacher emotion in education has received more and more attention. Studies have revealed that teacher emotion affects all aspects of their professional development, such as teachers’ behavior, teaching, personal lives, professional identity, educational reform, and students’ learning ( Hargreaves, 2005 ; Cheng, 2006 ; Li et al., 2013 ; Hagenauer and Volet, 2014 ; Schutz, 2014 ). Since the beginning of this century, with the rise of humanism in the world, teacher emotion research has gradually attracted more and more attention, and has shown rapid development since 2008 ( Hu and Wang, 2014 ). Through ongoing research, the perspective on teacher emotion has undergone several changes. It has shifted from the psychological perspective to the sociological perspective, and, more recently, to the post-structuralist and ecological perspectives ( Gu and Gu, 2015 ). Teacher emotion is increasingly regarded as person-environment transactions rather than just teachers’ internal personal feelings ( Schutz et al., 2006 ). In addition, more attention is being drawn to the “link between microscopic perspectives focused at the level of ‘teacher self’ and the macroscopic level of social, cultural and political structures of schooling” ( Zembylas, 2011 , p. 31). This ecological perspective takes a comprehensive and systematic approach to understanding and exploring teacher emotion and teachers’ external experiences based on emotional episodes ( Gu and Gu, 2015 ). In recent years, more and more researchers have adopted this new perspective to study teacher emotion, such as Cross and Hong (2012) and Chen (2017 , 2019) . However, relative studies are not in full flourish. That is, more studies investigating teacher emotion from ecological perspective are needed, especially on foreign language teacher emotion. What is more, current studies on teacher emotion from ecological perspective have shown several drawbacks: firstly, the research subject is relatively too focused—secondary school foreign language teachers receive less attention; secondly, interview seems to be one and only data collection method in most studies, influencing the richness of the results; and, finally, as for the research questions to be probed into, the investigations on the influential factors leading to the development of teacher emotion are neglected to a large extent.

Therefore, based on above research gaps, this study primarily aims at investigating secondary school foreign language teacher emotion both internally and externally by means of using multiple data collection methods. To be more concrete, we hope to gain insight into how the internal personal characteristics and external environments interact to constitute their emotions. A second aim is to probe into the possible ecological factors that influence the development of teacher emotion in different ecological systems. In accordance with the two aims, two research questions are addressed: (1) How did Chinese senior high school English teachers develop their emotions in the interactions with different ecological systems during their participation in a teaching improvement project? (2) What are the ecological factors that may influence Chinese senior high school English teachers’ emotional development? To better answer the two questions, this study focuses on two senior high school English teachers in Beijing, China, who are participating in a teaching improvement project. Throughout this project, teachers interacted with experts who provided suggestions about improvement and also cooperated with their colleagues for help. In their interactions with different people and experiences of different matters from various systems, their emotions showed great changes. By conducting this narrative case study on two teachers during their teaching improvement project, the study offers potential contributions to the literature by innovating research methods that adopt multiple data collection methods to gain rich data of teacher emotion. Especially through the participants’ self-reported narration of their emotion development, the authenticity and richness of the data are guaranteed, based on which deep qualitative analysis of teacher emotion can be conducted. The study will also contribute to expand research content of studies on teacher emotion by not only examining the development of teacher emotion but also probing into the reasons for specific emotions. As for practice of teacher emotion, this study provides implications for teachers’ professional development and teacher education.

Literature Review

Defining teacher emotion.

Sutton and Wheatley (2003) suggest that teacher emotion includes appraisal, subjective experience, physiological changes and emotional expression, and action tendencies. However, this definition mainly reflects a psychological perspective without considering the contributions of sociocultural and environmental factors to an individual teacher emotion. Schutz et al. (2006) defined emotion as “socially constructed, personally enacted ways of beings that emerge from conscious and/or unconscious judgments regarding perceived successes at attaining goals or maintaining standards or beliefs during transactions as part of social-historical contexts” (p. 344). This definition rests on the assumption that teacher emotion is related to the environment in a particular context. According to Zembylas (2005) , the various cultural, social, and even political factors have significant effects on how, why, and when people develop, manage, and show emotions during the transaction with the environment. Thus, teacher emotion does not exist within an individual or environment independently; rather, it involves person-environment transactions ( Schutz et al., 2006 ). This perspective on teacher emotion reflects teachers’ sensations of interacting with students, peers, parents, and others in a particular environment rather than being generated internally ( Farouk, 2012 ), is consistent with an ecological perspective, and, therefore, is the definition that will be used in this study.

Classification of Emotions

Emotions have been classified into several categories, including dichotomous, multiple, and dimensional. The dichotomous classification categorizes teacher emotion into positive and negative. Positive emotions include joy, satisfaction, pride, and excitement; negative emotions include anger, frustration, anxiety, and sadness ( Hargreaves, 1998 ). This classification is common but is also claimed to be too straightforward ( Sutton and Wheatley, 2003 ). Multiple and dimensional categories have also been criticized for not acknowledging a reasonable quantity of basic emotions ( Ortony and Turner, 1990 ). Parrott (2001) described a more comprehensive list of emotions that organizes emotions into a short tree structure where basic emotions are divided into secondary emotions, which are, in turn, subdivided into tertiary ones. The first level includes six basic emotions: love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear. The first level is followed by more secondary emotions. Joy, for example, is followed by cheerfulness, zest, contentment, pride, optimism, enthrallment, and relief. And each secondary emotion group has tertiary divisions. Parrott’s classification details a vast list of specific and superficial tertiary emotions and of deeper secondary and primary emotions ( Chen, 2016 ). Therefore, this study will categorize teacher emotion based on this tree structure because it “gives a full account of human emotions and provides insightful awareness of the way emotions are linked to deeper categories” (p. 70). Finally, these emotions will be categorized into positive and negative ones.

Studies of Teacher Emotion in the Ecological Framework

Teacher emotion as the sub-theme of psychology of teachers is one of the three major themes for studying foreign language teachers’ development from ecological perspective ( Liu, 2021 ). In order to correspond to the two research questions in this study, the relevant research will be reviewed from two aspects: the development of teacher emotion and the influential factors leading to different emotions. The research contents and research methods are as follows:

Most of the studies on the development of teacher emotion according to the ecological framework used qualitative research design such as case study and narrative inquiry. Cross and Hong (2012) conducted a qualitative case study, discussing two elementary teachers’ emotions during their services for a high-poverty and high-minority population in the United States. The study reported that the teachers experienced different positive and negative emotions in different systems and generated a person-environmental interaction model. Chen (2017) explored 53 primary teachers’ emotional experience in their teaching journeys in Hong Kong and mainland China. These teachers described the same amount of positive and negative emotions. And different types of emotions decrease as distance from the teachers increases the five nested ecological systems. That is, teachers experienced fewer emotions with and within the environments further from them. Then, in 2019, Chen innovated the research method and employed a mixed method to further examine 1,492 primary teachers’ emotions in China. Evidence from both the qualitative and quantitative data demonstrated that a high intensity of emotions is presented at the microsystem level. In addition, this study found that the number of emotions that teachers reported decreased as the distance between the teachers and each system increased. Simonton et al. (2021) took PE teachers as participants and used ecological dynamic systems theory to position their emotions within teachers’ classrooms and their sociopolitical and cultural experiences. This study proposed a conceptual framework for understanding teacher emotion that accounts for the dynamic, evolving, and complex contexts in which teachers work, but it is not specifically for language teacher emotion.

