Thursday 13 June 2013

Arthur Frank at the 'Research that lets stories breathe' workshop at UCLan

The following are my rough notes of Arthur Frank’s presentation this morning at a one day workshop on narrative based social science research (socionarratology). As before, Frank spoke very fluently to written notes and it was hard not to think that, as a narrative theorist, he also rather enjoys telling stories.

I was struck by his comments at the end. He has a reasonably restrictive view of what a story is. It must have plot, character, suspense and require imagination of the listener. So the comments part way through the talk that stories play, in effect and not that he put it this way himself, the role of concepts in a Kantian account - a precondition for the world making any kind of sense - are all the more striking. (At the risk of flogging a dead horse, the dilemma for narrative approaches to social science is that either one offers a substantial but restrictive view of stories or narratives but thus limits the application of the approach to many social phenomena (which will not involve stories so understood) or one lets pretty much anything count as a story but in which case the approach threatens to blur with any other qualitative form of social science or understanding.) Since Frank thinks that the concept of story is restrictive (there are definite membership conditions) but also that experience must be - transcendentally, as it were - structured by or as just such a story to be so much as intelligible, then that is a brave claim.

The talk

“In research there is a key question of priority of what to do and why one is doing it, its objectives. The former will seem needlessly complicated unless latter is decided. What’s a story? The answer is dark and deep. There is no easy relationship between humans and stories.

The talk will consider two popular culture quotations.

First, a verse from the 1960s pop song ‘Pack up your sorrows’ by the folk duo: Richard and Mimi Farina which came to mind recently.

‘If somehow you could pack up your sorrows and give them all to me,
You would lose them.
I know how to use them.
Give them all to me.’

Typically, subjects of narrative analysis have sorrows, are sick. Some have become competent practiced story tellers. Others are unaccustomed. We make a sort if promise that we know how to use them and that they will lose sorrow. Interviews are a form of offing of oneself as a sympathetic witness.

To do research is at some point to lose the thread. At such points, one needs a simple statement to get back on track. Ask: who am I? The song offers an answer to that. (Currently sceptical of the template of academic journals to meet this idea.)

Three ways of lightening sorrows.
1: by just listening. Just doing the interview. Giving attention. Hence having little by way of interview guide, though not listening without judgement.
2: by amplifying stories. Academics have a public voice. Hence can give credibility to the people whose voice may otherwise get post. Cf Bernie Carter’s work on children or in an example to which we will return later, homeless people.
3: connect people’s voices to each other. Researchers hear many voices. All research is inherently comparative. Cf C Wright Mills: task of sociology is to connect personal trouble to social issues.
None of these tasks requires much analysis. Pretty basic stuff. Most mileage when really basic. Stories dark and deep, but also learnt by children.

Second popular quotation, from Terry Pratchett:

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped spacetime, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling . . . stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.
Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.
It takes a special kind of person to fight back, and become the bicarbonate of history.

No analysis of stories can teach you what you, as a person, are not prepared to learn. Socionarratology aims to level the playing field between the idea that people shape stories and the reverse idea that stories shape people. Both are true.

Experience depends on us already knowing stories. The normal idea is that the experience comes first and then its telling in a story. That leaves out the idea that stories precede experience. But then they make a second entrance. (The real trickster in a story is the story itself.) Stories pull patterns out of the chaos of life: the things that happen, the real, the blooming buzzing confusion. The primary work of stories (the work of stories not persons) is to turn the chaos into something symbolically representable which can then be evaluated. Who acted well, and badly, who made choices, who had bad luck?

We don’t, strictly speaking, have experiences but rather discover them out of the confusion in which we are immersed. So narrative analysis should ask what stories people already knew which made it possible for them to have that experience. The story of most interest isn’t the subsequent telling but the story that makes the experience possible. One could not, eg., see anything sensible whilst driving through the countryside unless one already had a story of so driving.

Pratchett: stories exist independently of their players. The story shapes the person. The researcher also a player in a story. Knowledge is power. So how are we to make that power work for us and empower the people we study? It would be going too far to say that one can take control of one’s story. That is a popular phrase but not possible. Better to think of being able to say ‘no’ to particular stories. Hence socionarratology is closely tied to narrative therapy. It can help people say no by opening up reflective understanding of the stories in which people are players. So a degree of choice by understanding what different stories - eg. a patient story - requires of one.

Pratchett: stories as “great flapping ribbons of space time”
Cf Bakhtin in the 1920s on chronotope. Time and space.
Cf the clinic. Combines time and space.
Stories don’t just describe cronotopes but are also cronotopes. Children learn stories to
Cf Frank Kermode’s ‘Sense of an ending’. Stories humanise time.

