I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Monday, May 09, 2005

Storytelling

A couple of years ago I organized a conference session on storytelling as a means to communicate anthropological findings in non-academic environments. Storytelling is central to anthropology as a discipline—not only do we all study some aspect of human story, the stories of the cultures we study are key to our understanding of them. Stories become mechanisms for collaboration and change, as well as carriers of history. But we don’t always stop to think about the stories we tell, even though anthropologists regularly use storytelling as a communication device. In order to be relevant in settings dominated by non-anthropologists, we must not only pass on the data we have gathered, but convey its importance and convince decision makers in business, design, development, public policy, environment, and a myriad of other fields. Constructing these stories involves editing and carefully choosing what to relay to our audience. Delivering the stories involves performance on many scales and with the help of tools. Stories are told in meetings, in the media, and in the world at large, though our voices, books, and slideshows and video. Stories are transformed as they move through different groups, audiences, and media. They expose the ways in which narrative influences our view of history and can change the future, and reflect on the impact of story on both what it means to be an anthropologist and how anthropology is seen by the outside world.

The session had some great participants, and I do have intentions of putting together an edited volume...once time allows...if you have an interest let me know...

6 comments:

charu said...

this is very interesting... in fact, these last few days there has been a debate in some Indian blogs over how important 'anecdotes' are - as opposed to 'hard data' / statistics.... in fact, I had written about using narratives / stories in research a long while ago... do check this post out in my old blog sometime - http://peekintomymind.blogspot.com/2003/09/stories-in-stone-and-more.html

Alex said...

Thanks for the link Charu...I really should do something with this narrative stuff (and will keep you in the loop if I do). I suppose this is another area where my interests collide, because the landscape of Vijayanagara is also a narrative landscape, considered by many to be the location of Kishkinda and many important events in the Ramayana.

Steve Portigal said...

I'd like to learn more about your conference session.

Tom Mulhern and I tried something similar at a workshop at About, With, and For this past year. Our workshop blurb is here (scroll down about 3/4 of the page).

We hoped to get people to tell stories that had implications for an audience, rather than just relating what they found interesting. It was really really hard for most people to do - they didn't seem to get it. I think the idea of just any kind of storytelling was novel enough that to focus on a more specific type of storytelling, without a common understanding of the basic skill rendered the task too challenging. At least to get very far in a 90 minute session. I think it's a critical issue, and I hope for another opportunity to take the discussion further.

Alex said...

Steve, your workshop looks like it would have been fun, it is interesting (though maybe not suprising) that the implications got a bit lost. We have been doing a great deal at work to practice and think about effective presentations, and I think a big part of it is to know why you are saying what you are saying...what message do you want to get across.

As for my session, we presented at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Chicago in 2003. I organized it with multiple goals. It kind of began with thinking about the fact that anthropologists spend a lot of time collecting stories, but really we also spend a lot of time telling stories too, and are maybe not so aware of that part (like your participants).

Then I also wanted to grow it away from the standard academic (read dry and sometimes inaccessible) mode of presenting findings, since we are so often communicating to non-anthropologists. The presentations were a little heavy on the anthrodesign side, but included some folks from other industries, non-profit, and academia. Unfortunately, AAA stuff is not available online, but I can send you the abstracts if you would like.

Steve Portigal said...

I'd like to see the abstracts, yeah. Ideally our workshop was a prototype, and as organizers we were deep into the topic area, and thought we could quicky bring our participants up to speed and move forward, but in fact, that wasn't the case. Probably a good learning for me about facilitation in those type of settings in general...

I'm steve at portigal dot com

Thanks!

Dina Mehta said...

Alex, i'm facilitating a session tomorrow with a bunch of people on Youth Themes here in India .. and i plan to use storytelling as part of the session...

I'd love to read your notes sometime ... do get the volume done :):):)