What’s story-telling got to do with research?

Vini Landerpost by VINI LANDER
Head of Research, Edge Hill University

The Respecting Children blog has been concerned with linking research evidence to demonstrate how issues of social justice and inequality have recurred over the last forty years.  The generation of empirical data is considered to be one way to support an argument and demonstrate a need for change within education policy or practice.  Researchers working in the field of “race”, ethnicity and education have built up a sizeable range of data to demonstrate how “race” and ethnicity in intersection with other factors such as poverty impact on the educational outcomes of minority ethnic children (Strand 2014), or how ethnicity affects the experiences of Black and minority ethnic trainee teachers in schools (Flintoff 2014; Pearce 2014).  In the light of the empirical evidence that indicates the effect of ethnicity on educational outcomes little appears to have been done in relation to educational policy.  It seems little has changed since the Swann Report, “Education for All” in 1985.  In fact “race” and ethnicity seem to be being erased from the educational policy landscape (Gillborn 2005).

The blogs entitled “A Classroom Story” and the other called “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” employed the technique of counter story-telling to respectively present narratives about the experiences of a Black male trainee teacher and that of a Black young girl in school.  The method of counter story-telling has its roots in Critical Race Theory (CRT) which advocates that the system of power and privilege associated with “race” can be disrupted through the use of story-telling or counter story-telling which gives voice to those who are less advantaged and privileged thereby providing a counter perspective on the majoritarian stories we hear every day (Solorzano and Yosso 2002).  Counter story-telling highlights the discrepancy between the lived experience of racialized minorities and the views and opinions of the dominant groups in society.  The counter stories redress the imbalance evident within the dominant discourse.  The CRT methodology of counter story-telling privileges the voices of those who are unheard thereby acknowledging that they hold and can create knowledge which is of equal worth thus shifting the locus of power (Delgado Bernal 2002).

Story-telling and the use of narrative is not confined to a minority research area it is used by others especially in the field of inclusive and special education (see Clough 2002).   Yet the two blogs A Classroom Story and Goldilocks and the Three Bears provoked criticism because they were not considered to be credible sources of empirical evidence because they drew on a genre outside the remit of mainstream empirical data generation and research.  Some consider that they are not research as we know it.  I wonder if the deployment of story-telling narrative had been based around disability whether it would have elicited such a response.  When the weight of empirical evidence gathered over the years on the exclusionary experiences of minority ethnic children, young people and teachers fails to shift the dominant approaches to policy, practice and the curriculum then other strategies can be legitimately used to give voice to the experiences of minority groups. In everyday life including the research domain the majority story is dominant.  It is heard and perpetuated daily.  The minority story is subjugated, unheard and attempts are made to silence these voices or stories.  The narrative piece “A Classroom Story” was derided as fiction, not based on empirical evidence and deemed to be less worthy.   There has been so much research on racism in various areas of education and society over the last 40 years and yet it still prevails. I wonder why?  It prevails in the symbolic violence which seems to characterise the so-called post-racial era, where Black teachers and trainees are expected “not to make a fuss”; “not to pull out the race card” and pupils in school who experience racism are told to “take no notice, or “you’re better than them”.  In the Independent (January 2014) an article on a ChildLine Report noted that there had been a 69% rise in children needing counselling due to racist bullying at school which involved Islamaphobia and the report noted that the bullying appeared to reflect the media coverage of Far Right activity and debates on immigration were impacting on children’s attitudes as was media representations of racial stereotypes which seems to be occurring simultaneously as race and ethnicity disappear off the educational and initial teacher training agendas.  So the evidence empirical or otherwise shows that racism is still evident in our schools and society and that ethnicity still affects the outcomes of Black and minority ethnic children and young people.  Yet we appear unable to take action to overturn such inequalities and so the status quo is maintained. Those of us working in the field of “race”, ethnicity and education need to find other ways to be heard.  Narrative inquiry and the use of story-telling (also known as oral narratives) is a legitimate well established research approach (Chase 2010) allowing professionals as well as individuals to reflect on their experiences/practices.

The story of William was based on Black male trainee-teachers’ real experiences in schools which were gained through the traditional empirical research data gathering methods.  The narrative is a composite account based on real Black male trainees’ experiences in schools, which they felt safe to share with a Black academic who used the story-telling approach to disrupt the dominant story only to have it reasserted through a dominant discourse which sought to undermine a novel approach to research in an attempt to regain supremacy.  In an inquiry about racism in school one of my White teenage participants said, “White people like to feel they’re superior” thereby the dominant story is restored yet again.  The criticisms of the counter-story blogs reinforce this contention that only White stories/voices are given credence and allowed to prevail. Can such exclusionary practices still be allowed to prevail?

2 thoughts on “What’s story-telling got to do with research?”

  1. So just to check, your argument is that as research shows white people are racist, it is okay to make up stories about white people being racist and attribute racist motives to white people (real or imagined) without evidence?

    And if white people object to this, it shows they are racist, rather than they object to being lied to or accused of things on the basis of their race?

    Can I just check, do you even think racism and prejudice against white people is wrong?