One should always distinguish the work people do from the work stories do. The total is ‘holding their own’. For humans, it is to sustain dignity in the face of adversity. The first step of which is creating order out of chaos, to humanise time and space. Chaos is having no narrative.

Narrative analysis studies how people are holding their own, against forms of adversity. Three aspects to the work:
1: stories describe people holding their own. Medium.
2: telling the story is a means of holding one’s own. Means.
3: stories get in the way of people holding their own. Either their own or other people’s.

But if stories shape people, resiliency depends on internalising helpful stories. People are the agents (NB not agency in the active sense) / players of stories and the stories hold their own.

Empirical example: effects of multigenerational unemployment. 6 months of unemployment significantly drop chances of getting a job. So employment stories grow thin because they are not told and so people don’t configure their worlds that way. Ie don’t have the narrative capacity to become players in employment stories. Stories as deeply etched grooves. People tend to slip into stories, such as patient stories, because they are deeply etched. It is rare to resist.

Narrative analysis seeks to determine which story are empowering and which are dangerous. Cf Pratchett’s comment about the king’s third son. People are experts on their own lives, they know their own stories. But they often don’t know which are good and bad for them. They know what they are doing, but not what their doing does, to echo Foucault.

Since stories shape people, the stories don’t care who takes part. That’s part of the Pratchett quote and he also talks of parasites but ‘symbiosis’ seems a better word. Stories still needs people to tell them and hence needs them as hosts. Pratchett shares a weak theory of human agency with most social science. So when someone tells you a story, you should ask how the story is using the person who tells it to get fatter. This is a problem for the researcher though not the storyteller. Weak agency isn’t entirely bad news because stories help us in three ways:
1: they keep us company
2: show us useful ways to act
3: give us courage to act.

Socionarratology is more pedagogical than analytic since the latter require an object whereas the former a dialogue. As researchers we need to take seriously what we study. Cf Actor Network Theory. It takes physical stuff in labs very seriously. Scientists may use equipment but so also the equipment uses the scientist. The aim is to take stories as seriously as ANT theorists take equipment. Further, just as ANT authors like Latour don’t give clear guidance on how to do ANT, so socionarratology needn’t offer prescriptive guidance.

A good example of socionarratology is the book ‘My dog always eats first’ by Leslie Irvine.

Irvine visited homeless people with companion animals – dogs – going with vets, who were trusted by the owners and hence could gain access. The book describes the kinds of story people tell as types. Two, among others, are: protection narratives and redemption narratives.

In former, the dog scares off someone who threatens the storyteller. In redemption stories, the dog can play one of two roles. The storyteller starts off with self destructive behaviour. In some, the animal is taken away leading to its loss or death. And that gives the teller the resolve to give up the behaviour. A kind if sacrifice. Or, a variant, the animal stays but provides motivation for self care and hence care for the animal. Although there could be any number of possible eventualities for homeless people to experience, still only a finite number of deeply etched grooves are followed. The story grows fat. In some, speaking parts are even ascribed to the dogs. The dog tells the owner not to smoke and drink, for example.

Irvine found that there were various kinds or degrees of homeless living. She sketches some ideal types of homelessness. And she found that for these different types, there were distinct kinds of stories told. So ‘travellers’ – one kind of homelessness – did not tell protection stories. We may not think of homelessness as a coherent plot. But Irvine shows that there is a collection of narratives that makes this possible.

This is not always true. In Nazi concentration camps, the conditions were so ‘assaultive’ that no narratives could survive or be formulated. Homelessness may be bad but it isn’t Auschwitz. It admits narrative formulation.

Note that Irvine does not try to synthesis a metanarrative. She does not flatten out differences or formulating a common synthetic story. We should attend to the different stories. But there aren’t usually very many stories.

A symbiosis between the homeless person, the animal and the story that allows them to be the kind of person they are. Companion story as well as animal.

Irvine also found her subjects to be moral actors with strong operational conceptions of the good, towards which they are orientated. Hence ‘my dog always eats first’ is a statement of moral competence, an Aristotelian telos. Irvine shows how the stories, about the good, are also the means of living more organised lives than might otherwise be available.

By the end of the book, the apparent difference of AF and the homeless is lessened.”

