This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) who talks about the role of stories in public debates. She is summarising a paper co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti and recently published in the inaugural issue of Memory, Mind & Media. The paper is available open access here.
We are all drawn to stories in their many forms, and the prevalence of them on digital media may be one reason why we have embraced those media so much. On social media we see lots of stories being told, often in support some general claim. For example, people have been sharing experiences of getting the COVID vaccine and of not getting the vaccine, often in the hopes of supporting general claims about whether people should get vaccinated. However, can personal stories be taken as evidence supporting general claims?
People’s stories about what kind of things happened to them after having the COVID vaccine might not get at the truth about the potential side effects of the vaccine. They don’t capture the causal relationship between getting the vaccine and experiencing side effects. When we attend to a story, we tend to be drawn to its aesthetic features, we are moved by how it makes us feel, and are motivated to think and act in ways that are consistent with the morale of the story. Often, stories are edited so that they fulfil these purposes, being moving, engaging, and inspiring. This means that they may omit details that would be important to assessing the relevant causal relationships, or include details that would not.On digital media especially, stories have the power to reach a very large audience very quickly. Stories shared online can be co-constructed, in that multiple-storytellers engage with the story via liking, commenting, and sharing (Page et al. 2013). This means that people who are geographically and culturally separated can come together and contribute to stories which embody and reflect shared identities. In a way, stories can be very valuable ‘windows into other worlds’. By accessing stories, we learn about other people's first-person experiences and perspectives. For instance, members of disabled and marginalised groups sharing their experiences has been particularly valuable for raising awareness about problems of discrimination and stigma, and starting to tackle them.