One of my favourite TED talks is Brené Brown sharing her research about vulnerability. At the outset she recounts how she first doubted, then embraced, being called a storyteller. Such initial trepidation is perhaps unsurprising from a distinguished academic. After all storytelling isn’t immediately associated with academic rigour.
But qualitative researchers are tasked with distilling, sharing and listening to human experiences. We hold a privileged position, being privy to people’s thoughts and perspectives, hopes and dreams. We search for trends and themes and relay them by mapping journeys, illuminating highs and lows and crafting narratives. By virtue, qualitative researchers are indeed storytellers.
Qualitative inquiry involves the ancient art of listening deeply. Making sense and pattern out of the data takes time. And relaying it requires an authenticity that resonates and rings true. Yes, statistics and numbers can jar us and provoke action; they are a fundamental cog in the research machine. But we mustn’t forget the pathos inducing magic of weaving narratives. After all, as Brené Brown reminds us, “stories are just data with a soul”.
The latest work by Positive Negatives – a set of comics exploring the journeys of Syrian migrants to Europe – is illustrative of this. The stories are moving and enveloping – evidently crafted from trusting relationships. The more you read, the more the research becomes alive before your eyes.
Our world is enriched by stories. They are cathartic for the teller, eye-opening for the listener and they generate compassion and empathy. Their power is needed more than ever in a world where it so often feels like humanity is unravelling. In Ben Okri’s words: “stories can conquer fear you know. They make the heart grow bigger.”