Using Stories to Tell Stories: A Methodological Note on Vignettes

I will tell you a story of a mother I will call Fatima. Fatima lives in a community like you. […] One day Amina, Fatima’s cousin, comes over to visit Fatima’s family. They both have daughters of 14 years old. Amina announces that her daughter, Zainab, is engaged and getting married in a month’s time. She states that Fatima’s daughter, Noor, should also get married, as she is becoming a woman. Amina reveals she also knows a family from her village who is interested in marrying their son to Noor.

What are vignettes?
The above story is a vignette, which was used by Oxfam in qualitative research on social norms around early marriage in Pakistan. Vignettes are stories of hypothetical situations that interviewees comment on. They allow an interviewee to explore actions within the context of the story, without having to share their own experiences or even having similar experiences. Therefore, the method is often used to discuss sensitive topics, as it can be less threatening for the interviewees.1

Oxfam’s use of vignettes
Oxfam Novib has used vignettes in qualitative and quantitative parts of impact evaluations. Oxfam measures impact of its programs to be accountable to both beneficiaries and donors and show the value of our work. Impact studies assess what works and what doesn’t, in order to improve the programs. In this blog I discuss three qualitative examples, that all focused on the identification of social norms perpetuating violence against women and girls. Social norms are the rules of behaviour that people in a group adhere to because they believe others act according to the rule (typical behaviour), and because they think others believe they ought to behave accordingly (appropriate behaviour).2 These ‘others’ are also called a reference group, which consists of people whose opinions matter to a person and people who influence that person’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviour.2 When someone transgresses a social norm, they risk sanctions from their reference group.2 Social norms may not correspond with people’s personal attitudes, but are kept in place because they are about expectations of what others believe is appropriate.

The vignette above was used by Oxfam in combination with interview questions, as part of the impact measurement evaluation on early marriage for the More than Brides Alliance in Pakistan. After reading the vignette to an interviewee, questions like: “do you recognize this story from practices in your community?” and “what would most mothers like Fatima do in this situation?” were asked. Later in the interview, twists in the vignette were introduced, like Fatima’s household facing financial constraints. Since the research concerned social norms, the focus of the interviews was on what others think is typical and appropriate behaviour, and not on people’s own opinions.

11438scrFive young Pakistani girls. Credit: Khaula Jamil/Oxfam Novib

In Nigeria a similar vignette research focused on harmful traditional practices that lead to violence against women and girls. This was formative research to inform the Enough campaign, which aims to challenge and change social norms that perpetuate violence against women and girls, by replacing harmful norms with positive ones that promote gender equality and non-violence. Formative vignette research for the Enough campaign has also been conducted in Tunisia, but with a different set-up than in Pakistan and Nigeria. Here multiple stand-alone vignettes concerning domestic violence among young couples were used, in which the situation of violence became more severe in every vignette.

Vignettes in practice
Although it is not what I focus on here, the findings of this research are very interesting, appreciated by the users and adopted by the respective program and campaigns (read the report for Tunisia here!). I took a closer look at the methodology of the research – vignettes – to see what can be learned for future research, together with two ladies who put the vignettes in practice and conducted the interviews. Bogofanyo Perekebina works at the local NGO FACE Initiative, which is one of Oxfam’s partner organizations in Nigeria, and conducted interviews on FGM/C. In Tunisia, Hasna Safi conducted interviews for the research in her role as research assistant.

I asked both about their experience using vignettes as an interviewer, the positive and negative aspects of the method, and how interviewees interpreted and reacted to the vignettes. Both interviewers had not worked with vignettes before. As Bogofanyo said: “I didn’t use vignettes before. And to be honest, I was not sure it would work. I was shocked when we got so much information out of it… You just throw a question and the person just keeps talking.”

Positive and negative aspects
In this section I just present two aspects of using vignettes, one positive and one negative. In my discussions with Bogofanyo and Hasna and my own experience in analysing the interviews, a lot more positive than negative aspects emerged.

The willingness of people to comment on the story was an aspect both interviewers noted as positive, and perhaps the best characteristic of vignettes. “The smile would come upon people’s faces when they heard the story and they could react, what would they do? […] If they didn’t hear the story, I think the possibility of sharing their own story would be very slim. Vignettes encourage people to share” (Bogofanyo). Hasna noted that using vignettes made it possible to discuss the sensitive topic of domestic violence: “It is easier for people to comment on other people’s stories, instead of their personal experiences. You can’t just go to someone to ask ‘hey, do you hit your wife?’. Violence just isn’t that easy to understand, in a story it’s easier”. From my perspective analysing the interviews, I can confirm that people were willing to talk: the transcripts contain a wealth of information.

Hasna noted a negative aspect, which partially reflects on the use of vignettes, but also on researching social norms: “At the beginning some interviewees were confused if they should place themselves in the story, or if they were commenting on other people’s experiences. Especially for the first few stories, we had to explain that. Interviewees are often not familiar with the method of vignettes but may be familiar with interviews, which can lead to confusion on how to answer the questions. The fact that these interviews concerned social norms makes that even more complicated, as we also asked people to answer the questions from certain perspectives, for example: “what would most mothers like Fatima do in this situation?” (typical behaviour) and “what would Amina and most other mothers expect Fatima to do in this situation?” (appropriate behaviour). In the studies conducted after, in Nigeria and Pakistan, we ensured to start with questions on personal attitudes and later moved to questions on social norms, to minimize possible confusion.

Hasna and Bogofanyo were overall very positive about the use of vignettes. Bogofanyo believes especially in formative research the method can be used, and on political issues as well as sensitive ones. Hasna also sees a future for vignettes, since “they are not only useful for sensitive issues, but can also be used to present issues that we are not really used to, for example new concepts in our culture”.

Personally, I have enjoyed working on this research, especially as the use of vignettes results in lively interview transcripts containing a wealth of information. Vignettes are thus not only stories, they elicit them as well: using stories to tell stories.

1: Barter, C., & Renold, E. (1999). The use of vignettes in qualitative research, Social Research Update, 25, University of Surrey.

2: Alexander-Scott, M., Bell, E., & Holden, J. (2016). DFID Guidance Note: Shifting Social Norms to Tackle Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). London, United Kingdom: VAWG Helpdesk.

This article was written by Annelin Verkade, who is an intern for the Impact Measurement and Knowledge Team. Contact Annelin on LinkedIn!


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