“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” Robert McKee

In the Western tradition of social science research, objective fact has long been valorized over subjective experience and quantitative data over qualitative. Conventions of social science methodology have revolved around the twin imperatives of impersonality and freedom from bias. In this paradigm, the researcher is held responsible for maintaining objectivity.

First person testimony

Recently, the value of first person testimony, of individual experiences and perspectives – of narrative research practices, in fact – has started to gain traction and respectability among academics, and policy analysts, who are interested in the importance of narrative in all aspects of life and society. An international conference held at the University of Victoria, British Columbia in June brought together a diverse group of such academics, policy folk and community-based researchers – as well as some professional storytellers. Narrative Matters 2016: How Narrative Research Transforms People and Communities was devoted to championing the role of qualitative data – and especially storytelling and story gathering – in social science research and policy development. Over two days, conference delegates explored such topics as:

  • How do stories and conversations shape our personal lives and our communities?
  • How can personal stories influence future policies and practice?
  • How is healthcare informed by stories of self-identity or cross-cultural knowledge?
  • Can telling stories help the disempowered or vulnerable to develop a sense of empowerment and agency?
  • What is the role of the researcher as an interpreter and creator of stories?

If you’re thinking about increasing your use of narrative research methods in your own research or program evaluation activities, consider the following takeaways about storytelling and story gathering from the Narrative Matters conference. These are insights that I will use to inform (and expand) the research I do with individuals who are facing complex challenges, including experiences of violence and trauma, and social and economic exclusion.

The power and potential of telling, gathering and sharing personal narratives

  • Narratives play a part in constructing, shaping and informing humanity. They can expand our sense of the possible and enrich our available resources for understanding and articulating our own experiences.
  • We are “self-interpreting animals”. We make sense of our lives by gathering experiences into a narrative. Storytelling can be a radical act of self-determination and self-identification.
  • Narrative is a form of social interaction and social connection. A story creates a world that lies between people, in which people can relate to each other or be bound together.
  • Narrative can cultivate a capacity for empathy and perspective awareness. Through listening to someone’s story, we have an opportunity to understand the horizon from which that person sees and experiences the world.
  • The story of who we are changes every minute. We need opportunities to unpick and reframe our stories, to make sense of who we are now. When we are hurt, two selves need healing – our physical self and our narrative self.
  • Personal stories give vulnerable people (those who are dealing with illness, with poverty, with trauma, with exclusion) a voice. Narrative forms enable them to articulate the unsayable – to use metaphor and metonymy to contain an (extreme) experience in something that can take form. This has healing potential.
  • The more subjective perspectives we have, the closer we get to objective knowledge.