As for the studies on ecological factors leading to the development of teacher emotion, the researchers tried to investigate and summarize the factors from different perspectives, focusing on teachers’ interaction with different systems. Berg and Cornell (2016) considered school climate as the main factor and examined whether schools with high disciplinary structure and student support were associated with less teacher aggression and distress, and found that more structured and supportive schools relate to greater safety for teachers and, in turn, less distress. Schmidt et al. (2017) focused on the day-to-day experience of beginning teachers’ first years in school and found that teaching classes and their interaction with colleagues are the main factors that lead to their daily uplifts and hassles. To better analyze and induct various influential factors, several models or frameworks were built. Richards et al. (2018) presented a model for understanding how the school environment influences teacher burnout. This model highlights the importance of developing optimal working conditions that nurture teacher development. However, it only focuses on one aspect of teacher emotion–burnout, ignoring teachers’ positive emotional development. Cross and Hong’s (2012) person-environmental interaction model explains the personal and ecological factors that influence the formation of teacher emotion. However, it does not specify how the interaction between an individual and the environment produces a process of specific emotions, such as positive, negative, or mixed ( Gu, 2016 ). Based on a qualitative narrative case study on 12 university EFL teachers about how their emotions are shaped in their research life from ecological perspective, Gu (2016) found that these university EFL teachers’ emotions are shaped by their continuous appraisal between the interaction of their research beliefs or goals and ecological systems and suggested adding teachers’ appraisal and strategies of emotional regulation to the person-environmental interaction model. Sun and Li (2014) also analyzed the ecological factors that influence the generation and development theoretically based on the person-environmental interaction model. They explored the concrete role of each ecological system in the development of teacher emotion. The above studies mainly investigated the ecological factors based on Cross and Hong’s (2012) person-environmental interaction model. However, none of them have reached consensus on what the concrete influential factors are in each ecological system. For example, whether teachers’ strategies for regulation of emotions should be included as a factor that influences teacher emotion in the microsystem has not been determined. That is to say, there is a lack of a framework to classify those ecological factors. Ning (2016) divided the influential factors leading to teachers’ positive emotions into internal factors (including professional identity, teaching ideal, and sense of teaching achievement) and external factors (professional title evaluation system and a teaching incentive mechanism). However, this kind of classification is too general and cannot show the presentation of various factors in different ecological systems. Chen (2020) refined the teacher emotion model based on evidence from a review of literature published between 1985 and 2019 using the meta-analysis method. In this model, she concluded three antecedents of teacher emotion, namely, teachers’ personal antecedents (including teachers’ knowledge, values, and skills; teachers’ personality; and teachers’ professional beliefs), contextual antecedents (including sociocultural factors, policy factors, organizational factors, and stakeholder factors), and emotional capacity (emotional labor strategy, emotional intelligence, and emotional regulation). In this model, each factor of different aspects of antecedents is given further explanation, which both show internal-external and personal-environmental reasons for the development of teacher emotion. With this model, how these antecedents shape teacher emotion is shown concretely and comprehensively. Thus, this study will mainly deploy this model, combining Cross and Hong’s (2012) person-environmental interaction model when summarizing the ecological factors that may influence teacher emotional development in the process of participating in a teaching improvement project.

Based on the above literature, it is clear that, recently, an increasing amount of researchers has focused on teacher emotion from an ecological perspective. However, the research object is relatively too focused: most of the researchers took primary and university teachers as participants, while few researchers investigate secondary school English teacher emotion within an ecological system. Liu (2021) advises to expand a research object and focus on primary and secondary school teachers. What is more, most studies on the ecological factors that influence teacher emotional development are not that systematic. The ecological factors elicited in most studies are just scattered in a list and not concluded based on some models or frameworks. Only several studies have presented some models or frameworks, based on which the ecological factors were investigated relatively more systematic. However, existing models and frameworks for analyzing the ecological factors are a little general and broad and not detailed enough. Thus, this study takes Chen’s (2020) teacher emotion model as the basis to investigate and conclude those ecological factors systematically. In addition, the theoretical basis of factors induction is somewhat bias. Furthermore, the depiction of the development of teacher emotion and the investigation of the influential factors are often separated. As for research methods, interview is the data collection method adopted by all qualitative research based on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system framework, and there are few studies that use multiple methods (e.g., reflective logs, narrative framework) to collect data, reducing the richness of data to a certain extent ( Liu, 2021 ). Therefore, by utilizing the aforementioned five ecological systems and multiple data collection methods, we aim to examine two Chinese senior high school English teachers’ dynamic emotional development during the process of a teaching improvement project, including those factors that may influence their emotions systematically and comprehensively.

Analytical Framework

Considering the complexity of the impacts of social-cultural and environmental factors on the individual emotions, Bronfenbrenner (2005) propounded an ecological systems framework. The surroundings are conceived as nested and complex, consisting of a microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem (see Figure 1 ). And this theory “provides a useful theoretical framework for studying the contexts in which teachers exist and develop; thus, it has been used frequently in research on language teacher psychology and practice” ( Chu et al., 2021 , p. 2). Therefore, the current study adopted this framework to characterize the dynamic emotional development process of two Chinese senior high school English teachers.


Figure 1. A revised framework adapted from Bronfenbrenner (2005) [as cited in Chen (2020) , p. 493].

The concrete interplay between teacher emotion and each system is as follows:

(1) The microsystem, “which involves the structures and processes taking place in an immediate setting, containing the developing person (e.g., home, classroom, playground)” ( Bronfenbrenner, 2005 , p. 80). “For teachers as developing persons, they may be influenced by the activities they attend to, the roles that they play, and the relations that they are involved in” ( Tao and Jiang, 2021 , p. 168). Thus, for teachers in this study, their classroom teaching performance, the roles they play in each lesson, and their relations with students, families, and even with themselves are all involved in this system.

(2) The mesosystem “comprises the linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings containing the developing person” ( Bronfenbrenner, 2005 , p. 80). It is the connection with the microsystem. For teachers as the developing persons, the mesosystem consists of transactions among students, with other teachers, and with administrators within the school. Other persons who participate actively in the settings also influence their emotions greatly within this system ( Tao and Jiang, 2021 ). Thus, in this study, the transactions of two participants are the essential focus.

(3) The exosystem, “encompasses the linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings, at least one of which does not ordinarily contain the developing person, but in which events occur that influence processes within the immediate setting that does contain that person” ( Bronfenbrenner, 2005 , p. 80). In short, it refers to the wider social system, such as parent-teacher organizations, government agencies, and other social community. And for the teachers who participate in the teaching improvement project, teacher-expert interaction is the main part of exosystem.

(4) The macrosystem “is defined as an overarching pattern of ideology and organization of the social institutions common to a particular culture or subculture” ( Bronfenbrenner, 2005 , p. 81). It represents the societal environment in which teachers implement their work according to particular norms, values, regulations, and policies ( Cross and Hong, 2012 ). As for the two teachers in this study, the current teaching material reform with the promulgation of the new high school English curriculum standards in China is the main embodiment of macrosystem.

(5) The chronosystem “permits one to identify the impact of prior life events and experiences, singly or sequentially, on subsequent development” ( Bronfenbrenner, 2005 , p. 83). It represents changes over time. At different stages of a teaching improvement project, teachers always experience different emotional episodes with different persons in different systems, which affects their emotions.

The reason why the current study chooses the ecological systems framework as analytical framework is that this framework situates a developing person in nested ecological systems and reflects the complex sociocultural world of a teacher and the influences that impact on his or her development ( Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998 ). Just as Bronfenbrenner (1979) states, in order to investigate human development, one must take the whole ecological system where growth occurs. In the past 2 decades, with the ecological turn in language teacher education, this framework has been used frequently to resolve the issues on language teacher psychology, such as teacher emotion ( Cross and Hong, 2012 ; Chen, 2019 ), resilience ( Lian, 2015 ). Existing research has shown that this framework is a useful theoretical framework for studying the contexts where teachers exist and develop. Thus, it is urgently needed in the current study where the research focus is not only teacher emotion but also the contexts where their emotions generated. That is, the ecological framework not only allows researchers and participants themselves to understand their emotion development but also help them gain in-depth insight into the factors influencing their various emotions.


Research questions.

The research questions to be addressed in the study are:

(1) How did Chinese senior high school English teachers develop their emotions in the interactions with different ecological systems during their participation in a teaching improvement project?

(2) What are the ecological factors that may influence Chinese senior high school English teachers’ emotional development?


