Storying: A Workshop Report

by Fadhila Mazanderani and Malte Ziewitz

What is it to tell a story in social science research? What techniques, strategies and narrative devices are available and how can we make the most of them? What audiences do we write for and how are they configured in the text? While there is a plethora of writing on story-telling and narratives, we thought that it is about time to have a look at how we story in our research, how we turn experiences and observations into stories and weave them in our writing. Equipped with coffee, teacakes and croissants, ten junior scholars from STS, management studies, anthropology and geography got together bright and early for a workshop last Saturday to discuss and experiment with different modes of storying.

The goal of the workshop was to tackle some of these issues in a hands (and pens)-on fashion, using exercises and techniques from creative writing and seeing whether and how they could be made useful in the context of our various academic projects. As background reading and preparation we had picked two books that addressed different aspects of storying: Arthur Frank’s recent Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology and Laurel Richardson’s evergreen Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences.

The workshop

We split the workshop into two parts to highlight different aspects of storying. After a brief round of introductions, we started with the first exercise: Reading for Writing. We had selected five short excerpts from fiction and non-fiction writing as exemplars of different literary strategies. These included pieces by Amy Hempel, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antjie Krog, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Aravind Adiga. Every participant had been assigned one of these texts to look at it in greater detail and pay attention to how the story achieved what it achieved. On the day, we discussed our observations and related them to our own writing. Although all examples were from literary writing, the parallels were striking. Discussions revolved around the role of capitalizations (cf. ‘the Internet’), techniques of narrative linking, the question of how to story things that are hard to describe such as emotions and other absences in fieldwork and the benefits and pitfalls of addressing readers in certain ways.

Photo of table bell

An attention device for timing writing exercises.

In the second part, we took out pen and paper ourselves to engage in Styles of Writing. We started writing up a paragraph from our fieldwork. We then swapped these around and read out loud each other’s pieces. While this might sound scary, it is an incredibly useful technique for getting a different perspective on one’s text. Next, we had another 10 minutes to re-write another person’s piece as a very personal account. Again, some of these were read out loud. The final task was to re-write the piece again, but this time as a political manifesto. If you like the idea, you might also enjoy Exercises in Styles, a great little book by Raymond Queneau.

Some observations

To judge from people’s feedback, the workshop was not only very useful, but also great fun for aspiring (academic) writers. Some observations from the day:

  • While everyone had slightly different views on writing and what counts as a proper academic text, issues of storying were high up on everyone’s agendas. Whether you are about to craft an experimental self-exemplifying text or try to submit an article for a more conservative sociology or management journal, writing strategies and literary devices are equally useful.
  • Creative writing exercises can be intimidating. But once you get over the first draft, it is a lot of fun — up to a point where it was hard to stop.
  • Although people tend to distinguish sharply between ‘fiction’ and ‘academic’ writing, the boundary blurs in practice. For example, quite a few of the techniques employed in the literary texts led to insights and ideas for participants’ own projects.
  • We were surprised by the strong interest from anthropologists in the workshop and had wrongly assumed that these kinds of issues would be a standard part of their training.

If you are interested in this kind of workshop or have ideas for future events, please get in touch.

Workshop on Storying: Register Now!

by Malte Ziewitz

Registration is now open for our informal, hands-on, self-organized workshop on storying:

Saturday, 5 March 2011, 9.30am-1pm
James Martin Seminar Room, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

What is it to tell a story in social science research? What techniques, strategies and narrative devices are available and how can we make the most of them? What audiences do we write for and how are they configured in the text? How can we approach the often daunting yet essential task of academic writing? In this three-hour workshop, we will explore different story-telling strategies while asking how we can make them productive for our research projects.

The workshop is organized as an interactive experience. Rather than listening to lectures and absorbing theory, we will engage in a number of hands-on exercises. These include discussions on stories and storying, in which we apply and experiment with concepts from the background readings, alongside short writing and editing exercises. The overall goal is to learn from each other and explore with different modes of storying.

The workshop is open to anyone with an interest in story-telling. Anthropology, sociology, STS, geography, management studies – everyone is welcome.

Background readings:

Frank, A. (2010). Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Richardson, L. (1990). Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Qualitative Methodology Series.

Preparation: This workshop involves (some) work. In addition to the background readings, you will be asked to read a set of stories and review one of them for the group. Please bring pencil and paper. There will be breakfast and snacks.

Registration: To keep the group manageable, we will limit it to eight. Please sign up early by e-mailing the organisers.

Contact & questions:

Fadhila Mazanderani, fadhila.mazanderaniAToii.ox.ac.uk
Malte Ziewitz, malte.ziewitzATsbs.ox.ac.uk

The workshop is generously supported by the STS group at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Update: Thanks for all your interest! All places have been taken now, but we have an (unfortunately quite long) waiting list you can sign up for.

The (second) STS Talk-Walk: Storying – what is it to tell a story?

by Malte Ziewitz

What is it to tell a story? And how does this relate to the different kinds of research we are doing? Once again, a group of brave scholars set out for a two-and-a-half-hour STS Talk-Walk in the English countryside to discuss these and other challenging questions. In addition to the InSIS contingent, a number of people from other departments and universities joined us this time. Andreas, Lauren and Fadhila had made it over from the Oxford Internet Institute, and Andy had come all the way from Durham.

Dramatis personae

Dramatis personæ: STS scholars in the countryside

As usual, the talk-walk triggered interesting thoughts. One example were the ways in which storying turned out to be a useful trope for thinking about all kinds of research accounts. Story-telling, it was argued, is not just relevant for ethnography and what are sometimes called ‘qualitative’ approaches, but also more formal methods like surveys, econometrics or social network analysis. Each of these cases requires a set of characters, a plot and a narrative point of view to be written up. Another focus were the different layers of storying. As ethnographers, for example, we tend to pick stories from our fieldnotes, weave them into a larger story for the argument and at the same time try to craft a story about ourselves as smart and capable authors. We further talked about techniques of storying, including sequencing, interruption and suspense. We got increasingly puzzled when wondering what actually distinguishes a good novel from a good ethnography. And we talked about our difficulties in imagining and coordinating different audiences. What does it mean to be ‘honest’ in storying? How to end a story and achieve some form of closure? And whose stories are they anyway?

Interestingly, the stories told after the talk-walk had less to do with the intricacies of story-telling than with the thick crust of mud on our shoes. We had just passed Wolvercote when we were confronted with an ‘obligatory passage point’: a big and muddy puddle opened up in front of us and blocked our way. As you can see, some of us mastered this challenge with unexpected elegance.

Passage point

Chris mastering an obligatory passage point

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 December 2010, 2-4.30pm. More info here.