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Does narrative matter?

May 29, 2014

Narrative is often forced. Why should writers oblige rushed readers to plough through their concocted stories? The advantage of those pieces of Internet click-bait – 10 reasons why Putin is a paedophile, 164 ships to visit before you die – is that they convey chunks of information in palatable slices. You can skip the things that don’t interest you without losing your place.

Lots of authors might as well just list their unconnected ramblings by number. They’re in a privileged position and excess verbiage is self-indulgence. More often than not our treatises are imagined. I doubt that the Internet is killing the written word. Far from the end of a golden age of literature, we’re all probably now reading more than ever before, just in smaller bits.

On the other hand proper explanation requires joining dots. As Robert Fisk implies here (h/t Aditya Chakrabortty), there’s something worryingly goldfish-like and conservative about a series of unconnected splurges. The modern 24-hour news cycle, for example, makes the world seem like a list of disparate happenings when in fact separate events often amount to a story and it’s important to make connections. Remember the anecdote about the slowly boiling frog? The frog only noticed a rather important cumulative trend when it was too late. Lyotard was wrong: grand narrative hasn’t collapsed; narrative is explanation.

Academic and policy reports are often so deadly boring because their authors don’t tell stories, which need character development, narrative arc, plot and suspense. As Gordon Peake says, “With each draft, and each round of comments, the awkward, the ineffable and the ‘you really couldn’t make it up’  get leavened out.” The unexpected contributes to a sense of the human. Without these age-old storytelling traits, reports are just piles of barren bones featuring endless abstraction. That’s why they don’t get read.

One of the books that first got me interested in economic methodology was Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics, which broadly argued that most economic research is in fact rhetoric; not rhetoric in its sometimes dismissive modern usage but in the original Greek sense meaning to convince. Despite economists cloaking themselves in the garb of objectivity, they just use sophisticated methods to prove their cases – and nothing wrong with that. But they’re telling yarns (albeit sometimes useful and fascinating ones), not proving timeless truths. All findings about human society – even dead clever ones, like supply and demand – are provisional generalisations specific to a time or epoch. As I said in this post, they’re still scientific, albeit scientific in a special sense.

Narrative is critical in making sense of the world. I suppose what really irks me about those boring reports is that they’re just so inhuman and pseudo-objective. We’re all just spinning stories and we might as well admit it. But at the same time I think that the Fisks of this world risk looking like fuddy-duddies. There’s a role for rapid-fire information. And those of us who aren’t Ernest Hemingway might sometimes be excused the search for narrative. Unexpected ending (sorry, just trying to avoid hypocrisy).

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2014 6:20 pm

    In the three headed best that is economics today, we either believe in: (i) the patterns we are seeing; (ii) the science we are proposing or (iii) the story we are telling. Narrative remains important but as Thomas Palley put it recently in reviewing Piketty: “That creates the strange situation in economics whereby something is not thought or known until the right person says it.”
    The point I am making is that a narrative can be convincing but will it get broadcast unless the ‘right person’ (as in the right economist being either of the ‘fresh’ or ‘salt’ water variety) is saying it. We are arguably reading more than ever but we also have a generation that cannot read a page of text without being distracted by hyperlinks that take them elsewhere. We are increasingly good at thinking fast, but getting worse at thinking slowly: the type of ponderous difficult reading that can’t be easily synthesized or digested because it doesn’t necessarily give us the answers but helps us question more. I will take a good dose of rhetoric a la John Kenneth Galbraith over a similar dose of scientism from the AEA any day but “The Bounds of the Expressible” remains exceedingly narrow.

  2. May 29, 2014 6:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Arijit Banik.

  3. May 31, 2014 5:42 am

    The concept of the importance of narrative is within the natural sciences too. Richard Dawkins proposes this in his book unweaving the rainbow. He states that good science is like a good poem. On one level this concerned me on first reading, as I want to believe that a fact is a fact. However, thinking about it more deeply I realised that facts are only as true as the sphere of information that I understand around the fact. For example, I was taught at school that there are three forms of matter – solid, liquid, gas. However, now scientist have realised forms of matter are more nebulous. There are a variety of conditions required to keep matter in different forms and the proposal is a spectrum between solid, liquid, gas. This to me is fascinating, but how is this communicated?

    For human beings, stories are the main communication tool. Susan Blackmore has put forward the idea of a meme machine. The concept is memes are vignettes that can be passed on. She purports that they could be the next type of gene. Given the definition of a gene being a thing that can replicate. Again, it is the replication of ideas. There are three tennets to the meme, which are based on genes – high fidelity replication, high levels of fecundity (and so lots of copies) and longevity. She suggests that memes require Memeplexes such as religions or schools of academic thought?

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

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