In accordance with research content, this study used purposeful sampling, that is “selecting information-rich cases to study, cases that, by their nature and substance, will illuminate the inquiry question being investigated” ( Patton, 2015 , p. 277). More concretely, intensity sampling strategy is used, because it “consists of information-rich cases that manifest the phenomenon of interest intensively (but not extremely)” (p. 293). And “using the logic of intensity sampling, one seeks excellent or rich examples of the phenomenon of interest but not highly unusual cases.” The reason why this study adopts the intensity sampling strategy is that this strategy will enable researchers to obtain the maximum information of teacher emotion development more clearly and carefully, and, based on this, analyze the factors affecting their emotional changes in different ecological systems more deeply. Thus, in the current study, we selected two Chinese senior high school English teachers, Mrs. A and Mrs. B, as research participants. Both participants teach English at one urban key senior high school in Beijing, China. Mrs. A has 26 years of English teaching experience. Mrs. B has 20 years’ experience. In the spring semester of 2021, they participated in an English teaching improvement project carried out cooperatively by their high school, and a key university features teacher education. This project aims to improve teachers’ teaching ability under the background of English education reform to cultivate and develop students’ core competence. The two teachers collaborated to design and teach a 90-min reading and writing lesson. So, inevitably, they would communicate and discuss with each other. In the course of improvement, they participated in an online collective lesson presentation, a trial teaching lesson, and a formal teaching lesson. At each stage, at least two experts from one key university in China observed their lessons and provided comments, guidance, and suggestions. Thus, they maintained close contact with the guidance experts throughout the process. Additionally, one of the experts of the project was also the main researcher of this paper, allowing her to retain an insider’s view. This kind of familiar relationship is convenient for researchers to collect rich and real data ( Chen, 2000 ). The improvement process lasted for a whole semester (4 months), during which the two participants had frequent interactions with people and things in different ecological systems. Their emotions were also displayed differently when facing different emotional episodes. Thus, data on the two English teachers’ emotions collected during the whole process of the teaching improvement project are rich and suitable to deeply analyze their teacher emotion development.

Research Method

To have a comprehensive exploration of the research questions, this study employed the method of narrative case study. Cases studies are frequently qualitative and interpretative, “generally involve rich contextualization and a deep, inductive analysis of data from a set of participants, sites, or events” ( Duff, 2012b , p. 1). They seek depth in their scope and analysis with the goal to particularize and then yield insights of potentially wider relevance and theoretical significance ( Duff, 2012a ). Thus, case study is appropriate for this study because the methods used can provide a deeper understanding of individual teacher emotion and seek depth in the influential factors. Meanwhile, narrative inquiry “is a way of understanding experience. It is a collaboration between a researcher and participants over time in a place or series of places and in social interaction with milieus” ( Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 , p. 20). “The focus of narrative inquiry is not only on individuals’ experience but also on the social, cultural, and institutional narratives within which individuals’ experiences are constituted, shaped, expressed, and enacted” ( Clandinin and Rosiek, 2007 , p. 42). This study focuses on the development of teachers’ individual emotions as well as their interactions with different ecological systems. Therefore, a narrative inquiry is an appropriate method for both inquiring narratively into teacher emotion and the situations where the emotions are generated.

Data Collection

A narrative framework, interviews, and teachers’ reflective logs were used to collect data in this study.

Narrative Framework

Based on Benson’s (2014) description of narrative inquiry frames and Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) five ecological systems, this study designed a narrative framework of the development of teacher emotion. A pilot study was carried out with a teacher from another senior high school who has participated in the improvement project previously. Finally, the different stages and the contents in the framework are as follows (see Table 1 ).


Table 1. Stages and contents of the narrative framework of teacher emotion.

Regarding the interview, we conducted two individual structured interviews with each participant. Open-ended interview questions were prepared for each interview to serve as a reference guide for the interviewer. Each interview lasts between 20 and 30 min. The first interview was conducted after the trial teaching, aiming to explore the development of teacher emotion in the period of collective lesson presentation and trial teaching. The second interview was conducted after the formal teaching in order to examine teacher emotion after the whole improvement progress. In order to make sure that the participants have clearer descriptions of their emotions, we provided a list of emotional vocabularies adopted from Parrott (2001) , from which they could choose the concrete words. The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim.

Teachers’ Reflective Logs

Additionally, after each period during the teaching improvement project, the teachers were asked to write reflective logs. Totally, the two participants wrote six reflective logs, 6,821 words. Thus, we employed data source triangulation techniques by analyzing these logs to enrich the research findings.

Data Analysis

All the data were analyzed based on the procedures of content analysis ( Barkhuizen and Wette, 2008 ) and three-step coding ( Corbin and Strauss, 2015 ) in the data analysis with the help of software Nvivo 12 (see Table 2 ). In opening coding, we attempted to figure out all the sentences related to the participants’ interactions and emotions at different systems. Then, we got 121 nodes (the unit in Nvivo 12). Based on the research questions and Parrott’s (2001) classification of emotions, we categorized the 121 nodes into 68 emotions and initial seven factors (with 12 sub-factors). Finally, in selective coding, we categorized 68 themes into four themes (microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem) based on Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) ecological system and seven factors into three aspects of antecedents.


Table 2. A sample of data coding steps.

In order to guarantee the reliability of this study, the following strategies were adopted:

Firstly, a variety of data collection methods were used in this study to ensure the richness of data to form data triangulation validation. To be more specific, as mentioned above, this study employed data source triangulation by adopting a narrative framework, interviews, and teachers’ reflective logs as data collection methods, which ensure the richness, reliability, and inherent consistency of the data being collected. Secondly, to reduce the influence of cultural politeness on teachers’ expression of their true emotions, all the data were collected by the other researcher, avoiding involving the teacher trainer in the data collection process. And the whole interview process was videotaped. After transcribing the video, the researchers invited the participants to check whether the transcripts were congruent with the emotions they wanted to express as Creswell (2009) has suggested. Thirdly, at the data analysis stage, to guarantee the coding validity and reliability, two researchers independently coded the transcripts and then compared the codes. Whenever there was a disagreement, the two researchers discussed and reconciled the differences. While discussing, we added, deleted, or modified codes and finally reached an agreement. What is more, we invited an “outsider,” who is also a scholar in this field and good at coding data, to analyze the data to make sure that the coding results were consistent.

Through analysis of the data, the researchers found that the two participants developed 68 emotions, 39 positive and 29 negative emotions. Both two teachers presented their inner emotional change over the time. Mrs. B developed her emotions in twists and turns, from positive to negative and, finally, positive predominantly. While Mrs. A concluded her emotions have evolved from “worry (negative) to confidence (positive).” Below we provide descriptions of teacher emotion generated within different ecological systems, respectively.


Development of teacher emotion in microsystem.

The participants reported 20 emotions, consisting of 13 positive (love, expectation, interest, satisfaction, eagerness, anticipation, hope, firmness, open-mindedness, confidence, like, happiness, and progress) and 7 negative emotions (pity, worry, anxiety, tension, impatience, ambivalence, and unsatisfaction) at the microsystem.

The very first emotion both the two teachers expressed was love. Mrs. B explicitly said, “I love teaching and research.” Mrs. A focused on herself more and said, “I like to see my improvement.” This kind of love is one of the reasons why they participated in this project.

The most frequently reported positive emotions are love, expectation, and interest. Among them, the highest frequently reported positive emotion is expectation within this system, especially Mrs. A expressed her expectation to varying degrees; one example is as follows:

I am very eager to apply the knowledge I have learned, the skills I have learned , and the ideas I have learned to my own teaching. I also hope that I can improve higher, improve faster. If my teaching level improved, then students will certainly follow the tide… ( Mrs. A, 2nd interview ).

From the above transcript, Mrs. A mainly developed her expectation for her teaching directly as well as for students indirectly. And the expression “I am very eager to apply…to my own teaching” also reflects her strong desire for improvement.

The most frequently described negative emotions are pity and worry. And Mrs. B was extremely reflective on her teaching performances. She reported more unpleasant emotions on herself, as can be seen from the following examples,

…teaching is an art full of pity. I also felt pity for my formal teaching for not performing better…when giving the lesson, I was not only worried that students would not understand well if I do not give enough explanations, but also worried that I gave too detailed and complicated explanations (Mrs. B’s 2nd interview ).

I felt pity for delaying the first class after the vacations ( Mrs. B’s narrative framework ).

Ecological Factors Influencing Teacher Emotional Development in Microsystem

The development of teacher emotion (both positive and negative) at the microsystem level is closely related to their personal experience and the persons directly related to themselves and their teaching, such as Mrs. A’s father as she mentioned:

One of the things that influenced my emotion most of the whole process was that my father was ill , and I was worried about not being able to give lessons on time (Mrs. A.’ narrative framework).

