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Narratives

A Storied Approach to Capacity Development

Sheila Jagannathan's picture

Engaging individuals to share their knowledge and learning on development challenges and solutions with the wider community is a core value of  the WBG’s Open Learning Campus.  In this context the story is often a powerful learning tool.  This idea is not a new one; in fact, stories have been a universal form of knowledge transfer for over 100,000 years as a way of connecting people and creating a common perspective on social, economic, political and cultural issues that they care about.

However, the above statements apply only to effective storytelling, which requires sustained  engagement with the community, and adequate influence over the learning and knowledge accretion process of the community. Research has shown that information alone—even critically valuable information—without the context, relevance, and engagement provided by effective story structure—is markedly ineffective in changing core attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (in influencing).

#1 from 2014: Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not

Heather Lanthorn's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on January 23, 2014

 

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

In this post, I try to make the case that there are important potential distinctions between anecdotes and stories/narratives that are too often overlooked when discussing qualitative data, focusing on representativeness and the counterfactual. Second, I suggest that just because many researchers do not collect or analyse qualitative work rigorously does not mean it cannot (or should not) be done this way. Third, I make a few remarks about numbers.

Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

Outlaw, Sheriff, Posse...Showdown

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In countless movies about America's wild, wild west- - think about the many classic westerns you've seen -- the story follows a familiar pattern. There is a town known as, say, Tombstone where law-abiding citizens go about their daily lives. Outlaws ride into town. They steal, pillage, plunder, kill and maim. Then they ride out of town -- hard. The sheriff, furious, gathers a body of armed citizens on horseback. They are known as the posse. The posse rides out of town, determined to catch the outlaws. It is a hunt. The posse hunts down the outlaws, and there is a showdown. The bad guys are killed or unceremoniously hanged. Justice is deemed served. The sheriff and his posse ride back into town as the music picks up. Citizens welcome them joyously. They are heroes. The moral order is restored, and all is well.

Since the unceremonious dispatching of Osama bin Laden and the huge, visceral reactions to the event by the citizens of the United States - also known as 'a fist pump' moment -- I have been thinking about all my favorite wild, wild west movies. The modern posse is, of course, no longer a group of citizens, but Navy SEALS with superlative skills. And the modern outlaw is a terrorist from another tribe but one able to kill thousands. And the sheriff? Well, who would have believed who the modern sheriff turns out to be!