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stories

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).

The Danger of Stories

David Evans's picture

Who doesn’t love a great story? In development, we have wonderful stories to tell. We tell stories about children going to school because of cash transfers in Tanzania and about women in Costa Rica who are empowered through their jewelry businesses. The World Bank recently sponsored a day of development storytelling. Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch recount the following story of a microcredit borrower from Mexico:
 

“Consider the story of Mrs. Braulia Parra, who lives with a family of seven in a poor neighborhood in Monterrey, Mexico, in a home with cardboard walls and dirt floors. Illiterate and inexperienced in the workplace, Mrs. Parra took her first $150 loan from ADMIC, a local microlender. The loan allowed her to buy yarn and other sewing supplies to make handsewn decorations. Each week she sells about one hundred handmade baskets, dolls and mirrors, going door-to-door in her neighborhood. After ten loans, Mrs. Parra had earned enough to install a toilet in her modest home, as well as an outdoor shower. Building a second floor was next in her sights.”

These stories inspire us, but we have to be careful. Stories are dangerous.