Besides, teachers’ positive emotions are mainly derived from their own teaching goals and practice, that is teachers’ professional beliefs of teachers’ personal factors. For example:

I feel satisfied with the progress I’ve made. I hope to apply what I have learned today to my own classroom and constantly improve my teaching (Mrs. A.’ 2nd interview).

However, teachers’ negative emotions are mainly related to their unexpected bad teaching performances in the project and their students’ passive and effectiveless learning in class, as is shown in the following example:

…The student did not read or listen to English at home for a long time during the holiday, so I felt that I had some difficulties in input. Then, I was anxious, because I felt that the student could not understand something in the process of input…I am still a little pity, because I don’t think I was at my best… (Mrs. B.’ 2nd interview) .

When their own teaching performances were not that good or students’ unacceptable behaviors or struggles with understanding learning contents came out, their negative emotions were elicited.

Development of Teacher Emotion in Mesosystem

The participants developed 12 emotions within this system. Among them, two (gratefulness and powerfulness) are positive and 10 (anxiety, disappointment, puzzlement, sadness, aggrievement, inactivity, passive, incomprehension, complication, and disgrace) are negative. Gratefulness is the common positive emotion developed by the two participants. Mrs. B developed her gratefulness toward Mrs. A for explaining for her to the school administrators; and Mrs. A not only showed her thankfulness to school leaders, but also, she saw the effect and powerfulness of teachers’ cooperation:

Mrs. A explained to the school (administrators) that I didn’t adjust class schedule privately. I was grateful that she understood my original intention and explained for me… (Mrs. B.’ 2nd interview) .

Anyway, I want to give many thanks to our school’s leaders, who supported our work in the teaching improvement project and, finally, adjusted class schedule for us… Besides, in the whole process, we, two teachers, cooperated a lot; the effect of cooperation is good and powerful… (Mrs. A’ 1st interview) .

However, more negative emotions were developed than positive emotions in this system. The most frequently mentioned negative emotions are disappointment and anxiety. Relationships and cooperation between the two participants were difficult. Mrs. B expressed her anxiety about the cooperation in her first interview by saying “I felt extremely anxious about cooperation with other teachers because I am not able to do what I really want to do sometimes and I have to make all kinds of adjustments and changes.” When coming to their own individual part of teaching design or giving lessons, they were too self-centered. They seldom gave and took each other’s advice, as Mrs. B complained in her second interview that “though we cooperated to design a class, we still only did our own parts. Even when she (Mrs. A) changed some activities or some designs, she did not tell me or asked for my advice. So, I felt I was in a passive situation and a little disappointed.” Mrs. A also thought that “it was disappointing when there is poor or difficult communication in the cooperation.” So, eventually, they developed more negative emotions than positive emotions in their relationships.

Ecological Factors Influencing Teacher Emotional Development in Mesosystem

School climate of organizational factors is the main reason for teacher emotion change in mesosystem. For positive emotions, gratefulness was generated in situations where both Mrs. A and Mrs. B were facing common difficulties and incidents related to their teaching in school, where they got supports from each other or school leaders. They both described an emotional episode where gratefulness was generated. As has been mentioned above, Mrs. A and Mrs. B cooperated to teach this reading and writing lesson in one class. So, they needed to adjust Mrs. B’s class schedule to guarantee that they can have shared free time for the formal teaching. However, teachers are not allowed to adjust class schedule privately in this school. Under the joint efforts of the two teachers and school administrators and related school leaders, they finally adjusted the schedule. According to this episode, it can be seen that the school climate is supportive. And the democratic leadership style of school leaders brings positive effects on teacher emotion. Besides, Mrs. A said, “I felt the power of cooperation” in the narrative framework. This has a high degree of alignment with the outcomes in Cross and Hong (2012) that positive attitudes have a strong relationship with the degree of support provided by colleagues and school administrators.

However, collegial relations could bring mixed emotions for teachers. And when there were differences of opinion or poor communication, more negative emotions emerged, and even occupied a dominant position. Despondently, Mrs. B described how her attempts were denied by Mrs. A in front of her own students.

I really wanted to do a good job that day (formal teaching) to give students enough input to prepare for the later writing. So I procrastinated a little bit. This is my fault. But before Mrs. A’s lesson, she kept saying with my students that, although last class was extended…That’s it…it just made me feel like…I felt very sad, also a bit aggrieved (Mrs. B.’ 2nd interview).

In addition, they had different teaching philosophies and styles, also different attitudes toward students. Mrs. B held the opinion of giving students enough language input before output, just as she said above “to give students enough input” and “to prepare for the later writing.” So she thought she had to activate students enough even though procrastinated in a public lesson. However, Mrs. A thought they should present a perfect public lesson, and they could tutor students after class. As she had said in the 2nd interview, “The formal teaching is the display of our progress in the project. Teachers can answer more difficult questions of students after class… Though the reading part was procrastinated, I wanted to ensure my part to continue smoothly and as perfectly as possible.” This kind of comparable degree of investment in the students and in lessons caused the main strained collegial interaction and negative emotions. That is to say, teachers’ professional beliefs of teachers’ personal antecedents have impacts on their collegial relationship as an organizational factor, to some extent, eliciting some negative emotions.

Development of Teacher Emotion in Exosystem

The participants developed the most emotions (28 kinds) in the interaction within this system. Nineteen are positive (gratefulness, hopefulness, confidence, willingness, expectation, adoration, excitement, satisfaction, harvest, luck, optimism, positivity, yearning, determination, happiness, honor, move, encouragement, and perspicuity) and nine (tension, anxiety, depression, shame, pity, tire, aggrievement, discouragement, and champ) are negative emotions. The most frequently mentioned positive emotions are gratefulness, hopefulness, and confidence. These positive emotions are shown in two aspects. On the one hand, they showed extremely positive attitudes toward this teaching improvement project. For example, they both applied actively for this project. They were full of hope and expectation for the promotion this project would bring to them. Mrs. A expressed her gratefulness to this project and the confidence coming along as follows:

Thanks the collective lesson presentation activity of the teaching improvement project, which changed our understanding of textbooks and teaching methods in group discussions. I felt more confident in my later teaching design of this lesson (Mrs. A.’s 1st reflective log).

On the other hand, more positive emotions were developed from the interaction between them and the experts. Mrs. A and Mrs. B totally expressed their gratefulness to the experts nine times in different forms, for example:

I am lucky and grateful to have the chance to communicate with the experts. In the process of discussing with them, I had a better understanding of teaching. I am more confident to implement the core competence to teaching activities (Mrs. A.’s 2nd interview).

After the collective lesson presentation, the trial teaching, and formal teaching, my teaching improved a lot. This progress is inseparable from the guidance and help of experts. The guidance and affirmation of the experts make me confident and hopeful about the future design of reading and writing courses. Thanks all the experts (Mrs. B.’s 3rd reflective log).

The most frequently described negative emotions are tension, anxiety, and depression. They are “nervous” when the experts are listening to their classes. They “felt anxious” that they “may not be able to complete the lesson better in front of the experts.” And Mrs. B even had “a sense of depression when experts didn’t give praise after the trial teaching.”

Ecological Factors Influencing Teacher Emotional Development in Exosystem

The development of the participants’ emotions within this system was mainly due to their interaction with experts and the difference of their emotional capacity. Social supports and positive feedback coming from the experts contribute to their positive emotions. Although they inevitably developed negative emotions like tension and anxiety when they were giving lessons in front of the experts, they still described more pleasant feelings after each stage, especially after receiving praise and constructive advice from the experts. Just as Mrs. A said in the interview and the narrative framework:

The most positive thing about the improvement process was that the professors gave some encouragement. And then I felt more hopeful and more energetic. I have more confidence in myself and my teaching. I think that’s an important aspect of participating in the improvement program… (Mrs. A.’s 2nd interview) .

After the trial teaching, I felt like I’ve gained a lot. Because the professors gave me detailed comments and suggestions about my classes…This feeling is like the puzzle was solved (Mrs. A.’s narrative framework).

The interaction between teachers and experts constitutes the core interaction of the project. The improvement of teachers’ teaching is the core goal of the project. Although they may feel ashamed and pity for not performing better, the above data revealed that the teachers were happy when their efforts had been recognized by the experts. The experts’ advice on their teaching not only brought immediate effects on their feelings but also had a long-term impact on their teaching. Based on what experts had commented on the lessons they gave in the teaching improvement project; the teachers would reflect how to improve their later lessons in future teaching.

