Anthropology: Storytelling and Narrative Anthropology

Storytelling, the act of communicating fact and fiction to an audience, is as old as time itself. This comes in the form of myths and legends, as well as histories and culture. All around us, we can see our daily lives formed by narratives.

Many anthropologists consider humans to be “story-creating and story-telling animals.” (Gregory Reck). Such classifications are useful to understand, not just in reference to those that they study, but also for anthropologists themselves. 

As anthropologists gather information on a society, they are documenting the stories of those people. In turn, they re-tell such stories in their own words. Different audience and different purpose, anthropologists are storytellers in their own right. 

History of Storytelling

Cavemen

Image of cave painting from cavemen depicting story of a hunt
Credit: Smithsonian

Throughout history, storytelling has worked as a way to preserve history. In the times of cavemen, narratives were painted on cave walls to record events. Unwritten and unspoken, these early humans were still able to communicate through images.

Placing paintings on permanent surfaces allowed history to be carried on beyond the artist. Humans were able to advance their understandings of themselves and the world they lived in.

Ancient Societies

Drawn image of famous Greek characters from stories
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As humans progressed, so did their stories. Ancient Greeks and Romans frequently used stories, or what we now know as myths, to explain the world around them. Verbally and written, ancient communities used stories to apply reason to life.

When the world makes sense, it is more easily navigated. And the Ancient Greeks and Romans made sense of the world for centuries, passing their myths from generation to generation.

Overlap

Painted image of Greeks watching a theater performance of a story
Credit: Curriculum Visions

With the progression of time, writing became more common. This allowed for more complex stories to be shared and recorded. Of course, not everyone was literate at first. Because of this, many narratives still relied on verbal and physical representations.

We saw this with theatre and illustrated manuscripts. During this time, there was a mixture of myths and history, as the legends were still very much alive, but incorporated into a new format.

Fairytales

Drawn image of Snow White, a classic fairytale
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Fairytales followed shortly behind, as the mythology continued in new ways. While individuals weren’t necessarily looking to explain the world any more (they had science to thank for that), they were still using narratives as lessons.

Stories became extremely valuable in society as they conveyed important information. Fairytales were especially important in regards to children, as they taught them right and wrong.

Modern Times

Graphic saying “ # story time “ from the app TikTok
Credit: TikTok

From that point on, storytelling became more and more complex. As people’s histories were recorded more frequently, everything became more detailed. Such narratives were also complicated with new inventions.

Photographs, printing press, and electronics were all advancements of both society and stories. No matter the format a story is told, there is always a purpose to the tale. Our fast-paced, modern media may not always seem as such, but there is still an underlying purpose.

Storytelling through Anthropology

Photograph of people seated around a campfire telling stories at night
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Anthropology is not unaffected by such interactions with storytelling. From a historical perspective, we see how important stories are to humanity. Anthropology, being the study of humans, is focused on stories as well.

When we want to understand storytelling through the anthropological lens, we have to take into account that anthropology is a form of storytelling itself. Researchers tell and re-tell the narratives of people’s lives.

With this perspective, it can be said that we are all anthropologists. Every day, we interpret and tell the story of our own experiences. Our stories interact with each other, leading experience to interpretation, and thus we have a complex history.

Anthropology as a Narrative

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The field of anthropology, as a whole, is a qualitative based research study. Scholars look to understand humanity not through numbers and dates, but from descriptive memories.

Anthropologist Ed Bruner said “Our anthropological productions are our stories about their stories; we are interpreting the people as they are interpreting themselves.” It’s not just a replication of a story that anthropologists conduct, but they apply their own understandings.

Theories, history, and hard data are included in such interpretations. But these facts do not make the information any less of a narrative.

Storytelling in Cultures

Colorful graphic image of a man sitting in a chair, reading a book to children seated around him
Credit: Beyond the Data

As we see from above, storytelling is deeply rooted in our human nature. Near and far, we see how useful and important those narratives can be.

