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On framing, the value of narrative and storytelling in scholarly research, and the importance of asking the “what is this a story of” question

Much of what I do here on my blog, when I teach courses and workshops on academic research and writing, and with my own students and thesis writers is help them frame their research, “sell their ideas”, and create a narrative that showcases their innovative approach to their research.

Last year, in October I visited the University of Bath to present a paper in progress on global water summits. After my talk, I had a chance to go for a walk around Bath with my dear friends Yixian Sun, Michael J. Bloomfield, and Alex De Coss Corzo. Alex and I were walking down the hill right in front of the Sham Castle when I clearly remember him helping me reframe my recently presented paper by asking the simple question “what is this a story of?” Alex’s query literally made me stop in my tracks and think how powerful this simple yet profound interrogation was. What story can my research tell? What am I trying to communicate to the audience? Which insights am I finding that make my research worth listening to and reading?

Thus I wanted to write a Twitter thread (to then make it into this blog pos) on framing, the value of narrative and storytelling in scholarly research, and the importance of asking the “what is this a story of” question that Anselm Strauss always asked from his students.

The “what is this a story of” question helps us more accurately frame our research.

Central Panel of the Storytelling Panel

Photo credit: Nancy White on Flickr, CC A-ND.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach research design, and research methods and methodology, particularly because I find that when everything is said and done in our research project, we may find ourselves scratching our heads and thinking “ok, I did this, what now?”

Making sense of a large project is always incredibly hard. I have experienced this with my three theses (undergraduate, Masters and PhD), and with several projects I’ve undertaken, as well as with two books I am trying desperately to finish this year.

“What is this a story of?”

Let me give you a few examples from a few fantastic books I have read.

In their 2020 book “Votes, Drugs and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico”, Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley deploy a mixed methods approach to tell a story of why violence rose through organized drug trafficking organizations during the process of democratization in Mexico. The story that Trejo and Ley tell is that electoral politics has emerged as a major driver of criminal violence. Their work extends other theoretical and empirical work, and tells a different story to what we are told. Telling a story that extends other works IS a contribution.

Another example, from Eduardo Moncada’s 2021 “Resisting Extortion: Victims, Criminals, and States in Latin America”. In his book, Moncada offers an analytical account of how different groups resist extortion through acts of everyday resistance, rather than engaging in direct violence, what he calls “the coproduction of order”. The story that Moncada offers (backed up by extensive fieldwork and data analysis, like the Trejo and Ley book) is one where his work offers a counter-intuitive example of resistance, and explains how and why these strategies emerge. It’s a story of non-violent survival.

Both books tell stories about criminal violence, backed by rigorous analyses and in-depth field research. These stories offer answers to questions that puzzle us.

Storytelling is important when we write a research paper, when we write a book or a dissertation or a thesis: “what is the story we are trying to tell” and “what is this a story of”, are the two questions Strauss would ask.

I liked this paper by Clarke and Star on Strauss and his approach to mentoring students. Knowing the story we are trying to tell is why I always ask my students and my thesis advisees: “what is this a story of? what does your work tell me that I would not have figured out by myself?”

In my view, research is about telling a story. With data, with theory, but it’s a story in the end.

We reveal things.

We explain concepts.

We make the complex legible.

Storytelling is an underrated skill in academic writing and scholarly research and I do hope that these reflections can be helpful to others trying to frame and make sense of their research.

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Posted in academia, research, research methods, writing.

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3 Responses

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  1. Esmeralda says

    Loved this, gracias! I am just starting my dissertation and this is was a huge help!

  2. Razib Paul says

    Delving into scholarly research, this piece underscores the pivotal role of framing, narrative, and storytelling. It urges academics to go beyond facts, emphasizing the profound impact of shaping data into a compelling narrative. The question, “What is this a story of?” becomes a guiding beacon, pushing researchers to extract meaningful insights and engage their audience. Recognizing that narratives transcend mere storytelling, the article advocates for a transformative approach in academic discourse. A captivating exploration into the synergy between data and narrative, challenging scholars to elevate their work through the art of storytelling in the pursuit of deeper understanding.

  3. Hazera says

    For months, I kept struggling to find a viable research problem and tried to delve into something that had yet to be answered. I am so wrong, oh my god. I forgot that I could pick a story that’s already been told and may offer an extension to it, may explain and delve deeper. My supervisor and I got frustrated with my hopeless quest to find the research questions. And then she mentioned your approach to how we can focus on telling a story, a story that will make us puzzled. I can not thank you enough for this.

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