Over the last four months of unprecedented disruption and suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been some fantastic efforts by community and voluntary organisations to capture the everyday struggles of people under lockdown. ‘Storytelling’ has become a popular approach for encouraging people from a wide range of backgrounds to share their experiences of life under COVID. It’s being used particularly for eliciting the lived experiences of people facing real hardship and those disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its implications – often the people whose voices are routinely missed out in other research and decision-making.
The value of storytelling
While it sounds like a fairly obvious way to find out what people have been experiencing over the past few months, ‘storytelling’ as a qualitative research approach has particular characteristics that make it really valuable for this sort of work:
1. It’s an approach that prioritises the words, expressions and voices of those telling the stories. As an open and flexible method, there are minimal constraints placed by the researchers on what people can talk about, therefore encouraging them to share what’s most important to them, in a comfortable and familiar format.
2. Without the structure of a researcher’s list of questions, common in other types of qualitative interviewing, storytelling enables people to share their experiences in the way that makes most sense to them. We might assume that stories should start at the beginning and continue chronologically, but the traditions of storytelling show us that this does not need to be the case. In fact, where somebody chooses to start their story, and how it unfolds and progresses, can also tell us a huge amount about the person’s lived experience and what they value, in addition to what they actually say.
How is storytelling being used to understand COVID?
There are a range of great examples of storytelling projects underway in the UK, and elsewhere. National Voices has set up the ‘Our COVID Voices’ project, inviting people with longstanding health and care needs to share their experiences of life under COVID, which have been largely overlooked by mainstream reporting of the impacts of COVID in the UK. Also, Renew Normal is an initiative asking how our experiences under COVID should shape plans to rebuild society post-lockdown, and an ongoing survey is inviting people to tell their stories of COVID in relation to aspects of life most relevant to them. Along with many other organisations using storytelling approaches, there is real opportunity for the production of very rich, detailed accounts of the challenges and struggles (and maybe also a few joys) of life under COVID for lots of different people, some of whom may rarely get their voice heard in these public spaces.
Anticipating critiques of storytelling
While it’s clear that storytelling is a valuable and
potentially inclusive approach to gathering information about people’s lives, it’s
important to recognise some of the criticisms that might be levelled at
storytelling research, which could limit its potential affect real change in
policy and other decision-making, post-COVID. First is the fact that stories
are personal accounts of individual experiences, and therefore are difficult to
generalise to a whole population. Second is the fact that they are stories
– some people might interpret them as (problematically) subjective, and offering
only a fictionalised or even exaggerated version of ‘reality’. Given the continuing
predilection among policy-makers for ‘big data’ – population-level,
quantitative data sets – it might seem that insights from storytelling could
really struggle to make any impact.
Yet, here at Capacity Q we believe that there are a few simple measures to take when working with storytelling approaches to amplify their validity and integrity as sources of ‘data’, and to maximise their impact in communicating insights into people’s lives:
Embrace, rather than try to explain away the subjectivity of the approach, to emphasise what detailed, personal accounts can offer that standardised statistics cannot. This is important both in terms of the storytellers, and those people organising, conducting and interpreting the data. Making clear the positions and assumptions of the research or project team at the beginning is crucial for helping those reading the insights understand how the project has been framed from the outset, and how this framing has shaped the organisation and presentation of the stories told. Giving as much detail as possible about the background of each storyteller (whilst respecting anonymity and / or confidentiality) is also vital to help the reader understand how their story reflects their particular circumstances and position.
Find ways to explore difference and variability across the stories told. This will help prevent accusations of ‘cherry picking’ of stories to fit an agenda, but perhaps more importantly, can help show how individual stories can be linked to, and relevant for broader groups in the population. This can be done by actively seeking a broad sample of participants, and thinking carefully about what characteristics might matter. We often fall back on the classic demographic categories of gender, age and ethnicity but it might be more important for the aim of your project to consider variability in terms of, for example, parental status, caring roles, long-term conditions, housing status, religious connections or others. Differences should also be actively searched for in the analysis of the stories themselves. By hunting for alternative experiences and stories that don’t follow the grain you can demonstrate the validity of your approach as well as develop deeper interpretations about what factors have shaped individuals’ experiences.
Ensuring storytelling has impact
Giving voice to the real, daily struggles faced by many different people under COVID is vital, and storytelling is an effective and inclusive way to do this. By taking a few extra steps to emphasise the integrity of storytelling, and the relevance of individual stories for the wider population, this approach can potentially have real impact on decisions about what a post-COVID world should look like. Capacity Q is well placed to support you to do this, and to ensure that the voices of those most marginalised and facing the most challenges to be heard, and be influential for making change happen.