Research Is All About Stories

My assertion that research is all about stories is probably less divisive and controversial now than it was 15 years ago when I was finishing my PhD. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of researchers who would disagree. Let me put my case and see whether I can convince some of them to come over to the fun side.

Stories are a key part of how human beings interact. To the best of my knowledge, there is no human community or culture in the world which does not use stories to communicate. We also use stories for entertainment – skilled oral storytellers and story singers have been popular entertainers since time immemorial, and the huge popularity of more recent media such as books and films speaks for itself.

I have argued earlier on this blog that stories are also valuable for learning. Communication and learning are central to research, and there is a role for entertainment, too. So we can see that stories might be a good fit. But, Helen, you might be saying at this point, shouldn’t research be about facts and the truth? Well now, let’s think a little about truth. In the English oral storytelling tradition, a teller will sometimes close a story with a short rhyme:

The dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by,

I told you a tale, my tale is a lie.

But heed to me closely, fair maiden, proud youth,

My tale is a lie – what it tells is the truth.

In a journal article I wrote with Lucy Pickering on the ethics of presentation, we said something very similar in a more academic way. Drawing on the work of Bakan and others, we distinguished between ‘literal’ truth and ‘real’, or authentic, truth. The former deals with facts, the latter deals more with feelings; what ‘rings true’, to use a metaphor whose source seems lost to history. Blacksmiths? Musicians? Campanologists? Who knows?. But we all do all know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth.

Lucy Pickering and I argued that research needs an appropriate balance of literal and authentic truth. That balance will shift between topics and disciplines, but there always needs to be some of each. Even in the most quantitative research, a story is still necessary; the researcher can’t simply present pages and pages of tables, calculations, graphs and charts without a written narrative directing the reader to the salient points – how this calculation was chosen, why that outlier is important, the implications of the significance level for practice and policy.

Scholars of story Louise Phillips and Tracey Bunda, in their excellent book Research Through, With And As Storying, suggest that stories can be experienced as theories. I agree with this, and would extend it to suggest that theories can be experienced as stories. In fact I could go further and say that theories used and/or developed by researchers, whether formal or informal, are stories: stories about how the world can be shaped and about how we see the world.

In Unflattening, Nick Sousanis describes stories as ‘that most human of activities, the framing of experience to give it meaning’ (p 95). Which is exactly what researchers do, especially if they are using qualitative techniques.

Asking ourselves the question, “What’s the story here?” can be helpful at many points in research work. We should have a clear story to tell of why we are doing our research, and another to explain what the research is about. When we come to report on our research, whatever the medium – written, presented remotely, presented in person, video, animation, multi-media, whatever – we should be using stories. Stories are engaging, informative, and memorable. Surely that’s exactly what we want our research to be.

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11 thoughts on “Research Is All About Stories

  1. Loved this post but my only doubt was whether it’s entirely true that “we all do know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth” Unfamiliar stories, outside the listeners experience, may take longer to penetrate before they ring true. Hence the need to amplify – but also the power of compelling fiction which can shift your worldview in a heartbeat.
    I also find the idea of theories as stories really helpful

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stuart, you’re welcome, and thank you for your comment. I have argued previously, on this blog and elsewhere, that writing is a research method. I find it hard to imagine a research project that doesn’t involve writing in any way.


  2. Very interesting !
    This blog post made me think more about who is the story teller (position, profile!) And how the researcher is voicing other voices within the research

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Because theories of how the mind works, or in my field how being on the autistic spectrum works, do not change or get abandoned over time, I totally agree here.

    I have believed for a while that the existing frames of reference around NeuroDivergency need to be abandoned, re invented and even then face being ditched in the future.

    The formal understandings around the likes of the many conditions you get, like ADHD and OCD are for me, suspect because they have gone on for too long without being challenged or abandoned in favour of better ones. The absence of including personality, character, maturity, masking and social skills is one reason why I am so suspicious. The adherence to neuroscience = behaviour just does not take into account anything outside of that, which means you get these cliche’s going round and round. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Research and Stories, Part 2 | Helen Kara

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