However, when they received some negative feedback or they had not fully implemented the experts’ guidance, their emotional capacity would play an important role. Mrs. A’s capacity of emotion regulation is stronger than Mrs. B’s. Although Mrs. A felt a little ashamed that she had not fully implemented the experts’ guidance, she still regulated her emotions immediately and tried to eliminate emotional contradictions and turned the shame into expectation for the next promotion. However, Mrs. B developed more negative emotions like depression, puzzlement, and anxiety. For not fully implementing the experts’ guidance, she also showed unpleasant feelings. But she focused too much on the experience and did not regulate the negative emotion properly.


Development of teacher emotion in macrosystem.

The data showed that, at this level, the teachers developed the least emotions, totally five (interest, eagerness, love, yearning, and gratefulness) positive emotions and three (helplessness, challenge, and difficulty) negative emotions. The teachers developed relatively average positive and negative emotions in this system. They showed positive feelings toward the benefits of using new textbooks, while they felt unpleasant for delaying their teaching planning by some force majors. For example, Mrs. B described an emotional episode where her teaching plans and even teaching performances were influenced by holidays:

…because of all kinds of reasons that beyond my control, my plans in this project were disrupted. After the Dragon Boat Festival, students had a three-day Gaokao holiday again. Students’ performances were not that ideal. All of these things also made me helpless… (Mrs. A.’s 2nd interview) .

Ecological Factors Influencing Teacher Emotional Development in Macrosystem

In the macrosystem, policy factors are the main factors that influence teachers’ development of emotions. As has been mentioned above, the teachers’ negative feelings were mainly related to the restrictions of social policy, like Gaokao and Dragon Boat Festival holiday, both delaying the teachers’ overall planning in the project. What is more, one thing both Mrs. A and Mrs. B showed mixed emotions is the Teaching Material Reform, which is currently one of the important educational reforms. For one thing, they thought that the use of new textbooks would bring some challenges. For another, they love the innovative activity design in new textbooks, which enhances their innovation ability in the process of teaching practice. Mrs. A described her mixed emotional experience at this level:

…I want to say that the love is to XXX edition new textbook…Now I feel like it’s part of my teaching, even part of my body…This textbook is really, really good. There is a lot of content to dig…But it is very difficult for teachers who use the new edition textbook for the first time. Because using a new teaching material, every day, we need to prepare for lessons seriously. And a lot of relevant information should be sought by ourselves, unlike using old textbooks. So we are pioneers in using this textbook (Mrs. A.’s 2nd interview).

These findings showed that, even though sometimes, educational reform brings challenges to frontline teachers, they still have shown strong willingness to regulate their emotions to adapt to innovation and regarded this change as an opportunity to improve their teaching.


Development of teacher emotion in chronosystem.

Before the collective lesson presentation, both Mrs. A and Mrs. B were very wishful and really looking forward to this project. But they also felt nervous and puzzled when preparing for the presentation of their teaching plans. This experience was compared as “wade across the stream by feeling the way” (Mrs. B.’s narrative framework). After the presentation, they felt suddenly enlightened and joyful because their “confusion about instructional design was solved” (Mrs. A.’s narrative framework). Meanwhile, Mrs. B also developed negative emotions like chagrin and anxiety for “failing to let the experts better understand the teaching design.”

Before the trial teaching, they still had felt both expectant and nervous. Mrs. B compared this experience as “a novice teacher’s first public lesson.” After the trial teaching, their emotions were not so consistent as they were after the collective lesson presentation. Mrs. A developed more positive emotions than negative emotions at this stage. And most of her positive emotions are related to her interaction with the experts.

Just because of their different emotions developed after the trial teaching, they also had diverse feelings when preparing for the formal teaching. Despite Mrs. A was stressful, she had more confidence than before, while Mrs. B was in a dilemma of adjusting class schedule and revising her teaching design.

After the formal teaching, the two teachers both developed more kinds of positive emotions than at any previous stage. Concretely, they are “much open-minded and hopeful to future teaching,” “happiness, satisfaction, determination, and confidence,” (Mrs. A) “optimism,” and “full of confidence and hope for reading and writing class” (Mrs. B).

Based on the data above, Mrs. A and Mrs. B’s holistic developments of emotions within different systems at different stages are shown below ( Figures 2 , 3 ).


Figure 2. Mrs. A’s development of emotions within different ecological system.


Figure 3. Mrs. B’s development of emotions within different ecological system.

1 represents totally positive emotion, and − 1 represents totally negative emotion. The numbers between − 1 and 1 represent different degrees of positive and negative emotions. Stage 1 = before the collective lesson presentation; Stage 2 = after the collective lesson presentation; Stage 3 = before the trial teaching; Stage 4 = after the trial teaching; Stage 5 = before the formal teaching; Stage 6 = after the formal teaching.

As is shown, in the whole process, most of Mrs. A’s emotions are positive predominantly. At Stage 4 (after the trial teaching) and Stage 5 (before the formal teaching), her negative emotions developed, stemming from different factors, especially in the interaction with mesosystem and macrosystem. But she regulated her emotions well and quickly. And after the formal teaching, her emotions obviously turned to positive ones.

Mrs. B’s emotions fluctuated widely. Her positive and negative emotions show symmetrical distribution. And her emotions within different systems also fluctuated to different degrees. Moreover, the final emotions developed in the last stage vary shockingly. Within microsystem and exosystem, she developed extremely positive emotions, while, within mesosystem, extremely negative emotions emerged.

Ecological Factors Influencing Teacher Emotional Development in Chronosystem

In the whole process of teaching improvement, different factors influence the participants’ fluctuation of emotions at each stage. Before the collective lesson presentation and the trial teaching, the teachers’ knowledge, values, and skills in these personal factors dominated their emotions and mainly elicited positive emotions like “hope” and “expectation.” During the process of improvement, like after the trial teaching, Mrs. A and Mrs. B’s emotions fluctuated quite differently because of all of the three aspects—personal factors, contextual factors, and emotional capacity. To be more concrete, they are teachers’ professional beliefs, different degrees of experts’ social supports (like experts’ praise and amending advice) and the teachers’ own emotion regulation as mentioned above.

The data revealed that they developed similar pleasant feelings after the formal teaching because of the increase of their knowledge and the improvement of their teaching skills. However, the sources of their negative emotions are quite different. Mrs. B focused more on the formal teaching itself (including her own performance and her colleague’s behavior), like “I felt pity for the class delay,” “sorry for influencing Mrs. A’s lesson,” “very disappointed that Mrs. A told my students that they shouldn’t be influenced by my class delay.” While Mrs. A’s negative emotions are more related to her future teaching. She described in the narrative framework as follows:

I feel a little ambivalent now…I’m afraid I’ll be stuck in that circle again where I’m not open-minded enough when designing lesson like before…Can I maintain such a state if there is no experts’ guidance and research assistant’s supervision?

In this study, the teachers mentioned the most emotions at the exosystem level, followed by the microsystem, the mesosystem, and the macrosystem. Teacher emotion in chronosystem is shown through the whole process of the project. Most previous relevant studies found the highest proportion of positive emotions at the nearest microsystem, such as Cross and Hong (2012) and Chen (2017 , 2019) . In the current study, the teachers’ interaction with the experts at the exosystem comprises the main source of their emotions. And about two thirds are positive emotions. Previous studies investigated overall teacher emotion in a more general environment, such as Chen (2017) explored 53 primary teacher emotions in Hong Kong and Mainland China, and Cross and Hong (2012) investigated two elementary teacher emotions developed in their daily work. However, this study examined teacher emotion in a more concrete context, that is the teaching improvement project. In the project, in addition to teachers’ daily interactions with their students while having class, their interactions with the experts took up a large proportion. At each stage, each teacher communicated 30–60 min with each expert (totally 2). The teachers, indeed, developed pleasant emotions when they got praise and suggestions for promotion. Following the experts’ suggestions, their teaching improved stage by stage, resulting in more positive emotions like confidence and satisfaction at the microsystem. At this point, it is quite consistent with Cross and Hong’s (2012) research that “the systems are nested, so events or structures that exist within one system do influence what happens in another” (p. 964). Past and current exo-events where teachers’ teaching improved have shaped and continue to influence events and emotions in microsystem.

