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”