Research tells a story. Ideally, it resembles a detective story, which begins with a mystery and ends with its resolution. Researchers have a problem that they want to investigate; the story will reach its happy ending if they find a solution to that problem.
In practice, however, things aren’t quite that simple, and the actual picture is closer to an adventure story or traveler’s tale (Kvale, 1996), with many unexpected twists and turns. Often, the resolution of a research project is uncertain: it doesn’t answer your initial research question, rather it tells you that you were asking the wrong question in the first place, or that the way that you went about answering it was misconceived. You struggle with discouragement and frustration; perhaps you come out of it feeling lucky to have survived the thing with your health and relationships (mostly) intact.
So, if you enjoy research and are determined to make a contribution, you organize a sequel, in which you try out a better question with a better designed study, and so it goes on. Another way of putting it is that there are stories within stories, or a continuing series of stories. Each individual research project tells one story, the series of projects conducted by a researcher or a research team forms a larger story, and the development of the whole research area a yet larger story. And this progression continues up to the level of the history of science and ideas over the centuries.
How a research area develops over time is illustrated in an article by Hammen (1992), whose title, “Life events and depression: The plot thickens”, alludes to the mystery-story aspect of research. Her article summarizes her 20-year-long research program into depression. She discusses how her original research drew on rather simplistic cognitive models of depression (e.g., that depression is caused by negative appraisals of events). The findings of early studies led her to modify these models (e.g., to take into account that people’s appraisals of events may be negative because the events themselves are negative) and thus to ask more complex questions.
Her team is currently working with more sophisticated models, which take into account that individuals may play a role in bringing about the life events that happen to them. Another way that things are not so simple is that not all researchers agree on what constitutes a legitimate story. The situation in psychology is analogous to developments in literature.
On the one hand is the traditional research story, rather like a Victorian novel, which has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and is expected to provide a more or less faithful reflection of reality. On the other hand, in this modern and postmodern age, we encounter narratives that do not follow an orderly chronological sequence or tie up neatly at the end. Furthermore, they may not claim to represent, or may even reject the idea of, reality.
These developments in literature and psychology reflect general intellectual developments during the last century, which have ramifications across many branches of European and English-speaking culture, both artistic and scientific.
Our own field of interest, psychology in general and clinical psychology in particular, is currently going through a vigorous debate about the nature of research—that is, which of these narratives we can call research and which are something else. Scholars from various corners of the discipline of psychology (e.g., Carlson, 1972; Richardson, 1996; Rogers, 1985; Sarbin, 1986; Smith et al., 1995) have questioned the validity and usefulness of psychology’s version of the traditional story, which has been called “received view” or “old paradigm” research: essentially a quantitative, hypothetico-deductive approach, which relies on linear causal models.
These and other critics call for replacing, or at least supplementing, the traditional approach with a more qualitative, discovery-oriented, non-linear approach to research.