When do Stories Work?

Evidence and Illustration in the Social Sciences

Andrew Gelman, Thomas Basbøll

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

Abstract

Storytelling has long been recognized as central to human cognition and communication. Here we explore a more active role of stories in social science research, not merely to illustrate concepts but also to develop new ideas and evaluate hypotheses, for example, in deciding that a research method is effective. We see stories as central to engagement with the development and evaluation of theories, and we argue that for a story to be useful in this way, it should be anomalous (representing aspects of life that are not well explained by existing models) and immutable (with details that are well-enough established that they have the potential to indicate problems with a new model). We develop these ideas through considering two well-known examples from the work of Karl Weick and Robert Axelrod, and we discuss why transparent sourcing (in the case of Axelrod) makes a story a more effective research tool, whereas improper sourcing (in the case of Weick) interferes with the key useful roles of stories in the scientific process.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSociological Methods & Research
Volume43
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)547-570
ISSN0049-1241
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Cite this

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When do Stories Work? Evidence and Illustration in the Social Sciences. / Gelman, Andrew; Basbøll, Thomas.

In: Sociological Methods & Research, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2014, p. 547-570.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

TY - JOUR

T1 - When do Stories Work?

T2 - Evidence and Illustration in the Social Sciences

AU - Gelman, Andrew

AU - Basbøll, Thomas

PY - 2014

Y1 - 2014

N2 - Storytelling has long been recognized as central to human cognition and communication. Here we explore a more active role of stories in social science research, not merely to illustrate concepts but also to develop new ideas and evaluate hypotheses, for example, in deciding that a research method is effective. We see stories as central to engagement with the development and evaluation of theories, and we argue that for a story to be useful in this way, it should be anomalous (representing aspects of life that are not well explained by existing models) and immutable (with details that are well-enough established that they have the potential to indicate problems with a new model). We develop these ideas through considering two well-known examples from the work of Karl Weick and Robert Axelrod, and we discuss why transparent sourcing (in the case of Axelrod) makes a story a more effective research tool, whereas improper sourcing (in the case of Weick) interferes with the key useful roles of stories in the scientific process.

AB - Storytelling has long been recognized as central to human cognition and communication. Here we explore a more active role of stories in social science research, not merely to illustrate concepts but also to develop new ideas and evaluate hypotheses, for example, in deciding that a research method is effective. We see stories as central to engagement with the development and evaluation of theories, and we argue that for a story to be useful in this way, it should be anomalous (representing aspects of life that are not well explained by existing models) and immutable (with details that are well-enough established that they have the potential to indicate problems with a new model). We develop these ideas through considering two well-known examples from the work of Karl Weick and Robert Axelrod, and we discuss why transparent sourcing (in the case of Axelrod) makes a story a more effective research tool, whereas improper sourcing (in the case of Weick) interferes with the key useful roles of stories in the scientific process.

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KW - Evidence

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