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14 December 2021updated 04 Apr 2022 7:22pm

Why social science needs stories

Statistics can illuminate the world, but narratives explain why the numbers matter.

By Alexander Prescott-Couch

In a recent profile in the Atlantic, the journalist Tom McTague described Boris Johnson as being in a “battle to write the national story”. As Johnson sees things, his political success is tied to his ability to convince the public that the story of the past few years is one of Britain’s rise, with the nation coming out of Brexit with more “oomph, impetus, mojo” than when it was shackled to the EU. “People live by narrative,” Johnson is reported to have said. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”

It is not only politicians who appeal to our interest in narrative. The story form is often employed by journalists, activists, historians and lawyers, among others. For instance, narratives of industrial decline inform our collective understanding of populism, victim narratives influence changing perceptions of social injustices, and the significance of historical events is often illuminated by placing them within broader narrative arcs. Popular understanding is often structured by stories.

However, many social scientists and philosophers are suspicious of narrative. Stories tend to simplify complex social realities, aiming at emotional satisfaction rather than accurate explanation. And because stories tend to elicit emotion, they might be thought to interfere with the objective adjudication of evidence. Moreover, since good stories thrive on human drama, narrative explanations tend to focus on the effects of individual personalities and choices, and therefore often ignore structural factors and more sophisticated social scientific theories. Finally, stories encourage bad anecdotal reasoning: good stories are often unrepresentative stories, so they invite us to misunderstand the average experience, as well as to overestimate the prevalence of extreme and idiosyncratic personalities and situations.

A more sophisticated scientific approach to understanding society is therefore often thought to avoid stories in favour of sober empirical description, careful weighing of statistical evidence and rigorous causal reasoning. This suspicion of stories fits into broader trends in the social sciences. As the Harvard political scientist Gary King has argued, “The social sciences are in the midst of an historic change, with large parts moving from the humanities to the sciences…”

New technologies are generating increasing quantities of diverse, high-quality data, making researchers more sensitive about drawing broad implications from small sets of anecdotes. New statistical methods have been developed to analyse this data, enabling them to identify robust patterns useful to making more precise predictions and causal identifications than any story could support. These changes in data and methods have reorientated the social sciences away from narrative and ethnographic description and towards model-building, prediction, and the identification of discreet causal relationships.

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These shifts have many benefits. For example, consider Princeton’s Eviction Lab, a team of researchers directed by the sociologist Matthew Desmond that collects and analyses eviction statistics across the United States. The Lab presents its data online with an interactive tool for easy comparison of eviction statistics between locales, allowing for a comprehensive picture of eviction in the US. It also provides analyses of the causes and effects of eviction and links these analyses to current events and policy. For instance, if you want to learn about connections between Covid vaccination rates and housing instability, or the effectiveness of the Biden administration’s temporary ban on evictions, then Eviction Lab can provide rigorous and up-to-date analysis. Stories cannot provide the same kind of precision, scope, or concrete policy guidance.

Yet despite the limitations of the story form, a categorical rejection of narrative and more humanistic kinds of social inquiry is mistaken. Such rejection expresses an overly narrow conception of the task of the social sciences, one that ignores forms of humanistic understanding that sophisticated social inquiry can help us achieve. The social sciences should embrace stories.

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The value of stories for social science can be illustrated by considering Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted. Like much of his work for the Eviction Lab, Desmond’s book concerns the processes by which eviction contributes to racial and class inequality. But rather than describing those processes through statistical abstractions, the book consists in a complex narrative made up of an interlinked set of stories of landlords, tenants, judges, case workers and others involved in these processes, all woven together into a novel-like tapestry.

What can stories do that more quantitative work cannot? There are three kinds of humanistic understanding that narratives are often thought to promote. First, placing events into a narrative may reveal their underlying meaning or significance. For instance, tenant narratives may help us understand why eviction matters by showing the position it plays in the broader story of tenants’ lives. Sophisticated social inquiry can illuminate not only why things happened but why they matter.

Second, sophisticated narratives often encourage us to imagine the points of view and situations of various protagonists and thereby help us understand others through imaginative projection. You might learn a lot about eviction by collecting and analysing statistics, but through imaginative engagement prompted by narrative we are also able to “put ourselves in another’s shoes” and grasp, albeit imperfectly, what it is like to be on the receiving end of an eviction notice or dealing with a recalcitrant tenant. Social science should not limit itself to explaining events; it should also help us understand experiences.

Third, narratives may attune us emotionally to parts of the social world. In most sophisticated narratives, we are encouraged to imagine situations not from the perspective of this or that particular protagonist, but from a broader perspective, one analogous to the omniscient narrator often found in fictional narratives. This perspective tends to provoke emotional responses to broader features of the events being described – for example, you might have mixed feelings about exploitative landlords who themselves come from poor backgrounds.

These emotional responses are not just non-rational reactions. They can be appropriate or inappropriate, and part of understanding a situation is having the appropriate ones. You have not really understood eviction if you feel indifference to the plight of impoverished tenants or delight at the exploitative strategies employed by clever landlords. Well-researched narratives can tutor these feelings, helping us to come to nuanced and sophisticated emotional responses to morally complex situations.

These humanistic aspects of social inquiry are important complements and correctives to the cooler forms of reflective thinking encouraged by quantitative work in the social sciences. While quantitative work has obvious benefits, when it comes to marginalised populations it can encourage what the Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby has called the “medical model” of social inquiry – research orientated towards identifying interventions that might most effectively alleviate social problems.

Due to this focus on intervention, members of marginalised communities can easily come to be seen as problems for political elites to solve. Narrative can humanise individuals that are often conceived primarily as targets for policy nudges and behavioural correction, as objects rather than subjects.

This is not to say that narrative social science is perfect in its current form. As the legal scholar Steven Lubet has argued, many social scientific narratives face problems of factual accuracy, generalisability and replicability. What’s more, many narratives are simplistic, playing into popular prejudice rather than challenging conventional wisdom.

However, such problems are not problems of the narrative form itself but problems with particular narratives. Social scientists should, of course, question simplistic stories, and they should be careful not to mislead by passing off extreme and idiosyncratic cases as typical ones. These are basic requirements of honest scholarship – accurate description of cases and care with case selection and generalisation.

It is here that recent advances in data availability and more sophisticated quantitative methods can help. Statistical analysis can identify unrepresentative cases, direct our attention to unexpected narratives, and suggest telling juxtapositions, helping us debunk clichés and question prevalent assumptions. The sophisticated use of evidence is what distinguishes good social scientific narrative work such as Evicted from the kind of anecdotal making-it-up that many see as polluting our politics and public discourse. Numbers without stories are lifeless, but stories without numbers are flying blind.

In short, by integrating narratives into social science, we allow stories to receive rigorous evidential scrutiny while encouraging reflection on the full set of reasons that social analysis matters. Moreover, we offer a means of making social science comprehensible and compelling to a broader public. It is by responding to, rather than ignoring popular stories that social scientists can “take back control” from the politicians, popularisers and other purveyors of simplistic and manipulative story-telling.

Alexander Prescott-Couch is associate professor of philosophy and tutorial fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.