first person narrative in scholarship

 (it took me a day before I realized I violated Jeremy’s no caps rule)

I am sort of a lawyer, and I read a lot of law blogs. One of the never-ending debates in legal scholarship is the use of first-person narrative in legal scholarship.  First person narrative, or “storytelling,” is one of the principal methodologies of Critical Race Theory, a scholarly movement that has an anti-discrimination project and through its lense and methodology attempts to speak for “voices from the bottom.” 

 Enough background.  The debate over first-person narrative is back, or at least Paul Secunda, a legal scholar in employment and labor law, asks the following question at Concurring Opinions:

 [C]onsider whether there is something that first-person narrative brings to legal writing that is otherwise missing.

I know my friend Nancy Levit of UMKC School of Law thinks so. Along with Allen Rostron, Nancy started a series in the UMKC Law Review last year called “Law Stories: Tales from Legal Practice, Experience, and Education,” 75 UMKC L Rev 1127 (2007). Their purpose in starting this project was to expand on the art of legal storytelling:

Over the last few decades, storytelling became a subject of enormous interest and controversy within the world of legal scholarship. Law review articles appeared in the form of stories. Law professors pointed out that legal decisions were really stories that told a dominant narrative. Critical theorists began to tell counterstories to challenge or critique the traditional canon. Some used fictional stories as a method of analytical critique; others told accounts of actual events in ways that gave voice to the experiences of outsiders.Storytelling began to make its way into legal education in new ways. For instance, a major textbook publisher developed a new series of books that recount the stories behind landmark cases in specific subject areas, such as Torts or Employment Discrimination, to help students appreciate not only the players in major cases, but also the social context in which cases arise. Meanwhile, Scott Turow, John Grisham, and a legion of other lawyers invaded the realm of popular fiction and conquered the bestseller lists.

Legal theorists began to recognize what historians and practicing lawyers had long known and what cognitive psychologists were just discovering – the extraordinary power of stories. Stories are the way people, including judges and jurors, understand situations. People recall events in story form. Stories are educative; they illuminate different perspectives and evoke empathy. Stories create bonds; their evocative details engage people in ways that sterile legal arguments do not.

Because, like Nancy and Allen, I believe that legal storytelling is not only educative, but also a way to illuminate different perspectives, I chose to contribute this year to the Second Law Stories Series.

So, I ask you, readers of Concurring Opinions, should legal storytelling have a continuing, meaningful place in legal scholarship? And if so, aren’t some forms of legal blogging (not all) nothing more than elaborate ways of telling a good legal story and therefore, also a type of legal scholarship?

 My comments at the Co-Op:

 Qualitative research, when properly done and when bias is controlled for (as much as possible), is when I think narrative can be most useful and meaningful–when the responses form a sort of narrative that give life to the quantitative data, or generate theories for future studies.

But narrative qua narrative–ah, well, that’s an old controversy. When it comes to personal storytelling…there is a long, exhausting, neverending debate on the scholarly rigorousness and meaningful impact of such a methodology.

 And I say this with great difficulty, as a former student of CRT.

It is an old debate. Everything comes to the legal academy last. But this is distinct from other debates in other disciplines, e.g. qualitative v. quantitative; the rigor of ethnographical studies, the bias potential and objectivity problem in embed participant observation studies (see Venkatesh’s Gang Leader For A Day, which also had IRB issues when he got involved with other gang leaders).

I am not a big fan of Delgado’s storytelling methodology (esp. the Rodrigo chronicles), but he has an article on this that started it all: “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative” (Michigan Law Review, 87 (1989).

Farber and Sherry’s critique: Daniel A. Farber & Suzanna Sherry, Telling Stories Out of School: An Essay on Legal Narratives, 45 STAN. L. REV. 807 (1993).

But I really like this analysis by Kathryn Abrams: Kathryn Abrams, Hearing the Call of Stories, 79 CAL. L. REV. 971 (1991).

 So, what say you, Scatterbrains?  Is there a place for first person narrative in scholarship? Is it used much in sociological scholarship?  Is it meaningful, useful, rigorous?

(If you click on the link above, please do not be appalled at and get all judgmental over the fact that law professors hardly know about IRB issues, much less know when they are supposed to run their projects past IRB boards. I do not want to know whether all the law reviews I have read that use (non social scientific) surveys and interviews had IRB approval.  Fortunately, my advisor is a joint J.D./Ph.D, and so she is very much aware of IRB issues and walking me through all of them as I prepare to do fieldwork this summer. I am the only doctor of juridical science student at my school doing an empirical study (albeit qualitative).  Empirical Legal Studies and Law and Society are doing much to integrate in a more rigorous manner law and social science, but let me tell you, coming from a program that is squarely “Just Law” (as opposed to “Law and ___”) I am scratching tooth and nail to get proper methodological training.  Ah, maybe I should have transferred to the interdisciplinary Ph.D. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. )

6 thoughts on “first person narrative in scholarship”

