There’s truth in lies

Narrative writing is becoming more commonly used in the social sciences, a trend based partly on the widespread dissatisfaction with more traditional means of representation, and partly on the power of stories and storytelling as a medium for exchange, engagement, reflection, and learning.

However, this form of representation has its own critics. Some say it is dishonest, that an academic writer’s job is not to construct a narrative, but to re-tell the stories they are told through their research exactly as they are told them, in their originators own words. Others say narratives are a cloaking device with which a researcher can write themselves out of the story, making the interpretations therein appear self evident.

These are both valid concerns. The first critique is a little naive, as it imagines that stories can be re-told without the use of some kind of textual apparatus. All academic writing must have some purpose, some argument to make, and to be well received by peers and publishers academics should make arguments clearly evident, logical and coherent. Yet people do not tend to tell stories about themselves in the form of an argument, and logic and coherence are certainly not always present. Academics are expected to make contributions to knowledge through their writing, which involves the use of other stories, histories and theories. These are all appendages to the story itself. Their use involves interpreting the story told and translating it into a different language. Thus, stories re-told are always already re-created. Nevertheless this is an important critique in reminding the storyteller to remain faithful to their participants, and to attempt to tell the truth of their situation through their storytelling.

The second critique is important as it describes one of the major problems with many of the traditional tools of academic research, which have historically been used in an attempt to objectify stories in an impartial, value-free manner, and remove the ‘I’ of the researcher. The fact that narratives have emerged partly as a response to this traditional discourse, does not ensure that they achieve something better. This achievement can only be made with ongoing work on the part of the author to make clear their interpretive path; to ‘objectify the objectification’ to use Bourdieu’s phrase.

The key to narrative is activation; for a story to be believable, its characters must appear human, capable of taking an active part in their own destiny, and yet constrained in this activation. Their choices must come with conditions, their opinions must have contexts, their interests must be conflicted.

Thus, central to the construction of a good story is characterisation. This is true across many different forms of storytelling. In his introduction to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explains that a large part of his novel is not, in fact, a novel, as the first 300 or so pages of his 700 page book are concerned with providing the back stories to the actual novel which follows it. This is similar to the characterisation work that writers for the stage and screen have to accomplish before they can begin the script itself; detailed back stories have to be created for each character – and learned by each actor attempting to bring them to life.

Characterisation therefore presents a thorny issue to contemporary academic writing. To write a characterisation; an exhaustive account of what makes a person tick, would likely be an unjustifiable stretch of representation – for who is an academic, or anyone else, to take all the complex, conditional details of a person’s life, heart and soul, and order them into a coherent narrative? Oddly enough, such accounts are found everywhere in highly influential accounts of personality types and the like.

Are you a firefighter or a completer-finisher, a Type A or  a Type B?

So who are academic writers to take on this work? Behind this question lies a more fundamental one: What are the objectives of academic research and writing? If, as is conventionally understood, an academic writer is concerned with truth, then in the wake of several waves of critical enquiry over the past 80 years or so from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, then there may well be no steady ground for the academic-writer-truth-seeker on which to find footing. If, on the other hand, ‘truths’ are understood as multiple, political, conditional, dynamic and situated, then the academic-writer-truth-problematiser is liberated from such unnecessary and inappropriate mantles as objectivity, value-freedom, and truth, and is free to make temporary, cautious sketches; a particular truth of a particular situation. The characters sketched herein are best understood as such.


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