However, it was striking to find that the teachers in this study experienced a large number of negative emotions in mesosystem. In teacher collaboration, team members’ divergent willingness and conceptions of the collaboration space were closely intertwined with teacher emotion ( Weddle et al., 2019 ). And frustration often stems from differing expectations for collaboration and teaching. In the project, at first, Mrs. B designed a complete two-class reading and writing class and wanted to give the two lessons independently. That is to say, she had low willingness of collaborating. She had a passive role during the collaboration. But due to schedule requirements, she had to collaborate with Mrs. A who had strong willingness to collaborate. Besides, Mrs. A felt “responsible for driving the collaborative efforts toward instructional improvement”; she was more positive. Thus, Mrs. B could only design and give one class. So, in this passive cooperative relationship, Mrs. B developed more negative emotions. This kind of negative collegial relationship was also reported by Chen (2019) . She argues that, even in harmonious collaboration, teachers still pursue individual excellence. This puts teachers in an emotional dilemma, which is reflected by the negative emotions from the collegial relationship. Regardless of the negative emotions, the two teachers’ positive emotions were generated because of the power of collaboration. They feel powerful regarding collaboration with colleagues and gaining support from leaders. This is consistent with the findings from the study by Erb (2002) .

Also, it is worth mentioning that the teachers reported relatively average positive and negative emotions at the macrosystem level, among which three are positive and two are negative. Teaching material reform is the main factor eliciting their negative emotions. It brought difficulties for teaching, such as heavy workload of preparing for new lessons, resulting in the generation of negative emotions. This finding aligns with studies conducted by Yin and Li (2011) that teachers are experiencing high pressure and anxiety during the reforms. Chen and Dai (2014) also mentioned that teachers have to try to change their teaching philosophy and practice to adapt to the reform. The finding is also consistent with the studies by Chen (2016 , 2017 , 2019) . However, most previous studies ignore the positive impact of teaching material reform on teacher emotion. The present study found that the innovative activities in the new textbook provide teachers with a necessary basis and reference for their teaching design. And they love to see that their innovative abilities are enhanced in their use of the new teaching material.

Among all the ecological factors, one point that is important to discuss is that teachers’ different regulating capacities of emotions also influence the development of their emotions, even resulting in diverse holistic evolution of emotions in the whole process. According to Zhang (2009) , there is a correlation between the length of teaching years and the emotional regulation of teachers. Teachers with long teaching years have better emotional self-regulation than those with short teaching years. Mrs. A’s teaching years are 6 years longer than Mrs. B’s. Also, this is the second time for Mrs. A to take part in the project. While Mrs. B never participated in this kind of project before. Thus, Mrs. A can regulate and balance her emotions immediately after not-so-perfect performance.

Conclusion and Implications

The research questions sought to examine two Chinese senior high school English teachers’ dynamic emotional development process in their interaction with different ecological systems during the teaching improvement project and those ecological factors that may influence their emotional development. The analysis reveals the following findings:

Firstly, the two participants developed 68 emotions, 39 positive and 29 negative emotions. And teacher emotion changed with time quite obviously at each stage of the project in the interaction with various systems. They evolved from positive to negative and, finally, positive predominantly. Among all the ecological systems, they developed the most emotions (28 emotions) at exosystem, and they developed the main negative emotions at mesosystem.

Secondly, as for the ecological factors, there are three main factors that may influence teacher emotion, namely personal antecedents, contextual antecedents, and teachers’ emotional capacity. The personal antecedents like teachers’ knowledge, values, and skills and their family conditions and their different professional beliefs are the main factors leading to their change of emotions in microsystem. School climate (collegial relations and leadership style of school) in organizational factors of contextual antecedents is the main reason for teacher emotion development in mesosystem. The development of the participants’ emotions within exosystem was mainly due to the experts’ social supports (e.g., praise and constructive advice from the experts) of contextual antecedents and the difference of teachers’ emotional capacity (teachers’ emotion regulation). In macrosystem, policy factors (e.g., educational reform) of contextual antecedents are the main factors that influence teachers’ development of emotions. And, at different stages in chronosystem, different factors have different roles in the fluctuation of teacher emotion.

This study tells the story of two English teachers who participated in a teaching improvement project and investigates their emotional development in their interaction with ecological systems and those ecological factors that may influence their emotional development in the whole teaching improvement process. By qualitative analysis, this study provides three implications for teacher education.

Firstly, it is necessary for teachers to take part in some teacher training/improving activities. Not only can they adapt to the education reform better, but also gain more confidence in their future teaching by interacting with exosystem.

Secondly, teachers’ interaction with mesosystem is also a crucial part in their emotional development. Furthermore, a teacher education program should not only encourage collegial collaboration but also train teachers how to collaborate positively. Negative collaboration is even counterproductive to their development.

Thirdly, emotional regulation training is also an essential issue. Teachers need to have some strategies of regulating emotions, which, to some extent, ensure teachers’ professional development. Consequently, teacher educators should also focus on the development of teachers’ emotional regulation teaching strategies.

Limitations and Suggestions

One limitation of this study concerns the generality of the findings. The current study is a case study focusing on two teachers and their emotions. The emotion development of the two participants within different ecological systems can hardly represent the overall senior high school English teacher emotion in each ecological system. The findings can neither reflect most teachers’ attitudes toward the same emotional episodes, such as teacher collaboration. Therefore, the generalization of the results may be limited. It would be interesting for future studies to expand an individual survey to a group survey to gain more universally applicable results. The second suggestion for future studies is to combine some quantitative instruments like a teacher emotion inventory or a questionnaire to promote the generalization of the results.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author/s.

Author Contributions

XS: whole research design and data collection and analysis. LY: data collection and analysis. Both authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


We would like to thank the two participants who took part in the teaching improvement project and provided us with all kinds of data. We would also like to thank Christopher Ott for polishing the article and Lu Jing for her help in coding and analyzing data.

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Zembylas, M. (2011). “Teaching and teacher emotions: a post-structural perspective,” in New Understandings of Teacher’s Work , eds C. Day and J. C.-K. Lee (New York, NY: Springer), 31–44. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-0545-6_3

Zhang, T. (2009). A study on interpersonal relationship and regulation of emotions of special-grade teachers. Sch. Admin. 40–43.

Keywords : teacher emotion, narrative case study, ecological system framework, ecological factors, teachers’ professional development

Citation: Sun X and Yang L (2021) A Narrative Case Study of Chinese Senior High School English Teachers’ Emotions: An Ecological Perspective. Front. Psychol. 12:792400. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.792400

Received: 10 October 2021; Accepted: 10 November 2021; Published: 10 December 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Sun and Yang. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Xiaohui Sun, [email protected]

narrative textual case study

Difference Between Case Study And Narrative Research

  • Success Team
  • January 19, 2023

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narrative textual case study

Research is an important part of any organization or business. There are two main types of research: case studies and narrative research. Both are valuable tools for gathering and analyzing information, but they have some important differences. Understanding the difference between case study and narrative research can help you select the best research method for your particular project.

What is Case Study Research?

Case study research is a type of qualitative research that focuses on a single case, or a small number of cases, to examine in depth. It seeks to understand a phenomenon by examining the context of the case and looking at the experiences, perspectives, and behavior of the people involved. Case study research is often used to explore complex social phenomena, such as poverty, health, education, and social change.

What is Narrative Research?

Narrative research is also a type of qualitative research that focuses on understanding how people make sense of their experiences. It involves collecting and analyzing stories, or narratives, from participants. These stories can be collected through interviews, focus groups, or other data collection techniques. By examining the stories in detail, researchers can gain insights into how people think about and make sense of the world around them.

Differences Between Case Study and Narrative Research

The most important differences between case study and narrative research are the focus and the type of data collected. Case studies focus on a single case or a small number of cases, while narrative research focuses on understanding how people make sense of their experiences. Case studies typically rely on quantitative data, such as surveys and measurements, while narrative research relies on qualitative data, such as interviews, stories, and observations.

Which is Better?

The answer to this question depends on the research question and the type of data needed to answer it. If the goal is to understand a single case in depth, then a case study is the best approach. If the goal is to understand how people make sense of their experiences, then narrative research is the best approach. In some cases, it may be beneficial to use a combination of both approaches.

