prof. mary s. morgan
Narrative - as I know from earlier research - is to be discovered in the most unexpected of scientific places. It can be the means of creating the identity of a mathematical model when used in simulation mode; it may be the only way to create sense out of a conflicted and complex evidence set; it can provide the necessary explanation covering a statistical or accounting data-set; and it may turn out to be an essential element of a variety of case-based work. Ideas about other sites and functions of narrative in the sciences were developed by a small team of collaborators who contributed to a special issue on narrative science for Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, April 2017. Since the ERC Narrative Science project team came together here at LSE in late 2017, they have rapidly expanded our agenda to explore new narrative territories, including: the relations of narrative to categorizing and classifying; the role of narrative in the development of scientific ideas and activities; the importance of distinguishing narrators from the narrated; the real importance of time in the natural historical sciences; how narratives of synthesis and re-synthesis relate; as well as how narratives integrate practices in the lab and in multi-field collaborations.
My own research work is currently focussed on two questions. First, I want to understand how the small anecdotal-level ‘observations’ that come as narratives in social sciences are knitted together to form bigger accounts of society. The fundamental problem that narrative solves in this context is to create an ordering of those smaller-level materials (observations, accounts of elements, and so forth) so that the social scientist can offer a more generic account of the phenomena in their fields. The question then is what prompts that ordering in contexts where, as here, the ‘natural’ order found in materials that unfold over time is absent? This alternative ordering process is framed as one of valency: that is, a process of determining how each small bit may be fitted together with other small bits. Different social scientists’ studies demonstrate this feature of valency, and so suggest how narrative accounts prevail. Secondly, I want to consider how narrative are used in defining and giving content to concepts, although whether this is habitual or rather rare is an open question at this point. Some important modern concepts in the social sciences (even including perhaps those associated with measurement innovations) may now be represented only in symbolic form; but way back in their developmental moments, they were presented within, and differentiated by, the use of narrative accounts. It is to those moments of development, where conceptual content is formed, that I will look for the importance of narrative activity.
Author copy of 'Narrative science and narrative knowing. Introduction to special issue on narrative science' published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 62 (2017): 1-5.