What’s in a name? The role of storytelling in participatory modeling

By Alison Singer

Alison Singer (biography)

That which we call a rose,
by any other name would smell as sweet.

That Shakespeare guy really knew what he was talking about. A rose is what it is, no matter what we call it. A word is simply a cultural agreement about what we call something. And because language is a common thread that binds cultures together, participatory modeling – as a pursuit that strives to incorporate knowledge and perspectives from diverse stakeholders – is prime for integrating stories into its practice.

To an extent, that’s what every modeling activity does, whether it’s through translating an individual’s story into a fuzzy cognitive map, or into an agent-based model. But I would argue that the drive to quantify everything can sometimes make us lose the richness that a story can provide.

Participatory storytelling isn’t new. But the field of participatory modeling is largely focused on moving beyond stories and into largely quantitative models, and I think that’s sometimes to its detriment. Sometimes I think we should go back to the roots of what makes humans social animals, and that is storytelling.

There is no doubt that storytelling is a powerful tool of persuasion, engagement, and trust-building, but it is one that scientists often shy away from. Science though, is inherently a narrative pursuit. As scientists, we identify problems or questions, and then we embark on a bit of a quest to find the answer. If you ask a scientist about his or her research, you will inevitably be told a story (often a long-winded one, as for a group of people who tend to disdain narrative in the written word, I have found scientists to be quite loquacious).

Participatory modelers believe that working with communities ensures that people with local knowledge, and those being impacted by socio-environmental problems, are a part of solving problems. But it can be difficult and time-intensive to teach a group of subsistence farmers how to create a system dynamics model. It’s useful, and it’s sometimes necessary, but it may be that simply letting them tell their stories, or develop a community story, is just as effective at understanding the dynamics of a problem and developing solutions to it. As modelers we are often experts in a certain tool, and we therefore use that tool in our research, but it can blind us to better ways of doing things.

Instead consider this: language is a way for us to model our shared reality so that we can communicate about it. In this sense, any utterance we make is a model, and if we make that utterance as part of a conversation with another person, we are part of a model-sharing process.

For most of our lives then, we are engaged in a participatory modeling process. While we often use models to test hypotheses, find the best solution for a problem, or integrate expert knowledge into data collection or decision-making, it may be that sometimes the best model is the simplest: a story. We are all experts in stories, and we are all therefore qualified to simply ask questions and listen to the answers.

Storytelling has been used particularly in public health fields as a way for community members to express their own narratives about their minds and bodies. An individual’s body and mind can never be fully understood by another person, so it makes sense that storytelling is a powerful way to express oneself in these contexts.

However, stories of disaster, of famine, of everyday life, of workplaces, of nature, are all important, as they are all experienced on an individual level. Collecting these stories from a community can create a powerful depiction of how that community lives, what they struggle with, and how they think about solving problems, which is the aim of participatory modeling in general.

A picture (or a model) is sometimes worth a thousand words, but a thousand words is sometimes worth listening to.

Have you explicitly used storytelling in any of your modeling work? If so, how and how did people react to it? And even if you haven’t gone out with the purpose of using stories in your participatory modeling work, it might be useful to reflect upon how you used stories without even meaning to, or how different communities have shared their stories differently. How does modeling help communities express their own narratives?

For examples of using storytelling in a research context see:
Njeru, J. W., Pattern, C. A., Hanza, M. M. K., Brockman, T. A., Ridgeway, J. L., Weis, J. A., Clark, M., Goodson, M., Osman, A., Porraz-Capetillo, G., Hared, A., Myers, A., Sia, I. G. and Wieland, M. L. (2015). Stories for change: Development of a diabetes digital storytelling intervention for refugees and immigrants to Minnesota using qualitative methods. BMC Public Health, 15: 1311. Online: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55368c08e4b0d419e1c011f7/t/573ba4cdb654f9dc21f97053/1463526606745/S4C.pdf (PDF 484KB)

Gubrium. A. (2009). Digital storytelling: An emergent method for health promotion research and practice. Health Promotion Practice, 10: 186-191. Online: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Aline_Gubrium/publication/24283142_Digital_Storytelling_An_Emergent_Method_for_Health_Promotion_Research_and_Practice/links/0a85e53458e19a8222000000.pdf (PDF 185KB)

Little, R., M. and Froggett. L. (2009). Making meaning in muddy waters: Representing complexity through community based storytelling. Community Development Journal45, 4: 458-473. Online: http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/3336/2/3336_Lynn%20Froggett_Making%20meaning%20in%20muddy%20waters.pdf (PDF 177KB)

Biography: Alison Singer is a PhD student in the department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. She is studying perception and decision-making, and how models can act as interventions to shift cognitive processes. She is a member of the Participatory Modeling pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the second meeting in October 2016 of the Participatory Modeling pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

9 thoughts on “What’s in a name? The role of storytelling in participatory modeling”

  1. Has anyone ever asked participants explicitly, “Tell me the story…” and then modeled what they say? What kind of model? How did you decide what to include as what marks on the page/screen?

    I sometimes model people’s stories as arguments using philosophy’s standard form notation. This helps me see how they are reasoning. B/c Alison is right, we all reason using stories. (Sense making!! https://i2insights.org/2017/03/02/making-sense-of-wicked-problems/ )

    • Bethany, can a story serve as a model itself? Do we need to model a story? I think your question about what kind of model and how to model a story is a great one (that I hope others can address), but I also want to push people to think of a story as a model. Full stop.

  2. I was recently tasked with creating a civic engagement process so communities understand their groundwater situation. It is a classic common pool resource issue as many stakeholders (often unknowingly) tap into a common aquifer. I ended up using the five story components (setting, actors, plot, issues and resolution) to lay out the science and social issues. I am in the early stages of applying it, but the reaction has been very positive as people get it. I am a big fan of collaborative governance models and so I use the four governance actor types (public and private policy-makers and practitioners) as a way for all stakeholders to identify their place in the story as individuals. Groundwater, aquifers, and governance are all invisible and the story method brings context to them.

    • Tim, this is a great example of how storytelling can be used to promote collective understanding. Thanks for sharing! I know it’s early, but have you found that any particular methods of story elicitation worked particularly well (or not)?

      • It is early in the process, so these are not fully applied, but we have the four actor type groups explain the risks they experience in aquifer management and also the information privy only to them that they feel can address those risks. Perhaps a bit of vulnerability and empowerment surfaces in those discussions.

  3. There is evidence that names matter- for people and products alike. Names can influence even academic success or cultural appropriation.
    Terms and stories can show the evolution of science, technology and society. Just watch old pictures and you can see how social norms and values influence the characters behavior and outcomes in different ways, even if the archetypes are the same (hero´s journey, for example).
    As far as I am concerned, I think that human evolution and adaptation is expressed in different ways- including changing definitions and perceptions …and stories. Some will have a very limited life span and others may last forever.

  4. Yes, capturing stories is helpful, on a very practical level, as this example illustrates: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/listen-to-peoples-stories-and-feedback.html (This little story is more about gaining evaluation than modelling, I suppose, but it does show the usefulness of stories — especially when they are acted upon when meaningful and relevant.) As for constantly changing definitions and perceptions making things moot — that could be applied to many other approaches and techniques. Just because something is subjective and prone to alteration does not make it useless. Anyway, the best stories have a timelessness to them: their key insights surviving differing cultures and ages. If they didn’t, Shakespeare’s ‘models’ would have been discarded centuries ago.

    • Thanks Dennis. Can you elaborate? The changes you refer to would alter other models as well as stories wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t it mean that, while stories have a limited time span when they are valuable, they are still useful?


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