(In questions Frank said that he was not really offering on ontology of stories as mind-independent entities. (I suggested that like ANT he might be saying something false in order to say something else true.) Rather, his way of speaking, echoing Pratchett, was a pragmatic way of carrying out sociological research. So my postscript here seems right after all.Some closing remarks ran thus:)

“Not everything is a narrative. Not all narratives are stories though all stories are narratives. Stories have characters, plots, suspense. They can go one way or another way. They invoke imagination. If there is no imagination needed to understand the speaker, it isn't much of a story. So we have first to ask, do we have narrative? Sometimes people just don't tell stories.

If you begin ethnographic contact with a subject ask: whose agenda predominates? Signing a consent form, one declares an agenda. So there are difficulties in asking an omnibus question such as 'tell us tell me how your life is going'. One can warn the subject that the agenda is thus and so but will come to an end and then one will invite a further account.

There is a huge difference between information and stories. People may be more or less reluctant story tellers. If they are reluctant, one – as a researcher – may need to coach then on the basis of a prior knowledge of what makes a good story. Lay guides to story telling can be good social science interview guides too.

Frank is, these days, interested mainly in the narrative itself. Narrative analysts need to share this interest for a while. One needs to read and think about lots of stories from a lot of sources so that one can later ask: who tells this kind of story. One cannot tell where the deeply etched grooves are from a limited selection.

Finally, what of the question ‘where am I in this?’ The passive mood is very poor social science. The researcher is there taking up space and so should feel free to use the word ‘I’. Frank wrote a memoir and this gets telling his own story out of the way. Hence his research isn't about him. Not a fan of autoethnography”

Thursday 6 June 2013

A manifesto for philosophers marking social science PhDs?

I had the privilege to act as the internal examiner for my colleague Karen Wright today. Following a unanimous recommendation in the pre-viva reports, the two externals (Michael Coffey (pictured) and Theo Stickley) and I also agreed a recommendation of a PhD award with minor corrections. (Of course, this is just a recommendation to the degree awarding powers of the University, as we emphasised with due correctness.)

Now it is a feature of PhDs at my university that the director of studies is often present as a silent witness to proceedings and after today’s happy occasion the DoS, my rather excellent colleague Gill Thomson, commented, in the nicest possible and uncritical way, that she thought that I had given her student something of a grilling. This might be, she conceded, in part a feature of her own perception and position: hearing but unable to respond to questions. But I suspect that it is more likely the action at a distance of the philosophical habit of thinking that the nicest way to greet a colleague's birthday festschrift collection is to give them a good kicking and then publish the result. But it prompts me to ask, what should a philosopher do in a social science PhD viva. What should be our manifesto?

It may be easier to approach this from the contingency of PhD work in my School. We like to ground empirical work exploring the experiences of patients or health-workers in a methodological framework which owes something to some dead German philosophers. I 'll assume that this is standard. (My external colleagues today suggested that it wasn’t, in fact, but I will ignore that detail for the moment.) If so, what should we, fairly applied philosophers, do in vivas?

Here’s my suggestion though first I want to reserve the right to do anything appropriate. Like the academic contract which finishes with the comment: ‘and any other reasonable request of the head of department’ no manifesto should be restrictive of what is best in local particular circumstances. Phronesis rules. But the paradigm role might be something like this:

To take the descriptions of the framework within which empirical findings are presented and explore what is meant by the student by them.

Part of this approach is that one should not attempt to ‘combat’ an invocation of Heideggerian phenomenology, for example, by bringing to bare what Wittgenstein might say, had no mention been made of him. (Here is a contrast with my role in a philosophy PhD viva.) So the idea is to take only things which are there in the text and invite a clarification of what they mean to the author in the light of other things written. The manifesto idea is that there is no need to do anything more than that. Further, one can learn something from the resolute reading of Wittgenstein in this sense: the role is not to police the limits of sense by ruling out some things as obviously nonsense or foolish but to offer an immanent critique in a standing invitation to the candidate to explain what might be meant by them by even non standard combinations of words.

In fact, I think that this is pretty much what I do as a philosopher in residence in a school of health. Surely, therefore, there is no ‘grilling’ involved? Just reflecting on what students have written in their own words, reflecting it back to them and inviting them to make sense of what they themselves have said. Pussy cat stuff, really.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Nature and artifice at Center Parcs

Against my expectations – my wildest expectations, perhaps – of a couple of days before, I spent the weekend at Center Parcs (a half term weekend, what’s more). There was a reason: good company and my partner’s god-motherly duties coupled with unexpected contingencies. But it gave me a second opportunity (after about ten years) to experience a peculiarly domesticated version of nature and to reflect on how it isn’t so very unusual in the UK with its couple of millennia of close living and domestication of the the natural environment.

