Storytelling in the Thesis

Siobhan O’Neill, Politics, University of Manchester (2019 Cohort)

My PhD project –The Dynamics of Race, Racism and Whiteness in Politics: How do racially minoritised students experience and navigate the whiteness of Politics disciplines in British HE? – centres the experiences and narratives of racially minoritised students at British universities. The project is grounded predominantly in Critical Race Theory (CRT) as well as in Black Feminist and Decolonial thought, as such, I chose the critical race methodology of counter-story-telling to centre those experiences and narratives. As part of this, based on 30 interviews, 5 diaries and 5 follow-up diary-based interviews I conducted with racially minoritised students, I start each of my empirical-based chapters with a story. In these stories I put my participants in conversation with one another (and myself) in a setting that they might actually find themselves in as students at university. In what follows I share some of my reflections about using story-telling in my thesis as well as the rationale behind it and practicalities of the process.

Rationale

The purpose of the stories is, first, to allow the reader to get a sense of who the participants are, to humanise them (not just think of them as ‘Participant X’ or their words as pieces of data). Whilst I ensure the anonymity of participants through the use of pseudonyms, the stories offer the reader a fuller and richer picture of who the participants’ are, allowing me to honour and value each of their individual narratives, reflect the diversity of their experiences and paint a picture of their personalities whilst keeping their identities private. The second purpose of the stories is to introduce the themes of the chapter in a narrative, readable way, summarising the chapter and giving a sense of context to the quotations used throughout the chapter.

It is important to note that whilst the stories themselves did not happen – all 31 of us did not sit down in a coffee shop (especially given I conducted my fieldwork in the earlier stage of the COVID-19 pandemic – they are not fictional. As Jones argues, counter-storytelling should “not be confused with fictional storytelling” (2021, p. 5). I have not “invented” or made up “imaginary characters in fictional situations”, rather the stories I tell are grounded in the lived experiences of my participants (Hartman 2021, p. xvi; Jones 2021, pp. 5-6).

The Process

In terms of the practicalities of story-telling in my thesis, each story is around 600-900 words and precedes the introduction of each empirical chapter. Inspired by Saidiya Hartman, for whom italics represent “utterances from the chorus” (2021, p. xvi), I use italics to show which phrases are participants’ actual words – taken from their transcripts and/or diaries – and I build the stories around these. The settings I use as the background to these stories are places near, but not on, campus. This is to establish a closeness and distance from the institution reflecting a feeling many participants expressed in their interviews.

Reflections Though this method of story-telling might not be suitable for everyone – for instance one of my supervisors is an ethnographer and prompted me to think about how this story-telling differs from re-counting experiences in the field and how this might be read by people from other different disciplines or with different approaches to research – it is an effective and powerful tool particularly in critical race research. I recently presented some of my work at conferences and included two of my stories within these presentations (one related to students’ experiences of (under)representation and one focussing on experiences of the curriculum). One of these presentations was for Race Reflections and members of the audience responded really positively to the use of stories, they described the story they heard as impactful and one audience member thanked me for sharing human voices in the talk.

There are some key points of reflection that I have taken away from using this method. First and foremost it is vital to think about the power dynamics related to my methods and research more broadly (as I explore in more depth in the thesis). It is important to consider the ways that this method can: (1) be empowering in that it centres the voices of racially minoritised students and works to counter-narrate whiteness but also (2) re-inscribe the power imbalance between researcher and participant as a result of my position as story-teller, putting forward my interpretation of their stories, and personalities. One of the ways in which this power imbalance can be reckoned with is to ensure that the stories focus on and centre participants’ words. The story built around these words is there only to frame and contextualise the words rather than overshadow them.

References:

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals. (London: Serpent’s Tail).

Jones, Angel M (2021). “Letters to Their Attackers: Using Counterstorytelling to Share How Black Women Respond to Racial Microaggressions at a Historically White Institution”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, pp. 1–13.

Twitter: @siobhan_ko

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