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what is science, if not storytelling?
dispatches from book-writing, interview-parsing, and Wisconsin in my mind
There’s a story that’s stuck with me for about seven years. It took place in a grad school seminar, late afternoon on what feels in my mind like a Tuesday, on qualitative methods. We learned that a prominent ethnographer in the field encourages her students to read fiction in order to write better. There is a face that scoffs—male, white, flabbergasted. “I don’t trust that,” my memory paraphrases. The exact wording escapes me, but my brain summarises the interaction thusly: what scientist could be inspired by a story?
Anna Tsing, an anthropologist, skips over reassurance and gives us a different paradigm. “To listen to and tell a rush of stories is a method,” she writes, emphasizing the sacred word. “And why not make the strong claim and call it a science, an addition to knowledge?” Tsing is writing about mushroom picking in the Pacific Northwest. She is pondering fungal networks as relational, as giving us a way of living with this planet in late capitalism. She talks to chefs finagling delicacies in Japan and migrant harvesters plucking life from the earth in Oregon. She tells us stories.
I have always fancied myself a writer first and everything else afterwards. When I was an undergraduate writing my honors thesis, I received feedback on a chapter that began with “it was well-written and I learned a lot” before the rest was excoriated. Much later, I am on a conference panel as a PhD student, and my discussant tells another panelist that their paper is close to publication, whereas mine is further away “but better written than most political science.” I have learned that this is not meant as a compliment. Meanwhile, a fellow PhD student does not understand what I mean when I complain that a bare-bones, concise article is boring. I am looking for the person doing the writing. They sat at the keyboard; where is their voice? Their interlocutors are there but silenced, simply “participants,” simply “subjects.” When those subjects entered the space, were they made to check their souls at the door?
I am writing a book manuscript, and I want to think about story as method. Katherine McKittrick says we do this communally. “I learned from her that sharing stories engenders creative rigorous radical theory,” she begins, in one of many stories in her volume Dear Science. Then she pauses. “Wait.” You can hear her still. “I learned from her,” once the breath comes again, “that sharing stories is creative rigorous radical theory. The act of sharing stories is the theory and the methodology.” Dear Science is a radical departure from any methods book I have read before, not so much in McKittrick’s propositions but in the way she offers them: through essay, lyric, photo, conversation with another. In June I had dinner with ethnographer Timothy Pachirat, who infamously wrote a methods book that is at least three-quarters folktale; he says his next book will be fiction too, even as it rests deeply in the facts of his months and months of immersive work at his latest field site.
What else can political science be? What else is it, already?
The last time I thought about this question seriously was in 2019, in a sunlight-speckled café in the bowels of the old mint in Berlin. It is stuffed to the brim with plants, twining gently against metal. The flabbergasted grad student was living rent-free in my head; in my notebook were jottings from interviews given to me behind walls of security in government buildings, over coffee because Germans always insist. It had taken me about three days to realize that all of my assumptions about the German security state were wrong. Instead, I had stories. Instead, I had to make sense of something new.
I think I was too steeped in positivism at the time. I wrote about a study in which researchers set a task for over a hundred other researchers: build a model of this social process. Every single researcher built a different model. Don’t you see, I thought. Don’t you see that we are all telling stories. The variation is not a problem; it tells us something. That is the finding. But I stopped writing this reflection after describing the study and didn’t pick it up again until years later. I think I was unsatisfied by trying to write about storytelling as science using more traditional scientific trappings. It has taken me a long while, post-PhD, to feel some weight in my words again, to hold them more carefully, to appreciate the depths of life in each one.
Back in that qualitative methods class as a grad student, we discussed the “allure of the archives.” We were cautioned against romanticization of method. Last summer I went to the Library of Congress for book manuscript research, and even though I needed to be in the law library, I sat for a day in the main reading room. There are few places in the US that seem to hold the centuries the way old buildings in Europe do; the main reading room is one of those. Sitting at a dark wood desk with a gold notary lamp, books stretching back for ages into the stacks, the ceiling soaring to arches, it is every moment on film where a genius rushes to the library and makes their discovery. Of course, archival work is not actually like that, as an enormous stack of books appears and I start to read them.
