Storytelling ethnography as a way of doing transdisciplinary research

By Jane Palmer

Jane Palmer (biography)

Storytelling ethnography is a valuable tool if your research traverses several disciplines and aims for insights that transcend all of them. Stories not only integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines, but can also “change the way people act, the way they use available knowledge” (Griffiths 2007).

The special qualities of transdisciplinarity are:

  • its potential for integrative inquiry and emergent solutions,
  • its engagement with community and other non-academic knowledges, and
  • the breadth of its outcomes for researchers, participants and the wider community.

These are also qualities of what I call storytelling ethnography.

Ethnography more generally is defined as the process of finding out about how people live, in their own words. Much of the data gathered in ethnographies appears in the form of stories told by members of a community, and researchers use a range of methods to analyse them.

Parallels between storytelling ethnography and transdisciplinary enquiry

There are two important parallels between a storytelling ethnography and transdisciplinary inquiry. First, transdisciplinary researchers work at the border between academic inquiry and community knowledges; the power of stories lies in their capacity to act as a bridge between these different knowledges, and help us to make sense of time and complexity at the scale of a community or an individual’s life.

Second, the multiple outcomes that are a mark of transdisciplinary research have been described (Mitchell et al., 2016) as:

• the generation of new and accessible knowledges
• an improvement in the ‘situation’ being addressed
• transformational learning of all participants.

Stories can create change in all of these outcome spaces.

For example, in work I conducted in post-tsunami, post-conflict Aceh, Indonesia, life stories provided a clear picture of the multiple, cumulative factors that have led to conditions in the present (adding to knowledge); the stories give us insights that could prevent future interventions with a negative impact on communities (addressing a ‘situation’), and perhaps most importantly, they have had a transformational impact on me and potentially on others, into what Richard Slaughter (1995: 141) has described as an ‘involved self’, one who is more likely to become an advocate or an activist.

The stories in this Aceh case study ask us to reconsider our ideas about resilience, adaptation and vulnerability and to ask ourselves ‘What is just?’ and ‘Who is listened to?’

Frames and tools

There are several frames and tools that the transdisciplinary researcher may want to keep in mind while undertaking storytelling ethnography. The first is the idea of an ethics based on acknowledgement of each story as an often heroic act of commitment and transmission from storyteller to listener. The responsibilities that come with this are an essential part of the researcher’s ethnographic methodology.

The second frame is reflexivity. Only by remaining reflexive, nonjudgmental, open to learning and able to question our own reactions might we gain new insights into the ways the world is constituted differently across different communities.

A third aspect of ethnographic research is our authorial responsibilities as we re-tell a story to a wider audience. More creative research outputs are able to present stories that are more nuanced or that work by evoking rather than by argument. The publication of peer-reviewed journal papers might become less important than writing for non-academic audiences.

A useful tool for ethnographers is narrative analysis, which helps us to understand how a story conveys complex meanings. This requires a focus on the whole story rather than the coded fragments provided in social science data sorting programs.

Another tool is Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Methods. While ethnography is generally seen as requiring a long-term immersion in a community, Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Methods can be completed in a few weeks and offer an accessible method for using storytelling ethnography as part of a transdisciplinary research project.


Storytelling ethnography, like transdisciplinary inquiry, allows the researcher to integrate multiple, cumulative factors, and has impacts on several levels – on knowledge, on researcher and storyteller, and on community futures. Do you have relevant experience to share?

To find out more:

Palmer, J. (2016). Ethnography as transdisciplinary inquiry: two stories of adaptation and resilience from Aceh, Indonesia. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom.


Griffiths, T. (2007). The humanities and an environmentally sustainable Australia. Australian Humanities Review, 43. Online:

Mitchell, C., Cordell, D. and Fam, D. (2016). Beginning at the end: the outcomes spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 25-38.

Slaughter, R. A. (1995). The Foresight Principle: Cultural recovery in the 21st Century. Praeger Publishers: Westport, Connecticut, United States of America.

Biography: Jane Palmer is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Resilient Regions, University of Southern Queensland. Her interest in the power of transdisciplinary problem-solving emerged during her work as an architect coordinating technical consultants to meet diverse climatic conditions and cultural requirements in northern Australia. Her doctoral research was based on ethnographic fieldwork in post-conflict, post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia, and she has since been appointed to research fellowships at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and the University of Southern Queensland to undertake ethnographic projects in regional and remote Australia. Her research interests include the use of storytelling methods as a way of conducting transdisciplinary research into the processes of trauma, grief, resilience and adaptation.

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