What stories make worlds, what worlds make stories

Stories Changing Lives: Narratives and Paths towards Social Change Edited by Corinne Squire (Oxford, University Press), reviewed by Kesi Mahendran, Sue Nieland, Anthony English and Nicola Magnusson all within the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory, Open Psychology Research Centre, The Open University.

21 December 2021

Psychologists have always been preoccupied with stories: the ones that dominate and the ones that can’t yet be told. Today the term ‘narrative’ is under considerable scrutiny, even becoming politicised. Take Back Control, Build Back Better, Yes We Can – political leaders harness narratives, their past, present, future temporalities and subtle appeals to belonging. Scientists in universities who work with narratives are often marginalised. Studies which focus on lived realities, on personal truths, are contrasted with large-scale systematic data collection: data is collected by ‘experts’, and stories are collected by ‘partisans’. Amid these tensions and possibilities arrives a book which reveals how narratives work towards social justice.

When you pick up a copy of Stories Changing Lives: Narratives and Paths toward Social Change, it is hard to make sense of the choice of cover. A gloomy black and white image of a hospital, office or perhaps university building late in the evening. The light glowing from one lone office. It contrives to obscure more than it reveals, to hint at erasures and persistent darkness. By the end of the book the image, part of a photovoice story collected by Shose Kessi, shines brightly. The book is full of stories. Here’s another: somewhere in Berlin political psychologist Molly Andrews is talking for a second time, after a gap of over 20 years, to the political dissident Jens Reich. But why does he answer her question about the Stasi files by telling Molly a story?

Corinne Squire, one of the co-directors of the Association of Narrative Research and Practice, brings together such an exciting set of contributors that the book grips you like fiction. This is a book of truth and accounting against a backdrop of stubborn structures of racialised power and often seismic social change. It is a book relevant to anyone who wishes to see a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with its warnings about public accountability from case contexts such as South Africa and the USA.

In our work within the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory (PDPC) we are preoccupied with democracy, public accountability and the dialogue between citizens and their governments. In the opening chapter, written by the late Elliot Mischler together with Corinne Squire, the question of ‘the personal is political’ is re-worked to ‘the political is personal’. How stories perform a social justice function is shown through three examples: Resistance to unfair use of legal authority, the struggle for equality by African Americans and the impact of traumatic brain injury on people’s daily lives. These examples weave a multicoloured thread through the book about the function of storytelling in the development of action for social justice. For example, Michael Murray’s account of community activism is very relevant for anyone interested in the political lives of those on the ground, striving for social justice (and probably achieving more in their own humble way than most high-profile political leaders who hold the power).  

Several contributors show how Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) can be generative spaces which ‘surface and circulate’ untold stories. Yet the assumptions that underpin TRCs e.g. in Canada, Rwanda, Colombia and South Africa – that ordinary citizens can speak truth to power in a process of restorative justice – are in need of interrogation. Working within their own context of Houston, Texas, Alisa Del Tufo and her colleagues show how a full accounting enables a decolonising practice – a different story to be told, which can be translated across time and space. They call this the power of bearing wit(h)ness.

Ann Phoenix brings the decolonisation challenge into the European context, tackling racialised responsibilities of joint analysis. The chapter succinctly moves between two interview transcripts, a reflective commentary and the group of researchers’ relationships when exploring these narratives. The two interviewees’ very moving experiences of racist encounters are, in the context of racialised gender, starkly different.  Whilst solutions to such issues are beyond the scope of the chapter this is likely to be relatable for any researcher engaged in qualitative analysis.  

A key question for those preoccupied with stories is not just the power to tell but who is listening. M Brinton Lykes writes about living lives of resistance. Looking at truth commissions amongst the Mayan, Brinton Lykes recognises the risks of an underlying ‘transitional justice paradigm’ of going from the invisible to the hyper-visible, her participatory methods of co-creation act as reflexive and dialogical relations of solidarity.

Donna Haraway foregrounds how ‘it matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories’. Yet Haraway’s post-humanism is not the inspiration for this book that starts somewhere much further south.  It is inspired by Homi Bhabha’s right to narrate, psychologists such as Chabani Manganyi and by the African humanist philosophy of ubuntu. Ubuntu exists across many African cultures, Xhosa, Bantu, Zulu, translated as I am because we are or the sharing that connects all humanity. Developed most explicitly in Jill Bradbury’s chapter on the need to resist the reduction of multiple stories into a single-story line in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. As Bradbury articulates more fully in her own book Narrative Psychology and Vygostsky in Dialogue, ubuntu-based ethics are vital to understanding African intellectualism and collective action.

If you operate in an environment where you wrestle with disinformation and post-truth politics, or need a detailed articulation of our narrative imaginative capacities and future-orientations, take this troubling book on the power of stories to change lives with you. It is your ally.

- Reviewed by Kesi Mahendran, Sue Nieland, Anthony English and Nicola Magnusson all within the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory, Open Psychology Research Centre, The Open University