Saturday, September 8, 2018

Research for storytellers is not an option, it's a responsibility

At the 2018 FEST (Federation for European Storytelling) conference in Ljubljana, Heidi Dahlsveen presented the results of a survey that FEST commissioned to lay the groundwork for the EU grant project titled Professional training and development of storytellers on a European scale. Basically, FEST created a survey asking questions about how storytellers work, how they learn, how they are trained, and what skills they think would be most important to incorporate in a "European storytelling curriculum." A little over 300 storytellers filled out the survey. While there were many fascinating, intriguing, and occasionally baffling results in Heidi Dahlsveen's presentation, there was one that particularly caught my attention:

On the list of professional and artistic skills that storytellers think are important to their work, "research" was almost at the bottom.

Now if you follow my blog you probably know that I am passionate about storytelling research (I teach workshops, and even guest edited an issue of the Storytelling Magazine on the topic), so I feel like I want to add a few things to this theoretical discussion.

***Since I am not a member of the FEST Executive Committee anymore, all opinions voiced below are completely my own.***

The moment I saw how badly "Research" scored on the survey, I began wondering what happened. My most likely theory is this: The actual survey text said "academic research", which probably made a lot of people think of universities and numbers and charts and peer reviews. Not everyone enjoys academic research, and certainly not everyone needs to do it in order to be a good storyteller. Being trained in academic research methods, however, can have significant benefits to storytellers, such as:

1. Sourcing our stories
Yeah, yeah, a good story is a good story, even if you don't know where it comes from. That's how oral tradition works. But contemporary storytellers often represent (or claim to represent) other cultures through their stories - and then the sourcing issue gets tricky. Take this well known "Native American folktale," for example:

One does not exactly need to conduct academic research on where the story comes from - because someone has already done the legwork. It should come as no surprise that the story is neither "Native American" (not naming a specific nation is a giveaway), nor a folktale. Neither is, while we are on topic, the very popular Jumping Mouse story. Or the Blue Rose, which is, once again, neither Chinese, nor a folktale (if I had a penny for every time I saw some European dude's short story go around as a "Chinese folktale"...).
Academic research can help us source our stories correctly. Learning the basics of how to locate folktales through the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale type index (ATU), or track down motifs through the Thompson Motif Index can save us a lot of time and trouble, and the more we use them, the more we develop a keen "sense of smell" for noticing unusual stories that claim to be folktales. Which, in turn, helps us with...

2. Ethics
Ethics have been a part of the discussion around many academic research methodologies, and these discussions relate to storytelling directly. Researchers have been asking questions such as "who benefits from this research project?", "who owns the data gathered from indigenous / disadvantaged communities?", "how do we define knowledge?", or "who gets to speak for a community, and how should outsiders interact with gatekeepers?" This all falls under the ethics of research - and of storytelling. Cultural appropriation is a term that makes many storytellers bristle, and it is about as fun to talk about as swallowing a hedgehog - but IT. IS. IMPORTANT. Storytellers need to check their privilege like everybody else, and engage in these discussions with an open mind. Repeatedly. You know who has been doing this for a long time? Anthropologists. Folklorists. Researchers.

3. Recognition of storytelling
Storytelling is important. Storytelling is useful. Storytelling is unique and irreplaceable and should definitely be present in schools and communities. We know it, because we work as storytellers. But how do we prove it to the people that ask for proof? The good news is, the effects of storytelling on the development of children, on the formation of communities, and many other things can be measured and shown. But in order to have the charts and numbers we can hold up in order to push the art form forward... yes, you guessed it, we need some good old fashioned research.
(And unless you want people in other fields, such as linguists, to do it for us... *cough*, then we better get involved)

4. Deeper understanding of our stories
This should go without saying: The more you get involved with researching your stories, the deeper the understanding you can gain from them, until you start seeing narratives in a whole different light. Being educated about how folklorists collect stories, for example, can help you evaluate the folktale texts you come across, and find more authentic sources. Learning about linguistics (like we did in the ETSU Storytelling program) can teach you new things about how oral literature differs from the written - and you can even find different methods of transcribing spoken word narratives so that they retain more of the "oral" elements on paper. Dabbling in some qualitative research methods can help you with your community storytelling projects. And these are just some of the many examples.

All in all, "research" can be defined in various ways, and I am sure the people filling out the survey understood it in their own various ways as well. But if we keep talking about possibilities for teaching, guiding, or inspiring future storytellers - then we can't let it fall to the bottom of the list.


  1. I’d never even think of writing a story without research. My fantasy fiction is usually inspired by folktales or mediaeval romances and while I might write about something I already know, rather than hold it up by researching first, I never get past the first draft without looking it up. We have so many options these days, online or in print,there is no excuse for allowing egg on your face.

    You might be interested to know that an Australian children’s book, Two Wolves, quotes from that one you mention.

  2. That seems a bit weird to me that research was so low. I wonder if there's someone you could email and find out if it really did say academic research or not.

  3. I’m surprised that research didn’t get the attention it needs to have. Thank you for writing this useful reminder to storytellers to do the research.

  4. When I first started telling, I did not get a good understanding of how important it was to research stories. Since then, I have learned how important it is and why it is necessary. I also don't tell stories from indigenous communities unless I get permission from a storyteller in that tradition. People come to this art form from many different directions, and they aren't always aware of what is involved in honoring the traditions.

  5. With no research, one has no foundation upon which to stand, and no authentic reference point wherein to draw one's imagery. Every time I tell, I tell how the story came to me, from whom/where, and how it resounds as part of my personal story...