The Plural of Story Isn’t Data

A couple weeks ago I was enjoying the warm evening air in Myanmar when an article popped up multiple times on my Twitter feed. This happens from time to time in the development economics Twitterverse – and I like to take note. This particular article was published by WhyDev, and online community of development professionals that are “committed to getting development right”. I, and I suspect many readers of this blog, would fit in quite nice with the folks over at WhyDev.

The article was entitled “We’re all Storytellers (and Why it Matters)“, was well written, but (I think) skipped over some critical details. Quoting the famous Nigerian novelist, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, from her famous Ted Talk on the Danger of a Single Story the article concluded:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

I responded with the following comment:

Thanks for writing this Stephanie.

I’d like to point out some challenges and caveats to telling stories in development. First, one of the points of Ms. Adichie’s famous Ted Talk is that everyone has their own biases about the world. They are unavoidable. Biases are how we simplify and make sense of a complex and dynamic world. Therefore, it is very challenging to make observations about events in the world and tell stories independent of these biases. Second, straight observation is tricky and is often misleading. It may be observed that those who participate in a program (say microcredit) are better off after participating in the program. It could be, however, that these differences are caused by a selection bias where individuals who are well-organized, more motivated, and risk-loving participate in the program while individuals who don’t posses these attributes and abilities don’t participate. Straight observation will leave us unable to untangle what is truly happening. Is the program causing the observed differences or is there some other observable characteristic that is the real determining factor? Without data we don’t know.

So, yes! Stories matter and many stories matter, but the plural of story isn’t data. It is precisely due to the power of stories that we must ensure that our stories represent reality. Good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis.

To which the author responded:

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comment! And I totally agree that good storytelling must be coupled with good data analysis. I think the two can (and should) be quite complementary.

Rigorous data analysis is important for understanding what works and what doesn’t, and also for helping understand why. Gathering in-depth interviews can also help give insight into data trends. I recognize that taking one story (or even several stories) without context (or even with context, but that is subject to a series of biases) and then trying to say that these anecdotes are indicative of broader trends is just not a good idea. And, unfortunately, it does happen a lot.

I think the sweet spot is really in finding the stories that reflect the realities that data point to, and using each to support the other. And, where they contradict each other, to find out why. Data can be subject to manipulation and misinterpretation, and so can personal stories. I think we’re all trying to work hard to make sure that neither of those things happen.

Yesterday, my full response to the original article was posted and featured on WhyDev, entitled: “We’re all Storytellers, but the Plural of Story isn’t Data“.

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