Blogpost: Stories Researchers Tell

We are a people of the story.  As long as humans have been being, we have used stories to communicate our history, our experiences, and our hopes and dreams.  From cave drawings to the Jewish oral tradition to 140-character tweets — homo sapiens has always been fascinated by the power of story.

It is not surprising that academic researchers recognize the communicative power of stories.  Scholars pore over mountains of research in search of narratives, asking themselves “What is the story here?” (Weick, 2008, Critical Commentary and Future Directions section, para. 1).  They know that their readers and colleagues are captivated by images that illustrate important findings and anchor concepts long after a journal is returned to the shelf.  Scripture scholars parse the Bible for pericopes (Greek for “sections”); anthropologists spend years in fieldwork to understand the narratives of indigenous cultures; musicologists dive deeply into melodies in search of cultural expression.  Story surrounds researchers in all we do.

In my own budding research agenda, I have been pleasantly surprised by the emergence of storytelling and narrative theory as compelling opportunities.  I am a Catholic priest, and, as such, my training is in listening, understanding, and preaching.  When I left my Holy Cross community to enter graduate school, I feared that I would be forced to sacrifice the passion within me for the story — whether the grand God-narrative into which I believe all people fit, or the very personal stories of sin and grace that I hear in the confessional or over a cup of coffee.  And so I dove headlong into statistics courses and pored over less-than-crystal-clear theoretical tomes, believing that this was what “being a scholar” would mean for me.  But the universe had some surprises in store…

As I progressed in my studies here at the University of Michigan, the dreaded question finally surfaced: “What are you going to study?”  This is one of those questions that some people seem to have solved long before they enter grad school, but one that terrifies the rest of us.  The problem is, I didn’t feel particularly qualified to be studying anything — I had a very healthy case of “impostor syndrome,” fearing that at any moment my professors and colleagues would realize that I really don’t belong in advanced studies, much less in front of a classroom or behind a computer writing journal articles.  In time, I learned that in growing as scholars we all feel like impostors sometimes, yet we can each find within ourselves something important and unique to contribute to the academic dialogue.  And so, with some wonderful friends and mentors behind me, especially my advisor and the director of the National Forum, Dr. John Burkhardt, I pushed on.  And my story led me, in fact, to the study of story itself.

What exactly does that mean?  I’m glad you asked— but I am actually going to spare you the full explanation.  After all, academics earn their stripes by making original contributions to existing literature and thought, so I can’t exactly spill the beans here in a blogpost!  But I will share one example of the ways in which my story and the study of story are intersecting.  In a recent article, Humphreys, Ucbasaran, and Lockett (2012) explored the ways jazz musicians use (and have used) stories to shape musicians and ensembles.  The researchers explain the way leaders such as Wynton Marsalis exercise leadership by “selectively (re)telling stories to shape the future of jazz” (p. 52).  Because Marsalis has a very particular view of what jazz music is and should be, namely, a “predominantly black American musical art form” (p 52), he goes to great lengths to privilege stories of jazz musicians that illustrate this expression of jazz.  By repeating narratives about his idealized heroes of the trade, Marsalis has even influenced many contemporary musicians to live lives free of alcohol, drugs, and even smoking, and he has even been able to influence the way many dress and represent themselves.  While some disregard Marsalis’ nostalgic narratives as simply utopian ideals, it is indisputable the effect he has had on contemporary jazz.  And much of that effect is due to his retelling of stories of the jazz giants who embody his ideal.  Now that’s the kind of research that captures my imagination!

And so the story lives on.  A growing number of researchers are returning to story, and, I believe, are tapping into something that runs very deeply in the human spirit.  I am very happy to count myself among those who are not only fascinated by, but also investing in, the power of story.

To be continued…

 

References

Humphreys, M., Ucbasaran, D., & Lockett, A. (2012). Sensemaking and sensegiving stories of jazz leadership. Human Relations, 65(1), 41-62. doi: 10.1177/0018726711424320

Weick, K. E. (2008). Sensemaking. In S. R. Clegg & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), International encyclopedia of organization studies (pp. 1404-1407). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

 

Comments

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    2:14 pm

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