For those who don’t know, Center Parks is a kind of middle class re-invention of a working class holiday camp. Butlins and Pontins were situated at seaside resorts. Cabins, access to the beach, and red coated entertainment officers made for a dense package which flowed and then ebbed in the 1970s with the growth of cheap package holidays to countries with more reliable sun. Center parks arrived from Europe in the 1980s as a less vulgar and more subdued version in which the entertainment focus had been diluted with a bit of Thoreau. Cabins were now cleverly hidden from one another. Entertainment was more subdued: redcoats now bird knowledgeable wardens. The specific climax of the beech transformed into a more general atmosphere of woodland.

So a weekend at one of the handful of Center Parcs in the UK is a weekend in a cabin in the woods. There is a surprising volume of birdsong. Deer wander through the trees. Rabbits and birds are oddly close to hand. It is an encounter with nature for people living in the great urban density of the UK. 

I should say that there is range of other things to do aside from bump into nature, under some understanding of it. With enough money, one might spend most of the day playing sport, practicing archery, playing on quad bikes etc. The key – free once there – element of all the venues is a substantial swimming pool with water slides, rapids wave machines etc. But despite all this, the architectural packaging of the site is as an encounter with nature. Everyone rides bicycles around a car free zone on paths through woods.

And that prompts the question: what kind of conception of nature is available? I want to add two comparisons.

1: Yosemite. Weirdly, Center Parks is a bit like Yosemite. Both have a dense area of accommodation. Both try to balance commercial facilities – bars etc – with a nature orientation. At both, people who might normally spurn public transport delight in free, centrally provided shuttles. But there is a big difference. Wander outside the accommodation area at Yosemite and you stumble into Ansel Adams territory. Nature with a capital N. Break through the boundary fence at Center Parks and you arrive in the middle of the surrounding agricultural farmland. So the play with nature is somehow more artificial.

2: The Lake District. The English Lake District is in no sense a wilderness. (No part of the UK really is,  with the possible exception of Knoydart in Scotland.) It is not the result of nature alone. The landscape, pretty though it is, is the result of a mix of farming, quarrying and small scale industry (eg explosives). Still, it does not derive from a conception of what countryside should look like but from an evolution of the landscape. So it isn’t so directly artificial.

Having run round the perimeter of Center parks, I returned home to do a similar length run on Scout Scar in the evening (about 7km). In the former case, the run stretched my suspension of disbelief, partly because it made me bump up against the perimeter fence (no doubt the focus of attention in a dystopian novel) and thus emphasised the artificial. On the Scar, the natural boundary of the cliffs give a view of 20 miles into the Lake District. Although without human intervention it would, no doubt, be wooded (like all the now bare Cumbrian fells) and is thus an artificial environment, its vegetation kept in check by sheep and a herd of Galloway, it is unbounded, the location fixed by geology rather than commercial planning. And this seems to be what makes Center Parks seem to be playing - albeit very successfully - at being in nature. Wander in any direction and one can look out at what seems more real, prior, beyond it and thus realise that it is merely plonked into the surrounding countryside in four places in the UK and 22 in the rest of Europe.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Garrath Williams on the claims that actions make

I will try to summarise Garrath Williams’ stimulating presentation at the UCLan philosophy research seminar this week and then frame my lingering doubts as to whether I really understood the main idea. (The bitty style is the result of taking notes, not the presentation.)

The main claim seemed to be that actions enact normative claims and thus, through actions, normativity is introduced into the world. That slogan was meant to diverge from a conventional view in which actions are distinguished from mere movements by a machinery of mental states (eg the beliefs and desires which cause it, on the familiar Davidsonian view). On Williams’ view, the action itself and the claim it makes are closer. It was also supposed to fit better a view of the moral significance of action (and that seems to be the species of normativity in the idea that an action enacts a normative claim). If someone has moral authority, then she exercises this in all she does and says.

The presentation had three sections.
One, on the Kantian heritage of the claim and some potential objections to it.
Two, two motivations and two arguments for thesis.
Three how objections can be accommodated. I will try to summarise these in turn.

Section 1: The Kantian background. 

Viewing actions as normative claims is a Kantian idea. It recalls the idea that connects what is good with enacting a maxim. On Williams’ view, each action advocates a piece of advice but this idea can be separated from the more inflationary metaphysical baggage of the traditional Kantian picture. Being a responsible person involves making normative claims and counter claims. Being a responsible person is a non-natural fact: a matter of mutual recognition. (I wasn’t sure whether this made it a purely attributive notion or whether the attribution was correct in virtue of something independent of it. There is a similar issue, though not about norms, in Dennett and Davidson. But he did say that he wished to play up inter subjective factors and be less psychologistic than conventional accounts.)

