Using Narratives to Study Social Change

This post was contributed by Nelly Ali, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

“The narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.” (Barthes)

It is such a great feeling to leave an event and want to tell everyone you meet about what you just heard. The BISR, “Using Narratives to Study Social Change” was one of such events. Chairing was Professor Sasha Roseneil who started with a recollection of the first talk in the late 1980s by Molly Andrews, professor at the University of East London. It was at the end of the talk that I believe everyone in the room could understand Sasha’s words, “I left feeling so inspired, that I too could be and want to be part of the sociology world.”

Professor Andrews started her presentation with a basic conceptual framework; the opening slide was of a photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, littered with tents and political signs, a sight known to many of us familiar with the Occupy movement in London. From there she said that Occupy was one example (of many) in which the importance of political storytelling was evident, to participants and researchers alike.

Professor Andrews’s talk was split:

  • Part 1:Talking about Politics
  • Part 2: Contested Histories
  • Part 3: Retrospective Memories of a Critical Moment

But it was the political narratives, which Professor Andrews says highlight the complex relationship between micro and macro stories that she is  interested in and for which her research is well known. Professor Andrews generously shares data from her PhD where she interviewed activists who were 75-90 years-old now and by whom she was greatly inspired. She muses at those who had told her she would “grow out of demos”, she laughs saying, “I don’t think so, looking around and often being inspired to see any older people around”. Professor Andrews’s stories of friendships brought about through intensive narrative research were highlighted when she fondly remembers speaking at the funeral of one of the activists she spent a great deal of time with while interviewing.

One of the most incredibly inspiring aspects of this talk, and I am not sure whether this was intended, was that most of this data, was about women who made huge sacrifices for social change and justice. This is always a breath of fresh air where most focus is on men during this time.

During the discussion, the idea of “truth” was bought up, how reliable were these narratives? Professor Andrews reminded us that the meaning of truth is a complex one; the key issue is not one of objectifiable facts, but rather the meaning of a particular story, and why it is being told, in other words, the function of the story. This was excellently illustrated by a recollection of a dream one of her interviewees shared with her. The interviewee told Professor Andrews that when she was deciding to break the law in her protests, she dreamt of holding a heavy tray and as it got heavier, she looked under it and saw hands that were not her own, but instead, big, strong hands and she knew, in her heart that she was doing the right thing. This woman’s powerful narrative used the unreal (the dream) in a retrospective way of explaining what did actually happen; and this is what narrative research was interested in.

Professor Andrews also shared some of the challenges of conducting narrative research. Two examples she gave were 1) the challenge of accepting someone’s perspective on their life and not trying to convince them to see things otherwise; and 2); respecting people you interviewed who shared very different views than your own both during and after the interviews.

One thing Professor Andrews said that I will not forget about this method:  “We don’t sit around the fire telling stories, but we tell them to make change.”

Recommended reading:

  • Andrews, Molly (2008) Shaping History: Narratives of Political Change (Cambridge)
  • Andrews, M (1990/2008) Lifetimes of Commitment (Cambridge)

And forthcoming:

  • Andrews, M. (2013) Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life

More general readers on Narrative Research:

  • Riessman, Catherine Koehler (2008) Narrative methods for the Human Sciences London (Sage)
  • Andrews, M., Squire, C. and M. Tamboukou (eds)(2013)  Doing narrative research Second Edition London (Sage)

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