Stories

Currently, I’m reading chapter 8 in The Ethnographic I. It constantly astounds me how well the book is structured. How is it that someone can write a textbook using conversations in a classroom, and interactions with their students? Just beautiful. The chapter essentially talks about how increasingly social scientists are drawing on a number of different forms to express themselves, and the ways in which theory and analysis is embedded in autobiographical stories. These may include, art, photos diaries, personal essays and others. Knowing this is relevant for me because, I am currently at the point where I think it will be really useful to bring in some of the educational experiences I talked about in my second blog. As I read this chapter and through conversations with others, I am cautioned to not only be bold in bringing in this life history, but to also take time to explain its implications for positionality in my study through incorporating theory and some analysis.

 

Sandwiched Stories

In a section called Analysis in Storytelling in the above chapter, Caroline Ellis (2004) starts by saying “There is nothing more theoretical or analytic than a good story” (p. 194); and asks, “Do our stories evoke readers’ responses? Do they open up the possibility of dialogue, collaboration, and relationship? Do they help us get along with each other? Do they help us change institutions? Promote social justice and equality? Lead us to think through consequences, values and moral dilemmas?” (p. 195) These questions and more are exactly what I need to get the juices flowing as I craft the chapter on my educational experiences.

As mentioned, one way of doing more with stories is by bringing in theory. So on page 198, Ellis says, “you might focus on telling your story, then frame it with an analysis of the literature”. In this way one can bring up questions about that literature or question accepted theoretical notions, or even generate new ideas if you’re as cutting edge as I intend to be! So in this sandwich model, where a story is surrounded by theory and academic literature, Ellis claims that in her experience, her understanding of an issue increased when the story was layered with traditional analysis and connected to social science literature.

So how does one do this? An example that was presented showed that one can reflect on emotions, incorporate statistics, dissect and merge one’s role as a student and a researcher. Drawing on her husbands work, she continues; this layered text can then weave together a family death with “a theoretical discussion of how academics split the academic from the personal self”, with these disconnections leading to potential isolation and inhibit risk taking within academic disciplines (p. 199).

 

The Challenge

One of the challenges with such writing is in deciding what strategy to use when it comes to blending stories and theories. Some choose to combine both and seamlessly blur the two. Others choose to separate the story from traditional analysis. In this way, they “take readers deep into emotional detail”, hold them there, and only later bring in traditional theorizing” (p. 199). Others choose not to theorise at all, and rather embed the theories into the stories. Like most things, depending on the nature of the publication, the subject matter and the audience, each project will require a different strategy. In addition, one needs to finding the style with which they’re most comfortable. In other words, ‘finding your voice’.

I’m enjoying the journey towards finding my voice. I think much of this voice entails embedding as many ideas and experiences into rich stories told through poems, prose, plays or even songs; and then maybe spending some time deconstructing everything that’s going on in them. Because many of the poems I’ve written so far are often impulsive, almost instinctive and uncontrollable thoughts I feel the need to write, it has been interesting to go back and see what I was trying to say when I wrote them, and what it means for my work.

Importantly, the bread on the sandwich doesn’t necessarily have to be theory or analysis. It can be another story. For instance, a story of racism, analysed with another larger story of race relations. In this pursuit, it is important not to neglect the ‘ethno’ part of an ethnography or autoethnography. As much as one writes an autobiographical story, any final rendering needs to point towards “commonalities as well as the particularities of our lives” (p. 200). I don’t know the final form my stories and reflections will take, but like Valerie from my second post, I know it will be rich, critical and thoroughly engaging!