Research and Stories, Part 2

My recent post Research Is All About Stories got a big reaction on the socials. I encouraged people who tweeted me to add their comments to the blog, which several of them did. They made some really useful points that I’m going to amplify in this post. Also on Twitter Hoda Wassif recommended The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr which I am now reading. It’s an excellent book and quite an eye-opener, even to someone who has been interested in stories and storytelling for many years.

In my last post I said that stories are used all around the world, and I stand by that, but I have learned from Storr’s book that there are cultural differences in the types of stories which are told. Stories told in Europe (and therefore, by extension, stories told by European settlers and their descendants in the US and Canada) generally focus on a courageous individual who can create change, and have a clearly defined ending. Stories told in China usually focus on a group or community, involve multiple perspectives, and have an ambiguous ending which the reader can figure out as they please. European readers take pleasure in a story’s resolution; Chinese readers take pleasure in deciding on their preferred solution to narrative puzzles.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are elements of ambiguity to the ending of some European stories, and I would suspect there are elements of resolution to the ending of some Chinese stories. And other cultures treat stories differently again. The Indigenous writer Jo-ann Archibald/Q’um Q’um Xiiem, in her book Indigenous Storywork, tells us that in the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples, stories are used for many purposes, such as education, entertainment, healing, ritual, community, and spirituality. A storyteller will select a story for a particular occasion and reason, and will tell it in their own way, as honestly and clearly as they can. The listener is expected to listen fully, engaging their emotions as well as their cognition, and visualising scenes and interactions.

The key point for us, as researchers, is to understand that if we are using stories with participants and/or audiences from a variety of cultures, they may have a different understanding of what constitutes ‘story’ and what stories are for. We need to know about this if we are to do our work effectively.

In response to my last post on stories, Pauline Ridley helpfully questioned my assertion that ‘we all do know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth’. She pointed out that ‘Unfamiliar stories, outside the listener’s experience, may take longer to penetrate before they ring true.’ This chimes with the information I have gathered about the different ways in which stories are told and used within different cultures. I should know better by now than to treat anything as widespread as stories as a single homogenous category, but clearly I have some way to go!

Damian Milton and Olumide Adisa on Twitter, and Hala Ghanem on the blog, all made the important point that we need to consider who is telling a story and whose stories are being told – and heard, and acted upon. Storytellers have power, and for some years researchers thought a good, ethical, use of our power was to use our stories to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people. More recently we have begun to see this as paternalistic and to recognise that others’ voices are not ours to bestow. Marginalised people already have perfectly good voices, which researchers might usefully amplify at times, by helping to ensure those voices are heard by people in power. One reason stories are useful for research is that a story poses and investigates a question. So does a research project, albeit in a different way, but the parallel is clear. Stories are useful for research in a multitude of ways: on funding applications, as data, in reports and presentations, among others. I’m not sure it would be possible to complete a research project without involving a story somewhere, somehow. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to try. My human brain is hardwired to create stories; I would rather recognise and acknowledge this, and work with it rather than against it. Bring on the stories!

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