Anthropologist Andrea Migliano gives an example of this from her time in the Philippines. After spending time with the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers, she found that the most respected individuals were storytellers.

Storytelling isn’t just entertainment, it is also a primary propellant of culture. Especially in tight societies, such as the Agta, storytelling is a way for ideas and values to be passed through the generation.

Stories as Knowledge

Painting of two adults telling a tale as two children listen intently
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Some cultural information is direct, such as telling the importance of sharing. Other stories are able to share complex cultural information between the lines.

One example of this comes from anthropologist Scalise Sugiyama and their studies of Andaman Islanders. A common story among the Islanders is about a lizard who gets stuck in a tree while hunting pigs. The lizard is helped from the tree by a civet (similar to a cat), and they are later married.

While this may seem as a children’s story, Sugiyama explains that it actually holds vital information for hunting. Stories work as a framework for how we, as people, absorb knowledge. They don’t just tell us new information, they also give such information meaning.

Nature and Narrative

Photograph of middle school group listening to a story in the woods.
Credit: Wassledine

Anthropologists have come to find that many stories reflect the world around us. We create characters and situation who mimic our own reality. In turn, this cultivates a reality that mimics the stories.

Anthropologist Polly Wiessner describes the connection of storytelling and fire. From her time in Southern Africa, she found that people are much more likely to partake in storytelling during the night. Cool air and sounds of the night encouraged people’s imagination. During the day, discourse focuses on practical elements of life. But at night, their minds are set free.

Wiessner explains that storytelling helps “keep cultural instructions alive, explicate relationships between people, create imaginary communities beyond the village, and trace networks for great distances.”

Narrative Anthropology

Photograph of two men sitting in front of a rouse with pen and paper in hand examining information on the papers
Credit: National Geographic

Stories, in anthropology, work as a “key to understanding life.” They extend beyond children’s books, and are a large part of academia. While we may not recognize it as such, our everyday interactions include the telling and re-telling of narratives.

Conferences, workshops, and many other professional arenas involve good storytelling. Anthropologists, and many other “soft sciences”, revolve around such academic arenas.

Story vs. Narrative

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Somethings about using the word “narrative” over “story” allows us to be more accepting of the idea. We are not children believing fairytales, but knowledgeable adults learning from the history of ourselves.

Narrative anthropologists agregue that all of our lived experiences, including histories, are stories. Documented stories at times, yes, but stories nonetheless.

Such narrations also occur in a more immediate sense. Think of a bad day you’ve had, and later when you’re retelling the day’s events. They’re not presented in a timeline, but a narration of your own experiences – a story.

As a Study

Photograph of a silhouette of a group of people standing in shallow water with sky and silhouettes reflected in water.
Credit: Sociological Review

The study of stories has become so important within anthropology that it’s own branch of study has evolved: Narrative Anthropology. These researchers focus on the presented images of stories. Such images can be physical, oral, or written representations.

Narrative anthropologists have the same methods of study as every other anthropologist, but they place emphasis in other areas. Ethnography, field work, and participation are all conducted with an extra focus on how information is presented and shared.

Ethnographic Work

Black and white photograph of one man video recording the musical preface of four other men
Credit: University of Michigan Digital Collections

In terms of their ethnographic studies, narrative anthropologists focus heavily on the ways that information is presented.

Firstly, there’s how the knowledge is presented to the anthropologist. Is it through an interview, group discussion, or story itself? While those can all be considered stories themselves, understanding how information is presented gives the researcher more knowledge on why it matter.

Secondly, there’s the description that the anthropologist provides. How is the researcher re-presenting their learned information? If it was given to them verbally, should it not be presented to society verbally as well?

Narrative anthropologists focus on how they share their findings because one, they need to respect the people they’ve studied. Two, the information may be better communicated in certain ways.

Field Work

Photograph closeup of notes in notebook during field project
Credit: GEOtec

When in the field, narrative anthropologists emphasize the amount of time and detail that goes into their notes. It is not enough to have jottings of what occurred, but there needs to be “thick descriptions” of the events, as Clifford Geertz describes it.

