Dave Snowden

Aspects of narrative work: III Power

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This picture of a Gypsy boy in Hungary taken in 1931 and it tells a story; what story is an open question. Depending on your perspective or knowledge of the context you could tell a very different story.  Now that is not a controversial point, but I want to move it on and talk about the issue of power in ownership and interpretation of story.   This is the third post (and not the last) in this series.   In the first and second I created a triad based on purpose that allowed me to look at different practices.  I tried to be descriptive only as all the various practices and purposes seem legitimate to me; I want to be a little more judgemental this time.  Not my natural style of course …..

The wider context here is the attempt to objectivise human experience.  Mary Midgley makes this point well and traces the tendency in western thinking back to Greek Atomists by way of Kant and Descartes.  She argues that one reason for the cartesian separation of mind and body is to give space for science without the interference of the Church, but that this has resulted in a strong focus on objects not subjects.  In medicine we see this with the problem of objectivisation of the patient.  You are a pieces of meat that is processed by the expert.  Sick stigma reduces humanity to numbers and far too much narrative work, both in research and consultancy reduces a story to an object, assuming said object contains its context.

You see this in a lot of longitudinal research; stories are recorded and transcribed then the expert tags the words to determine their meaning.  You see it in a lot of “big data” approaches; text is interpreted by algorithms.  You see it in a log of consultancy approaches; stories are transcribed and put on a database for viewing with variants of expert and computer based interpretation.  I could go on but you get the point.  The material has value, but its not complete and the power of intepretation has been taken from the person who has lived the context of its creation.

What everyone forgets is that the person who knows what the story means is the person who told it. Not only that the story is a part of a flow of meaning it does not encompass it.  The understanding is in the story teller, and also that understanding extends beyond the text itself; expression, tone and aspects that it may not be possible to be articulate.  Now there is a role of the expert, there is a role for technology, but the primary interpretation, the power, needs to belong to the story teller. 

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