By Alison Singer
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 Journal, 45, 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).