These anthropologists also argue that as our lives are presented in the form of a plot, they need to be understood in the same way. Narrative anthropologists should analyze history and lived experiences as a story, as the rise and fall of characters.

Participation

Old photograph of woman videotaping young children in the wilderness
Credit: Radio New Zealand

Lastly, narrative anthropology pays careful attention to the participation anthropologists have on site. As a non-native studying the history and ways of a society, each researcher is bound to have some bias.

Rather than ignoring such bias, narrative anthropologists believe it is important to recognize and call out their prejudice. They find it important to ask, how can a fact be “real” when facts are human experiences?

At least in the sense of anthropology, everything that is data comes from a narrative, of one sort or another. Narrative anthropologists believe this is crucial to pay attention to in all of their field work.

Putting the Puzzle Together

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Narrative anthropologists, and anthropologists in general, have a big task to accomplish. Research, history, field work, ethnographic notes, interviews, and recordings are all complied into one final book. This presents the next set of problems for the scholars.

What are they saying?

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After the historical background of the society they study, and the time spend with the participants (sometimes it’s years), the anthropologist has to sort through all of their notes to decide what it is they are going to say.

Narrative anthropologists as a repetitive question; what will they (the researcher) say about what was said (the meaning of the words) from the stories (given to them from the participants).

It is a delicate weaving of information, narrative, and data. The anthropologist needs to be careful to respect the culture of the people while still presenting new information to the audience.

Who is reading?

Black and white photograph of audience facing opposit the camera
Credit: Animalz

The audience itself is a question the anthropologist has to work though. Who will their work be read by, and what purpose will it serve?

Much of the time, anthropologists answer this question with their own theoretical analysis. Their presented theory is often a whole other puzzle of previous theorists, but that’s a topic inside itself.

Whatever theory they land on, it provides them with the audience they should aim to reach. Most commonly, their audience is somewhere in the world of academia. That is not to say others outside of universities cannot understand their findings, but that anthropologists try to contribute to that larger body of knowledge.

What does it mean?

Photograph of ice berg in water, half above and half below the surface
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Part of this question is ties to the one above, but the other part of it connects to the specific work. Narrative anthropologists theorize on why stories are presented in such a way and what meanings they convey. More often than not, there is a deeper analysis of the stories.

Similar to the lizard stuck in the tree that was mentioned earlier, there’s more to a story than we may first see. But narrative anthropologists go even further. Looking through history and other other cultural influences, they have found that narrations represent so much more than the words themselves.

A Strategy of Analysis

Stock photograph of peoples hands in gestures of comparison over notes and computers
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While a subject of it’s own, narrative anthropology does not have to work by itself. Many anthropologists, and other scholars, will use the same methods throughout other work. Understanding the meaning of works and narratives can be useful in many contexts.

In Other Fields

Business team discussing some papers on the floor in the office
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Closely related is the field of linguistic anthropology. While this topic is more concerned with the literal words used, there are many overlaps to their ficus. Studying language through detailed descriptions and long term field work will allow the linguists to become immersed in the language.

More diverse, law practices can also use narrative anthropology. Legal and criminal studies utilize the personal accounts of witnesses, victims, and even the offenders themselves. The ability to understand narratives in a larger context, beyond the courtroom can greatly help the legal proceedings.

Cultural context says a lore more than the words themselves. Lawyers and legal professionals need to know what the contexts are and how they are beneficial. Varying between location and situation, they also need to know how to conduct their own research.

Certainly no the the extent that narrative anthropologists would use but other field of study can find narratives just as important.

Overall

Storytelling and anthropology play a great part in each other, often in a cyclical fashion. Be it literal in the field projects, or overarching ideas for theoretical analysis, understanding narratives is crucial to anthropology and many other fields. Providing better insight to the subject, as well as the researchers themselves, storytelling has become a primary focus for those in the field.