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The last time I wrote on this blog was over a year and a half ago. I had written about not having a story. I had become increasingly fatigued over the proliferation of stories, and specifically the use of stories as a means of liberation. In effect that was my last story for a while too and this blog – and by extension me – had become consumed by silence, or at least I had run out of stories to tell.
More accurately I had become consumed by the bigger story of my PhD and in telling that story I had no time for any others. But also in the process of telling one story, all other stories become relevant and related in some way. It as though the more your story expands and becomes all encompassing the more one-pointed your focus becomes and you end up seeing and listening to very little that is new. That is the persuasive power of narrative.
Now in post-doctoral life I am revising that same story again and again in slightly different formats so that hopefully one day I can start thinking about new stories again.
My feeling then – and now – was that stories were not enough. Telling one’s account is not in itself liberating. A story shouldn’t be used in place of lasting social change. Giving someone a ‘voice’ can be lazy quick fix remedy to avoid shifting social structures, changing laws and bringing justice. Giving everyone a platform might be the beginning of equality but it certainly is not the end of it. I felt that stories were pointless when what we should be really thinking about is building spaces people can inhabit without hate or prejudice.
In a way that was the sociologist in me responding to arguments that had forgotten the emotional is always social, and political. The personal account is not more true than other knowledge because it is emotional. Truth is not measured in tears. We remain trapped in a different version of the same story if, for example, we view the personal experience of an illness as more significant than the clinical diagnosis and description of what is happening in a body. The point is: both matter.
Anyhow I had been reconsidering the importance of stories as I have been wondering about the role of sociology in the contemporary world. As I dip in and out of various social media it’s a question that is apparent if not explicitly posed. I decided that the role of sociology was to tell better stories. To provide a narrative to events. To put events, ideas and people into context. Inevitably this might be a long and complex story. How to tell stories of the present to an audience accustomed to 140 characters?
Personal stories are often assumed as true. But it seems nowadays any story that is published in black and white can be assumed as truth. The response to “fake news” signals that popular culture has yet to even reach the postmodern phase, as all social constructionist know that it is not about ‘truth’ being ‘fake’ but rather truth is always a social construct.
For Foucault things don’t just exist ‘out there’ but emerge as identifiable objects through various social structures – including language. The task is to examine how things come to be seen as truth; to critically engage with all claims to truth. In other words, we need to all do our homework.
This becomes increasingly hard when wading through partisan news agendas. Journalists I am sure wouldn’t be keen on referring to themselves as ‘story tellers’, even as the news is fed to us in ‘news stories’. Journalism has to believe in an objective truth and fight to convey that as best as possible. But media often presents a point of view, and too little diversity in points of view and we start to accept opinion as truth.
Often in academia we bend over backwards to ensure our work is untainted by bias and opinion. We engage in reflexivity, acknowledge our sources, cite references, and undergo peer review. Perhaps because of our rigour we are better placed to provide better stories. In which case the whole structure of academic publishing needs to change dramatically.
Not having a story can mean you get consumed in the dominant narrative, whether you like it or not. Like not voting, the choice is made for you. The problem with dominant narratives is that the story expands and becomes all encompassing. It becomes harder to listen and see and critique. Depending on the vision the narrative provides we might join and work towards that, or reject it and argue that its not working. In such a climate of destructive narratives, an alternative vision is needed, which could begin with telling sociological stories. But there has to be the offer of a future. Foucault never made any claims on how society should be run, but he did provide the gift of critiquing repressive structures. Once that repression is visible, the question remains: what makes a life worth living?
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