The Power of Stories

I know I’m a few weeks late but….happy 2014! The goal for this year? Actually get this blog up and running! And to start this year off, I’d like to start my rambling musings on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot of tonight. And that topic is the power of stories.

What really got me started on this topic was that earlier, I was watching an amazing Ted-Talk by Roxanne Krystalli, on the role of narratives in conflict and the ethical responsibility that this brings with it. If you have a spare fifteen minutes, I would really recommend checking it out. It really got me thinking though, not just on the power of stories in conflict, but the power of stories in general. I’m not sure about you, but in a day I’m bombarded with news and information from around the world, a conflict breaking out in South Sudan, a new internet hub starting up in Nairobi, another gang-rape in Delhi. They can become overwhelming, exhausting, and conflated, with my brain jumbling everything together in some sort news bubble that swirls around and around in my head. Yet, when I took a step back today and really thought about it, I seem to be missing the emotional elements behind what I was absorbing – the love, compassion, hate, cruelty, ignorance, and empathy that are such crucial elements of all this information, yet seem to go unnoticed. In a world where the connection to those human qualities can seem distant, how do we place importance on the power of stories to illuminate human spaces?

The graduate program I’m currently in, you may say isn’t that heavy on qualitative processes. We focus on policy, on data, on concrete measures to analyze problems. We discuss broad security issues, and talk about economic policy with fun words like poverty, growth, and development. What we don’t discuss are the people that these policies and projects affect. We don’t talk about the woman who moved into the city because of urbanization and now can’t find work, or the man who left everything of his old life behind to live in a tent in a refugee camp. Coming from an undergraduate degree in anthropology, that disconnect from the story-telling process suddenly hit me – I hadn’t realized how much I missed that deeper, human connection until I heard Krystalli describe the moving element that listening to conflict stories brought to her. Why will I care about the dynamics of refugee provision unless I can understand the fear and pain that can accompany leaving your home in the middle of a war? Why do I want to work towards ending gender violence, unless I can hear women describe their experiences ? Sitting in a basement researching security reform, or UN response to sexual violence is one thing – but unless we can connect this to the people behind the policy problem, what is our motivation for doing any of it?

I don’t think that this pattern, of emphasizing the quantitative over the qualitative, is just something that happens within the confines of my masters program either. The development world in general privileges data. Open sourced data, crowd sourced data, big data, statistical analysis, quantifiable measurements that can numerically tell us how a program is doing – these are the markers by which the development world can tell how well it is doing. It’s much easier to make the case that a program is succeeding (and therefore deserves more donor funding) if you can back it up with the hard numbers. It is much harder to justify why the humanity behind those numbers is relevant, why we need to put the human face to the stats. Don’t get me wrong, statistics is incredibly useful and is a much-needed tool for any project, whether that be in post-conflict reconstruction in eastern DRC or building wells in Lesotho highlands.  But understanding the dimensions of how a project affects actual people, understanding their emotions, and thoughts, and most importantly their stories is something I really believe needs to be given just as much privilege.

Watching that talk tonight, jolted me into the realization of how disconnecting this process can be, of wanting to work in international affairs but being separated from the people that the issues we work on are truly affecting. It seems a bit ridiculous that quantitative analysis is seen as a legitimate form of data, but that when I mention the importance of qualitative analysis, this needs to be justified. I’m curious if this is something that other people are experiencing, or if this is just a mid-semester crazy-grad school thought. How do you include story-telling as part of development practice? How do you try to grasp that human element in a world that seems disconnected from this? And finally – I’m really interested in how you make the case for qualitative data as a legitimate form of analysis when quantitative seems so privileged!

That’s it for today. Thanks ya’ll. If you want to check out Krystalli’s Ted-Talk, the link is below (you really should, its fascinating!)  

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