Story and Society: The Storytelling Animal
by Emma Parfitt
“All this happened a long time ago–so many years ago that if you counted them on your fingers among all the old men in the village you would have to borrow some from the children. But the children are running around. So try and find out when this was!” (Nagishkin 1980).
I will filch a trick from Gottschall’s book, when I ask did you imagine the village? Did you imagine the people? The short quote above is to illustrate that a story can be irresistible to our brains. Before introducing Johnathan Gottschall’s book, The Storytelling Animal, I want to ask why should sociology as a field care about storytelling?
To answer this question requires a redefinition of storytelling from its oral, and perhaps overly nostalgic, traditions. For the purposes of this article storytelling could be redefined as narratives in different forms: literature, TV, films, video-games, music, media, education, the internet and interaction with other people, like friends and family, all contain stories. This is not an extensive list, yet illustrates how commonplace stories are in our everyday lives. Story needs to be researched because we do not yet understand story’s relevance to society.
I am currently writing a research paper which questions the use of storytelling as a catchall term. A general search on storytelling on Web of Science resulted in 404 papers. Of these papers 20 were tagged with oral storytelling. When studies involving digital storytelling, oral history and reading, studies were removed this left two papers on oral storytelling (none of which involved folk or fairy tales). Where is the storytelling in ‘storytelling’ research? A redefinition of terms would enable researchers to share relevant research.
The Sociology of Story
According to Ken Plummer:
…a sociology of stories would be concerned not with analysing the formal structures of stories/narratives, but with studying the social roles stories play: the ways they are produced, read, change, and so on. This means trying to answer the following research question: What social role does a particular instance of story-telling play in society? What political process does a particular instance of story-telling play in society? (Plummer 1995b: 334).
Plummer explored, through accounts of sexual identity and ‘narratives of the intimate’, the place for narratives in sociological research (1995a: 6). He proposed that there should be a sociology of story. But that this sociology of story need not be limited to personal narratives. Sociology already uses story: it ‘is bound up with gathering other people’s stories (via interviews and so on) and telling stories (about modernity, class, the degradation of work, and so on)’ (Plummer 1995a: 18).
The literary-evolutionary perspective: people as storytelling animals
I enjoyed reading Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human for the simple way it tackled a difficult subject. Gottschall addresses the relevance of story to society through a literary and evolutionary perspective. His book bridges biology, literature, psychology and neuroscience to ask ‘How did we become the storytelling animal?’ Gottschall uses the metaphor of a fish out of water to illustrate that we cannot function without story because make-believe has played a major role in the evolution of human society (2013: xiv). His argument echoes that of literary critic Jack Zipes, who believes that fairy tales have had an historical influence on the behaviour of young people, an influence which continues today through different forms of narrative such as Disney films (2006: 20). Therefore story might play a role as a stabilising, or possibly as a subversive, influence in society.
What is the role of story in society that Gottschall proposes? Gottschall’s focus is on the evolution of story. He asks, ‘How did we become the storytelling animal?’ Each chapter lays out why as humans we cannot function without story: why it is irresistible to our brains, the nature of dreams, and how we can learn morals from stories. Gottschall concludes that we are storytelling animals, and that make-believe has played a major role in the evolution of human society. He illustrates through psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary thought how characters and situations ‘shape our behaviours and our customs, and in so doing, they transform societies and histories’ (2013: 145).
My main criticism is that Gottschall talks about storytelling when he really means narratives. If this were an academic book, Gottschall would have chosen a different title, because he is talking about storytelling when referring to the different narrative forms of story, and these two things are different. However The Narrative Animal, as a title, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Using ‘storytelling’ reinforces his point that the brain finds a good story pattern hard to resist. And as the main audience for this book is the general public the title works well in that context. I liked the way each chapter began with a story which relates to Gottschall’s argument. I think that anyone who has an interest in story would benefit from reading the book.
Nagishkin, Dmitrii. (1980) Folktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Plummer, Ken (1995a) Chapter 2. An Invitation to a Sociology of Stories. In: Telling Sexual Stories. Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge.
Plummer, Ken. 1995b. “An Invitation to a Sociology of Stories.” In Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, eds. Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan. London: Arnold, 1997, pp. 333-45.
Gottschall, Jonathan. (2013) The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make us Human. New York: Mariner Books.
Zipes, Jack. (2006) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.
Emma is a doctorate researcher in Sociology at the University of Warwick. Emma is researching the role that stories might play in our understanding of the construction of young people’s behaviour, emotions and social education. For more information see: http://about.me/emma.parfitt/