Case study and narrative research are both valuable tools for gathering and analyzing information. Understanding the difference between the two can help you select the best research method for your particular project. While case studies are useful for understanding a single case in depth, narrative research is better for understanding how people make sense of their experiences. In some cases, it may be beneficial to use a combination of both approaches.

How To Use The Best Large Language Models For Research With Speak

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Step 1: Create Your Speak Account

To start your transcription and analysis, you first need to create a Speak account . No worries, this is super easy to do!

Get a 14-day trial with 30 minutes of free English audio and video transcription included when you sign up for Speak.

To sign up for Speak and start using Speak Magic Prompts, visit the Speak app register page here .

narrative textual case study

Step 2: Upload Your Research Data

We typically recommend MP4s for video or MP3s for audio.

However, we accept a range of audio, video and text file types.

You can upload your file for transcription in several ways using Speak:

Accepted Audio File Types

Accepted video file types, accepted text file types, csv imports.

You can also upload CSVs of text files or audio and video files. You can learn more about CSV uploads and download Speak-compatible CSVs here .

With the CSVs, you can upload anything from dozens of YouTube videos to thousands of Interview Data.

Publicly Available URLs

You can also upload media to Speak through a publicly available URL.

As long as the file type extension is available at the end of the URL you will have no problem importing your recording for automatic transcription and analysis.

YouTube URLs

Speak is compatible with YouTube videos. All you have to do is copy the URL of the YouTube video (for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKfcLcHeivc ).

Speak will automatically find the file, calculate the length, and import the video.

If using YouTube videos, please make sure you use the full link and not the shortened YouTube snippet. Additionally, make sure you remove the channel name from the URL.

Speak Integrations

As mentioned, Speak also contains a range of integrations for Zoom , Zapier , Vimeo and more that will help you automatically transcribe your media.

This library of integrations continues to grow! Have a request? Feel encouraged to send us a message.

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Step 3: Calculate and Pay the Total Automatically

Once you have your file(s) ready and load it into Speak, it will automatically calculate the total cost (you get 30 minutes of audio and video free in the 14-day trial – take advantage of it!).

If you are uploading text data into Speak, you do not currently have to pay any cost. Only the Speak Magic Prompts analysis would create a fee which will be detailed below.

Once you go over your 30 minutes or need to use Speak Magic Prompts, you can pay by subscribing to a personalized plan using our real-time calculator .

You can also add a balance or pay for uploads and analysis without a plan using your credit card .

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Step 4: Wait for Speak to Analyze Your Research Data

If you are uploading audio and video, our automated transcription software will prepare your transcript quickly. Once completed, you will get an email notification that your transcript is complete. That email will contain a link back to the file so you can access the interactive media player with the transcript, analysis, and export formats ready for you.

If you are importing CSVs or uploading text files Speak will generally analyze the information much more quickly.

narrative textual case study

Step 5: Visit Your File Or Folder

Speak is capable of analyzing both individual files and entire folders of data.

When you are viewing any individual file in Speak, all you have to do is click on the “Prompts” button.

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If you want to analyze many files, all you have to do is add the files you want to analyze into a folder within Speak.

You can do that by adding new files into Speak or you can organize your current files into your desired folder with the software’s easy editing functionality.

narrative textual case study

Step 6: Select Speak Magic Prompts To Analyze Your Research Data

What are magic prompts.

Speak Magic Prompts leverage innovation in artificial intelligence models often referred to as “generative AI”.

These models have analyzed huge amounts of data from across the internet to gain an understanding of language.

With that understanding, these “large language models” are capable of performing mind-bending tasks!

With Speak Magic Prompts, you can now perform those tasks on the audio, video and text data in your Speak account.

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Step 7: Select Your Assistant Type

To help you get better results from Speak Magic Prompts, Speak has introduced “Assistant Type”.

These assistant types pre-set and provide context to the prompt engine for more concise, meaningful outputs based on your needs.

To begin, we have included:

Choose the most relevant assistant type from the dropdown.

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Step 8: Create Or Select Your Desired Prompt

Here are some examples prompts that you can apply to any file right now:

  • Create a SWOT Analysis
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  • Tell me what questions were asked
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A modal will pop up so you can use the suggested prompts we shared above to instantly and magically get your answers.

If you have your own prompts you want to create, select “Custom Prompt” from the dropdown and another text box will open where you can ask anything you want of your data!

narrative textual case study

Step 9: Review & Share Responses

Speak will generate a concise response for you in a text box below the prompt selection dropdown.

In this example, we ask to analyze all the Interview Data in the folder at once for the top product dissatisfiers.

You can easily copy that response for your presentations, content, emails, team members and more!

Speak Magic Prompts As ChatGPT For Research Data Pricing

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Right now, anyone in the 14-day trial of Speak gets 100,000 characters included in their account.

If you need more characters, you can easily include Speak Magic Prompts in your plan when you create a subscription.

You can also upgrade the number of characters in your account if you already have a subscription.

Both options are available on the subscription page .

Alternatively, you can use Speak Magic Prompts by adding a balance to your account. The balance will be used as you analyze characters.

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narrative textual case study

Narrative Analysis: Methods and Examples

Narrative analysis is a powerful qualitative research tool. Narrative research can uncover behaviors, feelings and motivations that aren’t expressed explicitly….

What Is Narrative Research

Narrative analysis is a powerful qualitative research tool. Narrative research can uncover behaviors, feelings and motivations that aren’t expressed explicitly. It also provides rich linguistic data that may shed light on various aspects of cultural or social phenomena.

Narrative analysis provides researchers with detailed information about their subjects that they couldn’t get through other methods. Narrative analysis in qualitative research reveals hidden motivations that aren’t easy to perceive directly. This is especially true in research conducted with cultural subjects where the researcher must peel the many layers of a culture.

Let’s look at how narrative research is performed, what it can tell us about the subject, and some examples of narrative research.

What Is Narrative Research?

Examples of narrative research, difference between narrative analysis and case study, analyzing results in the narrative method.

Narrative analysis is a form of qualitative research in which the researcher focuses on a topic and analyzes the data collected from case studies, surveys, observations or other similar methods. The researchers write their findings, then review and analyze them.

To conduct narrative analysis, researchers must understand the background, setting, social and cultural context of the research subjects. This gives researchers a better idea of what their subjects mean in their narration. It’s especially true in context-rich research where there are many hidden layers of meaning that can only be uncovered by an in-depth understanding of the culture or environment.

Before starting narrative research, researchers need to know as much about their research subjects as possible. They interview key informants and collect large amounts of text from them. They even use other sources, such as existing literature and personal recollections.

From this large base of information, researchers choose a few instances they feel are good examples of what they want to talk about and then analyze them in depth.

Through this approach, researchers can gain a holistic view of the subject’s life and activities. It can show what motivates people and provide a better view of the society that the subjects live in by enabling researchers to see how individuals interact with one another.

  • It’s been used by researchers to study indigenous peoples of various countries, such as the Maori in New Zealand.
  • It can be used in medicine. Researchers, for instance, can study how doctors communicate with their patients during end-of-life care.
  • The narrative model has been used to explore the relationship between music and social change in East Africa.
  • Narrative research is being used to explore the differences in emotions experienced by different generations in Japanese society.

Through these examples of narrative research, we can see its nature and how it fills a gap left by other research methods.

Many people confuse narrative analysis in qualitative research with case studies. Here are some key differences between the two:

  • A case study examines one context in depth, whereas narrative research explores how a subject has acted in various contexts across time
  • Case studies are often longer and more detailed, but they rarely provide an overview of the subject’s life or experiences
  • Narrative analysis implies that researchers are observing several instances that encompass the subject’s life, which is why it provides a richer view of things

Both tools can give similar results, but there are some differences that lead researchers to choose one or the other or, perhaps, even both in their research design.

Once the narratives have been collected, researchers notice certain patterns and themes emerging as they read and analyze the text. They note these down, compare them with other research on the subject, figure out how it all fits together and then find a theory that can explain these findings.

Many social scientists have used narrative research as a valuable tool to analyze their concepts and theories. This is mainly because narrative analysis is a more thorough and multifaceted method. It helps researchers not only build a deeper understanding of their subject, but also helps them figure out why people act and react as they do.

