[Book Review] Narrative Sociology

NB: Periodically I am sent books by publishers in exchange for a pithy and honest review. In this case I am reviewing Narrative Sociology, edited by Leslie J. Irvine, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Robert L. Zussman, from Vanderbilt University Press. I will also be submitting the review to a journal.

Emile Durkheim famously said that sociology was the study of “social facts.” That, of course, means that any aspect of society can become meaningful sociological study. If true, how exactly do we organize and understand that object of study, those facts, those experiences? The answer just might be narrative.

The editors of this incredible volume make it clear that narrative sociology is not a unified school of thought, or even necessarily a specific method. They've deliberately collected a diverse range of thinkers. A few big names jumped out at me just from reading the table of contents: Francesca Polletta, Michel Foucault, C. Wright Mills, and Jerome Bruner. They've included well-known thinkers, even before “story” and “narrative” became buzzwords in business and big data, while also offering some solid evidence from social science that there's good reason for narrative to be all the rage. The editors also did a good job of highlighting sociologists with otherwise different approaches, from classical to postmodern and the various rivulets of scholarship in between.

That said, some of their conclusions seem a bit obvious (of course there is a connection between who makes the narrative and who has the power) and some chapters took a long time to digest. That may be in part, of course, because the writing is meant for academics and because for more data-driven social scientists some of the more qualitative ideas central to the book may need extended proof. On the other hand, for a social science with such deep roots in positivism and empiricism (sociology) to now have such a strong current of antipositivist (i.e. interpretive) approaches is interesting to document, and this collection of papers from at least the last four decades is a thorough account of that “narrative turn” in the social sciences. As someone with a dual career in the social sciences and the humanities, I found the book to be most fruitful when viewed as a historical collection and not only a commentary on current research.

Overall, the book meets its stated goal in organizing sociological scholarship around narrative. I was continuously reminded of a kaleidoscope: seeing all of the same pieces before, but arranged in a different way. The structure of the book serves well to this end, too. Part I addresses “Varieties of Narrative,” including three essays under the header “Does Narrative Explain?” (the answer isn't as straightforward as one may think). Another header “The Work Narratives Do,” was a highlight for me, including work by Arthur Frank, Robert Zussman, and the aforementioned Bruner and Mills. Part II focused on “Sociological Narrative Forms,” making a case for how sociology might use narrative as a structure for research (everyone wants to tell a good story, after all), and Part III, “Narratives and Institutional Contexts” offered a variety of perspectives on power, oppression, activism, and institutions. With such a broad range of topics in a few hundred pages, it was quite brilliant, really, to see the skill of the editors in organizing the various approaches to narrative and coalescing key themes from years of work.

In sum, the book won't only be of interest to academics, but also to writers and storytellers addressing social issues, psychologists who utilize narrative approaches in their work, and to activists who want to support their grassroots efforts with documented scholarship. It's a valuable reference, one which I'm certain I will return to in my own research and writing. The editors were right: the time for a narrative sociology is upon us.


Addendum: This review was originally slated to post several weeks ago and my schedule was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. This makes me give additional thought to some of the narrative approaches mentioned in the book, especially around employment and healthcare. It's become all the more obvious to me that as death tolls rise, unemployment lines form, and people find themselves without many basic necessities, a numbers-driven or purely demographic approach to the current situation is clearly not enough. Each person without a job now, or without food, or without proper medical care, has an important story to tell that contributes to the qualia of what emerges as our collective narrative. Each system that we describe as “broken” — the government, the hospitals, and the social safety net — all need to know these narratives, too. Any sort of systemic or political impact that social scientists may hope to have in moments like these must be grounded in real narratives. With all of that in mind, this book becomes more important than ever for the scholarly debates that it will inform the coming years.