Why The Stories You Hear Matter


Saturday, 7.18pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories. – Yuval Noah Harari

The small people in my house are fascinated by stories. It’s the first thing they want in the morning. Not a traditional story, with a start and an end, but a game story. One of those stories where you start somewhere and you have to make decisions and things happen one after the other and you end up somewhere. And sometimes you win – if we get to the end.

I went through a phase last year of reading Terry Pratchett. He’s the first writer in a very long time that has prompted me to take notes on his books, copying out passages of text. What’s fascinating about Pratchett is that he took the world we know and the settings and stories we have heard and reimagined them in a fantasy world. And he wrote about normal things and made you look at them again.

So what is a story anyway. It’s a pathway through a web of thoughts. Sometimes the web is made up and the story teller is someone who wants to entertain you, so you get taken on a pathway that twists and turns and shows you new things around every corner, keeping you interested from start to finish. In other cases the story teller just wants to tell you about the path they took and so you get to retrace their steps. Or it’s about a future that they’ve imagined and so they talk to you about the path they plan to take and how they get to it through the paths they already know. Other pathways exist but this is the one that they’re telling you about.

In the collection “Turning points in qualitative research: Tying knots in a handkerchief” an essay by Susan E. Chase talks about how stories – narratives – are complex things, and there are disagreements about stories and what they tell us about life and subjectivity and culture and truth and fiction, but “most scholars point to the ubiquity of narrative in Western societies and concur that all forms of narrative share the fundamental interest in making sense of experience, the interest in constructing and communicating meaning.”

We miss this fundamental point when we try and “study” people. There is always the temptation to reduce reality to data, to analysis, to questionnaires and surveys. Without such data, however, you are unlikely to be taken seriously. By people who are in power, anyway, because they need to be able to blame someone else for the decisions they take. And it’s hard work, listening to stories and making sense of what is really going on. We probably need better tools to help us do this better. Any suggestions?


Karthik Suresh

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