And so as much as I feel there is magic in story—real, deep magic, of the kind baked in soil and wind—I don’t want to imply that story is a bewitching way forward. Nothing about this is easy. Much as we let it unfold naturally, we must still take care. I think a lot about the degree to which political science research is about taking stories that are second nature in one part of the world and moving them to another. What is a researcher actually doing when they hear stories in Syria and translate them into English for an audience who will never go there? Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled is beautiful, and it humanizes and complicates and musses the Syrian conflict, but for whom? For what purpose? I am not quite sure what I’m saying here, because people who cannot speak Arabic or other local languages can still learn so much about this conflict from reading what Pearlman has compiled, and communication is so fundamentally human, so perhaps the question is what they are supposed to learn from it. How do you act, when you hear these stories? What story do you tell next? And what do you do when the research is so obviously extractive—when it takes a local story and then tries to replicate it somewhere else and the replicator gets to build a career off of that? So perhaps the question is also what you think stories are for.
Let me tell the story of my book. Let me suggest to you that stories of US Congressional hearings around immigration in the early 1990s are fundamental to the narratives told after 9/11 about who is a terrorist and whence they come. Let me suggest that these stories have something in common with the work being done on the ground by German political foundations in the former East to counter white supremacist ideologies. Let me suggest further that entwined in this is the story of what is East and West, and that that story is not a straightforward one. And part of this story, also, is a conversation between two women in a Washington, DC office building about genocide, and two libertarians around desks in Berlin trying to come up with the English word “blinders.” I curl up on a train heading north from Dresden, and that becomes the story too.
My point, I think, is that if we reject neatness—if I take the lesson from the other six methods classes I took in grad school to categorize and unblur and set it to the side—then we see links where we didn’t notice them before. We become more present. We observe connective tissue, fungal networks, rigorous radical theory coming from conversation. We can let the narratives we encounter be narratives, let the life behind each data point remain. And so from where, I think, are we inspired in science, if not by a story.
University staff in the UK are in the midst of the largest wave of strike action in recent history. Thursday marks day 2 of 18. If you are confused about what’s going on, well, that’s one post back in this newsletter. If you are not confused but do have money to spare, why not drop a few pounds in the strike fund? TIA. (If you would like to donate to Nottingham’s strike fund specifically, and you have a UK bank account, message me on Twitter.)
Management at the University of Leeds are threatening 100% pay deductions for staff engaged in Action Short of Strike (ASOS). For those unfamiliar with the UK context, ASOS is an action that means working to your contracted hours. In other words, Leeds is formalizing that unpaid overtime is just an expectation of the job here. What fun.
The International Studies Association (ISA) has reinstated its punitive policy, once referred to as “ISA Jail,” whereby individuals who withdraw from the 2023 conference after December 1 and who do not have a “legitimate” reason will be barred from going to the 2024 conference. “Legitimate,” of course, is not defined, though it apparently does not include finding out you didn’t get funding to go. This is, and has always been, a horrific policy that ignores the lived realities of graduate students and precarious faculty, those without US (or in this case Canadian) passports, and/or those with caregiving responsibilities. How are we still punishing people for being humans in 2023. (Oh right: academia.)
Graduate workers at Temple University are on strike! Lots of ideas for how to support them at this link.
Harvard research and non-tenure-track staff are forming a union! You love to see it.
Shameless self-promotion corner: I’m a big fan of terrorism books that aren’t part of the traditional “terrorism” canon. I reviewed Michael Innes’ Streets Without Joy on sanctuary discourse for H-Diplo. I think you should read it (the book, not my review, though maybe start there if you’re curious). I read it on a plane while half delirious, though, so, grain of salt.
You should also read: in a similar “not a terrorism book but definitely a terrorism book” vein, Mia Fischer’s Terrorizing Gender, on the intersections of trans identity, homonationalism, and the US national security state in the 21st century.
For those interested in getting their work in front of policymakers, the ever-excellent Bridging the Gap initiative has two new programs to facilitate that. The Policy Outreach Program is for postdoctoral scholars to present in front of DC stakeholders; the Incubator is for small grants for policy-adjacent research projects. Deadlines for both are fast approaching.
I am writing my book now, I promise, and I am also still writing this, so click the button.