Storytelling is a central feature of narrative research. The narrative interview is an interactive conversation. This process can be very intimate and sometimes bring about powerful emotions from both parties. Therefore, this form of qualitative research isn’t suitable for everyone. The interviewer needs to be a good listener and must understand the interview process. The interviewee also needs to be comfortable to be able to provide authentic narratives.

Understanding what kind of research to use is a powerful tool for a manager. We can use narrative analysis in many ways. Narrative research is a multifaceted method that has the potential to show different results based on the researcher’s intentions for their study.

Learning how to use such tools will improve the productivity of teams. Harappa’s Thinking Critically course will show you the way. Learners will understand how to better process information and consider different perspectives in their analysis, which will allow for better-informed decision making. Our faculty will provide real-world insights to ensure an impactful learning experience that takes professionals at every stage of their careers to the next level.

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics such as Phenomenological Research , Types Of Survey Research , Examples Of Correlational Research and Tips to Improve your Analytical Skills to upgrade your knowledge and skills.


Grad Coach

Narrative Analysis 101

Everything you need to know to get started

By: Ethar Al-Saraf (PhD)| Expert Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | March 2023

If you’re new to research, the host of qualitative analysis methods available to you can be a little overwhelming. In this post, we’ll  unpack the sometimes slippery topic of narrative analysis . We’ll explain what it is, consider its strengths and weaknesses , and look at when and when not to use this analysis method. 

Overview: Narrative Analysis

  • What is narrative analysis (simple definition)
  • The two overarching approaches  
  • The strengths & weaknesses of narrative analysis
  • When (and when not) to use it
  • Key takeaways

What Is Narrative Analysis?

Simply put, narrative analysis is a qualitative analysis method focused on interpreting human experiences and motivations by looking closely at the stories (the narratives) people tell in a particular context.

In other words, a narrative analysis interprets long-form participant responses or written stories as data, to uncover themes and meanings . That data could be taken from interviews, monologues, written stories, or even recordings. In other words, narrative analysis can be used on both primary and secondary data to provide evidence from the experiences described.

That’s all quite conceptual, so let’s look at an example of how narrative analysis could be used.

Let’s say you’re interested in researching the beliefs of a particular author on popular culture. In that case, you might identify the characters , plotlines , symbols and motifs used in their stories. You could then use narrative analysis to analyse these in combination and against the backdrop of the relevant context.

This would allow you to interpret the underlying meanings and implications in their writing, and what they reveal about the beliefs of the author. In other words, you’d look to understand the views of the author by analysing the narratives that run through their work.

Simple definition of narrative analysis

The Two Overarching Approaches

Generally speaking, there are two approaches that one can take to narrative analysis. Specifically, an inductive approach or a deductive approach. Each one will have a meaningful impact on how you interpret your data and the conclusions you can draw, so it’s important that you understand the difference.

First up is the inductive approach to narrative analysis.

The inductive approach takes a bottom-up view , allowing the data to speak for itself, without the influence of any preconceived notions . With this approach, you begin by looking at the data and deriving patterns and themes that can be used to explain the story, as opposed to viewing the data through the lens of pre-existing hypotheses, theories or frameworks. In other words, the analysis is led by the data.

For example, with an inductive approach, you might notice patterns or themes in the way an author presents their characters or develops their plot. You’d then observe these patterns, develop an interpretation of what they might reveal in the context of the story, and draw conclusions relative to the aims of your research.

Contrasted to this is the deductive approach.

With the deductive approach to narrative analysis, you begin by using existing theories that a narrative can be tested against . Here, the analysis adopts particular theoretical assumptions and/or provides hypotheses, and then looks for evidence in a story that will either verify or disprove them.

For example, your analysis might begin with a theory that wealthy authors only tell stories to get the sympathy of their readers. A deductive analysis might then look at the narratives of wealthy authors for evidence that will substantiate (or refute) the theory and then draw conclusions about its accuracy, and suggest explanations for why that might or might not be the case.

Which approach you should take depends on your research aims, objectives and research questions . If these are more exploratory in nature, you’ll likely take an inductive approach. Conversely, if they are more confirmatory in nature, you’ll likely opt for the deductive approach.

Need a helping hand?

narrative textual case study

Strengths & Weaknesses

Now that we have a clearer view of what narrative analysis is and the two approaches to it, it’s important to understand its strengths and weaknesses , so that you can make the right choices in your research project.

A primary strength of narrative analysis is the rich insight it can generate by uncovering the underlying meanings and interpretations of human experience. The focus on an individual narrative highlights the nuances and complexities of their experience, revealing details that might be missed or considered insignificant by other methods.

Another strength of narrative analysis is the range of topics it can be used for. The focus on human experience means that a narrative analysis can democratise your data analysis, by revealing the value of individuals’ own interpretation of their experience in contrast to broader social, cultural, and political factors.

All that said, just like all analysis methods, narrative analysis has its weaknesses. It’s important to understand these so that you can choose the most appropriate method for your particular research project.

The first drawback of narrative analysis is the problem of subjectivity and interpretation . In other words, a drawback of the focus on stories and their details is that they’re open to being understood differently depending on who’s reading them. This means that a strong understanding of the author’s cultural context is crucial to developing your interpretation of the data. At the same time, it’s important that you remain open-minded in how you interpret your chosen narrative and avoid making any assumptions .

A second weakness of narrative analysis is the issue of reliability and generalisation . Since narrative analysis depends almost entirely on a subjective narrative and your interpretation, the findings and conclusions can’t usually be generalised or empirically verified. Although some conclusions can be drawn about the cultural context, they’re still based on what will almost always be anecdotal data and not suitable for the basis of a theory, for example.

Last but not least, the focus on long-form data expressed as stories means that narrative analysis can be very time-consuming . In addition to the source data itself, you will have to be well informed on the author’s cultural context as well as other interpretations of the narrative, where possible, to ensure you have a holistic view. So, if you’re going to undertake narrative analysis, make sure that you allocate a generous amount of time to work through the data.

Free Webinar: Research Methodology 101

When To Use Narrative Analysis

As a qualitative method focused on analysing and interpreting narratives describing human experiences, narrative analysis is usually most appropriate for research topics focused on social, personal, cultural , or even ideological events or phenomena and how they’re understood at an individual level.

For example, if you were interested in understanding the experiences and beliefs of individuals suffering social marginalisation, you could use narrative analysis to look at the narratives and stories told by people in marginalised groups to identify patterns , symbols , or motifs that shed light on how they rationalise their experiences.

In this example, narrative analysis presents a good natural fit as it’s focused on analysing people’s stories to understand their views and beliefs at an individual level. Conversely, if your research was geared towards understanding broader themes and patterns regarding an event or phenomena, analysis methods such as content analysis or thematic analysis may be better suited, depending on your research aim .

narrative textual case study

Let’s recap

In this post, we’ve explored the basics of narrative analysis in qualitative research. The key takeaways are:

  • Narrative analysis is a qualitative analysis method focused on interpreting human experience in the form of stories or narratives .
  • There are two overarching approaches to narrative analysis: the inductive (exploratory) approach and the deductive (confirmatory) approach.
  • Like all analysis methods, narrative analysis has a particular set of strengths and weaknesses .
  • Narrative analysis is generally most appropriate for research focused on interpreting individual, human experiences as expressed in detailed , long-form accounts.

If you’d like to learn more about narrative analysis and qualitative analysis methods in general, be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach blog here . Alternatively, if you’re looking for hands-on help with your project, take a look at our 1-on-1 private coaching service .

narrative textual case study

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 

You Might Also Like:

Qualitative content analysis 101

Thanks. I need examples of narrative analysis

Derek Jansen

Here are some examples of research topics that could utilise narrative analysis:

Personal Narratives of Trauma: Analysing personal stories of individuals who have experienced trauma to understand the impact, coping mechanisms, and healing processes.

Identity Formation in Immigrant Communities: Examining the narratives of immigrants to explore how they construct and negotiate their identities in a new cultural context.

Media Representations of Gender: Analysing narratives in media texts (such as films, television shows, or advertisements) to investigate the portrayal of gender roles, stereotypes, and power dynamics.

Yvonne Worrell

Where can I find an example of a narrative analysis table ?


Please i need help with my project,

Mst. Shefat-E-Sultana

how can I cite this article in APA 7th style?


please mention the sources as well.

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