Bent Flyvbjerg on “Storytelling”

The Irreducible Quality of Good Case Narratives

With respect to intervention in social and political affairs, Abbott (1992) has rightly observed that a social science expressed in terms of typical case narratives would provide “far better access for policy intervention than the present social science of variables” (p. 79). MacIntyre (1984) similarly said, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (p. 216). Several observers have noted that narrative is an ancient method and perhaps our most fundamental form for making sense of experience. 8787403c5c9f1a71e718f0703499c6d8.jpg(Mattingly, 1991, p. 237; Novak, 1975, p. 175; see also Abbott, 1992; Arendt, 1958; Bal, 1997; Carr, 1986; Fehn, Hoestery, & Tatar, 1992; Rasmussen, 1995; Ricoeur, 1984).

To MacIntyre (1984), the human being is a “story-telling animal” (pp. 214, 216), and the notion of a history is as fundamental a notion as the notion of an action. In a similar vein, Mattingly (1991, p. 237) pointed out that narratives not only give meaningful form to experiences we have already lived through but also provide us a forward glance, helping us to anticipate situations even before we encounter them, allowing us to envision alternative futures. Narrative inquiries do not—indeed, cannot—start from explicit theoretical assumptions. Instead, they begin with an interest in a particular phenomenon that is best understood narratively. Narrative inquiries then develop descriptions and interpretations of the phenomenon from the perspective of participants, researchers, and others.

Labov and Waletzky (1966) wrote that when a good narrative is finished, “it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say, ‘So what?’” (pp. 37-39). Every good narrator is continually warding off this question. A narrative that lacks a moral that can be independently and briefly stated, is not necessarily pointless. And a narrative is not successful just because it allows a brief moral. A successful narrative does not allow the question to be raised at all. The narrative has already supplied the answer before the question is asked. The narrative itself is the answer (Nehamas, 1985, pp. 163-164).

Flyvbjerg, Bent, Five Misunderstandings about Case-Study Research (April 1, 2006). Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 240.