  1. In discussing the first person, I would distinguish between active voice and personal voice. Passive voice is one of the great scientistic fetishes and it drives me nuts when people write articles in which “the variable was measured” and “the analysis was performed,” apparently by kindly lab elves since the grammar doesn’t acknowledge that the researchers themselves did it. As such active voice is a useful anecdote.
    On the other hand, I think personal voice of the kind you’re describing in CRT can be obnoxious. Victor Davis Hanson wrote a great essay called “Too Much Ego in Your Cosmos” on the use of personal voice in classics. In it he compared unfavorably the non sequitur navel-gazing middle-class anxiety of a modern academic to the highly relevant deadpan remark of Thucydides that he could accurately describe the symptoms of the Athenian plague because he himself took ill of it. The point of course is that personal voice can be a useful tool, but if we make an obligatory fetish of it we are less likely to illuminate our subject matter than to reveal how uninteresting and narcissistic we are.
    (fyi, this essay was before Hanson devoted himself fulltime to comparing Dick Cheney to Pericles and Cinncinatius)


  2. A long answer, with quotes, no less! The feminist epistemology school has a lot to say about this. You probably know this already, belle, but their basic idea is that all knowledge is situated in the experience of the knower. And therefore some kind of situating of that knower is essential to (social) scientific work. So first person narratives aren’t just an option; from this position they are the mark of better epistemological practice.

    Donna Haraway argues that we should privileged the vision of the dominated. “’Subjugated’ standpoints are preferred because they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world…” (1988: 584). Haraway doesn’t suggest that true objectivity comes from below. She tells us the opposite, “I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning and situating, where partiality and non universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims” (589). So we basically need to reveal this location and positioning in our work (provide some kind of first person narrative).

    Sandra Harding noted the ways in which feminist critiques of standard social science methodology challenged the view of the “objective” insofar as they (if even implicitly) claimed that knowledge was a social product, contingent on the position of the knower.” Later feminists have taken up this point and moved toward radical subjectivity, situation claims firmly in relationship to the experience of the subject-knower (Devault 1996 – I believe – has a annual review piece on all of this). The calls for the integration of experience (in particular, women’s experience) into methodology is not a form of Wundtian introspection, where the project of the knower is to better understand herself. Instead it is a call for inquiries to be cognizant of the situation from which knowledge claims are made. And again, the point is that the narrative account of the knowledge produced reveal this recognition and more importantly, the situation within which the work happened.

    Dorothy Smith’s own conceptualization of “institutional ethnography,” “explores the social relations organizing institutions as people participate in them and from their perspectives” (Smith 2005: 225). The resulting sociology, “does not transform people into objects, but preserves their presence as subjects” (1987: 151). Smith begins by problematizing the everyday world though a discussion of “the sociology of women” – questioning the subject/object relationship in science by making women’s experiences and bodies a starting point of inquiry. Drawing upon insights from her own life – from being an academic single mother to walking her dog – Smith suggests that the insights provide from such situating should be extended to the ways in which we understand institutional subjects. Just as the observer cannot be understood as objective or outside the world under study, subjects themselves should be understood not as static objects to be explained but as subjects with contingent perspectives engaged in relations. Again, a first person narrative is essential here.

    The result of these combined positions is to argue that first person narrative is in fact good social science practice.

    This is not a widely accepted view (I can kinda hear the snorting by some blog readers right now). But it is a fairly well developed set of ideas.


  3. Like Gabriel, I’m a big fan of active voice. But recently an editor of a prominent sociology journal edited my paper and actually took out much of the active voice (as in almost all of the active voice!) and replaced it with ugly passive voice phrasing. This horrified me. When I emailed the editor about it, he told me he thought there was too much first person use in sociology today and that he was fighting against the tide. I was more than a little annoyed by this. Luckily, this person is no longer the editor of that journal.


  4. This reply addresses the use of first person in academic papers. One should consider various issues, several which have been addressed. Personally, I believe first person is more intellectually honest.


  5. In the legal academy, this isn’t a debate about the active voice or use of “I”–I think that’s okay to do, although there is a lot of “one would” crap.

    But it’s more of the diaristic notion of storytelling: I am writing an article about unconstitutional violations of the 4th Amendment prohibition against illegal search and seizure: here is my personal experience of driving while black to empirically demonstrate the inescapable racial overtones of any such stop. I am writing an article about unconscious racism. Here is my experience being denied access into a Benetton.

    When I was in law school, that was revolutionary and awesome. Now that I am writing my own work, I feel very uncomfortable about such a methodology. I would rather interview an IRB approved random sample and then use those transcripts to form the narrative. I don’t want to use my own personal experiences to speak on behalf of all or to make my anecdotal evidence make my greater argument.


  6. I’m not in sociology or law, but personally, I don’t see a problem with first person narrative as long as it’s *your* first person experience. I’ve read too many ethnographies written about someone who died before the writer was even born, that are written from the view of this dead historical person. That said, there is a time and a place for your experience and a time and a place for a random sample.


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