Four objections:
1: we don’t have a maxim in mind, so the account is psychologically implausible.
2: many actions dont seem to follow maxims or make claims. So it is normatively extravagant.
3: effects may go missing by contrast with maxims, ie not material enough.
4: even when action does raise issues, it is often hard to work out what the claim is. Diverse possibility of interpretation of action.

Section 2: Two motivations and two arguments.

The two motivations ran as follows:
1: if actions make or enact a norm claim then there is a quick link to why they call out for moral assessment. Cf the connection between beliefs and truth.
2: if an action counts as a false claim then it calls for rebuttal. Hence we have a reason to ask whether it contributes to the framework of norms we share and to people responsible in order to rebut wrong claims. 

The two arguments ran:
1: What matters is not the psychology of the doer but the relation to audience. Normally an action enacts a normative claim because it is the way others learn where we stand as agents.

2: Consider the example of walking down the pavement without looking where one is going. This suggests that one thinks that others have a duty to get out of the way. Even the solitary act of buttering toast in one’s kitchen is a claim that one is allowed to use one’s possessons and hence that others have a duty not to interfere. Even innocent actions implicate others. (But, Williams conceded, it would go beyond the data to say that the agent is committed to property rights. ) Psychologically, agents may not want to make claims about others. But no responsible person is entitled to make that refusal. They have no choice but to create a normative framework. So each agent is duty bound to contribute to upholding norms. So if their actions rely on various conditions, then they may be understood as claiming that.

Section 3: The four objections again.

1: the account isnt meant to be psychological. We take for granted that people reveal their commitments. That actions set precedents.

2: what of trivial actions? Not as trivial as they seem. There’s a wider normative context. But the normative claims of trivial actions is not relevant to others. It is not other people’s business to ask what the actions mean.

3: take the example of common assault. The agent of an assault has made an extraordinary claim about the victim. Intuitively, the agent has to retract the claim by acknowledging effects. So effects do not go missing on the account.

4: problems of interpretation. But that is true of any account. It is a basic fact of social life. The meaning of action is often hard to make out. Normative claims of private actions whatever norm they do express are not challenging others.

In a final comment, I think I heard Williams to say that the central claim is also a kind of normative injunction: not just that actions do enact claims but we should treat actions as enacting norms.

All this left me with the following worry. If I heard the claim correctly, the thesis was about the meaning or content of actions, their intentionality. In other words, whilst Williams rejected the mechanics of inner states that is often taken to explain the content or the intentionality of actions, he was in the same general area of the ‘phenomenology’ of distinguishing or articulating just what an action is (for example, a flicking of a switch and also - because in order to achieve - a turning on of a light but not, qua intentional action, an alerting of an unknown prowler; the agent will not say that that is what she was doing). But if so, first, why take the claim to be making a normative claim as opposed to a descriptive one? Here are two ways to make that vivid, though I suspect Williams will not be happy with either set up.

On the Davidsonian picture, the intention of an action derives from two aspects: a belief and a normative pro-attitude. Now even if we think that there need not be two inner mental elements corresponding to this, the face validity of the picture is that, often at least, two such dimensions can be articulated in the reasons for an action. So why insist that the claim which an action makes is just the normative side?

I can imagine that Williams might respond to this thought like this. Even on this standard Davidsonian picture, there is an all out judgement that such and such an act is desirable enough to be done, or, just, is to be done. That stems from the beliefs and desires of the agent but is itself a judgement with normative force. Hence the normativity of the claims that actions make. However, Williams stressed the generality of the claims that actions make in saying that they give advice and in connecting them to a Kantian background. By contrast, the all out judgement is particular (tied to this action), not general, so it cannot be the normative claim Williams was talking about. And if, instead, the claim an action makes is one of the potentially general elements that motivate that particular normative judgement, my question remains: why pick the normative rather than the descriptive element?

Second, take the example of a species of action: an act aimed at communicating something such as the whereabouts if a hidden cat either by pointing at the bookshelves or by saying “the cat is on the shelves”. What claim does such an action make? What is the content of the action? Williams would point out that to make the claim is to take oneself to be justified so to do and a host of other connections (that others should attend, that their prior questioning commits them to listening to the answer etc). But surely the obvious candidate for the claim made is none of those but rather that that is where the cat is?

The further advantage of this more traditional view is that it helps sidestep the question of just which of the eternally ramifying network of norms that make a claim possible should a particular act be thought of as making. That entire network may be necessary for the content of a particular act, but why think that the act claims it to be so?