  2. Vini I enjoyed your piece very much – Indeed creativity and storytelling is a powerful tool to fight inequality: – Defining and managing spaces for social and political change.
    For Bourdieu cultural acts (including storytelling)) is a form of cultural capital. Bourdieu sought to ‘historicise’ culture as a field, with the aim of deconstructing the ideologies interpolated within it, which may be deemed to align culture with ‘nature’ and so naturalise the difference. This directly impacts on the reproduction and reinforcement of the classes, in that it functions in fields of aesthetics which are linked. Bourdieu (1984) identifies that ‘It must never be forgotten that the working class aesthetic is a dominated aesthetic which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of dominated aesthetics. My recent study explored how, in breaking with the dominant ideology which positions creative writing and poetry in the realm of distinction, I could challenge notions of distinction and symbolic violence by bringing it into the field of a basic skills class through the use of poetry and storytelling. Creativity was used as a practice to develop learners’ literacy and confidence and also as an enabler of wider engagement and action which is necessary to the path of social and political change (Duckworth 2013, 2014, 2015). By identifying the values that underpin our lives and practices and weaving them into a story of how the world might look, we can become more effective at opening hearts and minds to challenge inequality and house a positive future.

    Creativity and transformation
    Poetry and art was used as a way to engage my literacy learners into a critical dialogue. An example was using Linda Lucas’s poem as resource. A former literacy learner and a member of the Caribbean community, Linda, a cleaner at the college composed the poem in class when the Oldham race riots were active. Delivering to an ethnically diverse class, where there continued to be tensions around race and gender, I used the poem as a discussion piece and for consciousness-raising. This facilitated the group to shape their assumptions about identity and racism. It also opened up a space to use poetry as a means for emotional expression and challenging the inequalities and domination, over people and their communities (Duckworth, 2013).

    “CHINESE whispers, whispered throughout this town,
    Reporters, crew members rushed to fill their empty reels of film.
    Descending from near and far, 393

    With notepads in hand and cameras around their necks,
    They waited!
    Capturing evil as it passed through our lives – not theirs
    The sun shone,
    As a calm but eerily cold feeling ran in and out of the rows of terraced houses,
    My head at the window,
    The battle about to begin,
    I watched as the men from the streets,
    Like gladiators,
    Chose a weapon,
    A stick, a brick, something to hurt – destroy
    All sides took part – skin colour the divide,
    As the men’s faces flared in anger,
    Journalists and camera crews ran for the easy pickings of negative images,
    The evil masquerading as something new,
    But it’s the same as what’s crossed doorsteps across the land before.
    Whispers of hate threw out in despair,
    Torn lives for the world to see.”

    Up until seeing Linda’s poem, literacy learner Carol, a single mum in her fifties, thought reading and writing stories or poetry was for those with ‘qualifications and yer know good jobs’. She described how she felt scared of exploring the possibilities of language, believing it was ‘not for someone like me’. Carol was experiencing symbolic violence and the:
    Universal adopted strategy for effectively denouncing the temptation to demean oneself is to naturalise difference, to turn it into second nature through inculcation and incorporation in the form of the habitus
    (Bourdieu 1992: 122)
    However, on reading Linda’s poem she seemed totally amazed that people who lived on the same streets as her had written such ‘magic’. She voiced that:
    If they can do it, who are just like me, so can I.
    Her position in the field changed. She soaked up the lessons, even asking for poetry. Inspired rather than running from words, she began to embrace language as something she had the right to use. She described how on shaping sentences it really helped her:
    Deal with those lousy feelings that have crammed my life too often like doubt, failure and fear
    Discovering she had a flair for writing poetry helped her realise:
    I used to think everyone was better, now I know we’re all the same, equal like
    Taking control of language empowered Carol and the belief she can use words to express herself. She turned the symbolic violence she had initially experienced, into symbolic power. Carol’s confidence developed together with her self-esteem. The writing poetry was very much linked with her view of self. She gained respectability from writing her thoughts and feelings:
    Resp: When I read out my poems I feel like the class is really listening to me. That makes me proud.
    Int: How does it do that?
    Resp: It’s being able to share some painful memories rather than hiding them away. I’ve got the guts to do it now; I’m not frightened; like I used to be
    Below is an extract from an initial interview based on Carol’s view of how the course has affected her view of ‘self’:
    Resp: Like I said it’s given me more confidence to express myself in words and in writing, how I feel about the past and the present and my future.
    Int: And how does that, being able to express yourself better in your writing and also expressing about your future. How does this make you feel being able to do this?
    Int: It makes me feel good.
    Resp: And how have you been expressing yourself, what forms?
    Int: Just poetry really, about depression and negative things yer know.
    Int: And when you’re writin’ about these negative things, what effect does that have on you?
    Resp: It makes me feel better. It gets it out of my system. It’s on paper and if I want to read it then I can do. Just gives me positive feedback.
    Int: And has this affected how you view yourself? So, do you think you’ve changed from starting the course ‘till now?
    Resp: Definitely. I’m a lot more confident. I might make mistakes sometimes but I’m learning from the mistakes I make, so I can go back and rectify it all.

    Creativity, including story telling can challenge and unsettle ideologies interpolated in structural inequalities which marginalise people and their communities. It provides a rich method to critique class and race. It is a powerful emancipatory tool which can challenge the hegemony of distinction which serves to oppress marginalised groups, judgment of taste holding open a future that goes beyond the culture of the dominant or dominated

    Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (R. Nice, trans). Cambridge: Harvard University Press
    Bourdieu, P. (1991), Language and symbolic power. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
    Duckworth, V. (2013), Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners. Monograph: London: Routledge.
    Duckworth, V. (2014), Literacy and Transformation, in Duckworth, V. and Ade-Ojo, G. (eds.) Landscapes of Specific Literacies in Contemporary Society: Exploring a social model of literacy. Monograph: Routledge Research in Education: London
    Duckworth, V. (forthcoming), Literacy and imagination, in D. Bland (ed.) Imagination for Inclusion: Diverse contexts of educational practice. Monograph: Routledge Research in Education: London

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