Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In the Literary Mind, Mark Turner argues that narrative, and parables, are fundamental structures that govern human thought. Below is a passage from Turner's book. I've touched on this same passage in a different post, but I'll repeat it here:
"Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection--one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere,...
"Parable is the root of the human mind--of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking."
From one perspective, academic work is the job of creating parables: it tells stories that are meant to be projected onto another.

When we think about parables, often we may think in terms of the simple parables, like those in the Bible. Usually such stories are boiled down to a single idea--the moral of the story--though often such stories are complex and not easily simplified (e.g., is the prodigal son a story of forgiveness, a story of letting go of jealousy, or is it a story of contrition?).

When writing an academic work, it can help to boil the work down to a single core statement and use that to organize the material, because that core provides focus.

But that core can be hard to identify. One way to identify a core might be to think of the work as a parable: what does this story teach us about other stories? I'm not sure what the parable of the prodigal son is supposed to teach, but I see that its point is to suggest something about more general sets of behavior. It is not intended only for those who are in a family where one son goes off, ends up herding swine, and then returns. It is intended for a more general range of experiences.

So in what way does the parable of your project work?
If you're doing a study using inferential statistics, the parable is obvious: the statistics are meant to make inferences from a smaller population (the sample) to the population at large.
If you're doing qualitative work, or doing any sort of work that isn't quantitative, the parable might not be obvious. For that matter, it's possible that you haven't even thought of your work as a parable at all.

Thinking of a complex subject as a parable in a particular dimension can help organize complex material. So, for example, one might be looking at the interface between a specific group of people--(e.g., a racial/ethnic group, an occupational group, etc.)--and how that group interacted with a set of general bureaucratic systems. That story could become a parable about how people respond to bureaucracies, or it could be a story about how bureaucracies count people. It could be any number of other possibilities, but just taking these two, we can see that they organize the material and the focus of the writing differently. They both provide opportunities for the writer to mention the same material--e.g., material about the creation of a specific bureaucratic procedure, or newspaper/newsletter reports from the press within that group--though with aim to tell different stories.

Or, to take another example, one might be looking at the history of a local delicacy and how globalization of markets affected that delicacy. Does that become a parable about market operations? does it become a parable about policies of globalization? is it about food? about local culture?

Choosing one of the possibilities creates a focus and leads to structural requirements. Choosing one of the possibilities is not meant to eliminate discussion of the others, nor is it meant to exclude the other possibilities--maybe you can see that your study is a parable on many different levels and you want to try to convey that. Nonetheless, it can help to choose one as a focal point to guide the structure, and then to work in the other stories as sidelights to the main point.

I have spoken of using a parable as a perspective to help focus the complexity of the dissertation. But it worth keeping in mind the points I made at the beginning of the post: The second was that academia is in the business of making parables--of taking specific stories and using them to illustrate general positions (this is the basic issue of induction: making a generalization based on specifics). So what does your story tell about other stories? The first point was that we think in terms of parables. I know there's a lot of different ideas of how we think, different theories of cognition/psychology, so you may not accept this premise, which is why I listed it last. The fact that academia uses parables is a direct observation of academia, and it does not require the cognitive theory. I, however, find that theory an interesting and instructive one, so I like to explore what it means.

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