Sunday, August 7, 2011

WEEKEND ROUND-UP: MICRO-NARRATIVES, OBAMA'S FAILURES, AND ASYLUM-SEEKERS' STORIES

 
Beneficiaries of the Trans-Nzoia Youth Sports Association in Kenya evaluate the organization through stories. (Photo by John Hecklinger. From an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)
 
GATHERING STORIES FOR COMMUNITY EVALUATION: A story from the summer 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) talks about how GlobalGiving gathers stories from local communities to assess and craft the programs that will support them. Interestingly, cognitive scientist David Snowden talks about analyzing what he calls "micro-narratives" -- snippets of conversation that can be gathered and used to analyze what a community or a society is thinking. For example, the article claims: "Listening to soldiers’ stories can improve troop safety in combat zones. Sales representatives’ stories can yield important insights for marketing. Until the GlobalGiving project came along, however, this approach had never been applied to development work." Snowden's company, Cognitive Edge, has developed proprietary software called "SenseMaker" that can analyze and reveal patterns in large numbers of micro-narratives.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S FAILURES IN STORYTELLING: President Obama has proven himself a master storyteller -- in his book "Dreams From My Father," and in many of his speeches during the 2008 campaign. However, in an op-ed in today's New York Times, Drew Westen writes that Obama has since failed to craft a narrative about the country that would rally support for his policies. This failure started with the inauguration speech, which Obama could have but did not use to offer "a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it. But there was no story — and there has been none since." What's more, writes Westen, Obama's stories as president "virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem." Whether this is due to Obama's conciliatory temperament, or his triangulations in an effort to get reelected is unclear. But the result is that he fails to achieve victories against moneyed interests, and on behalf of the mass of American people.

FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS, "IT HELPS TO MAKE A BAD STORY WORSE": An article by Suketa Mehta in the 8/1/11 edition of the New Yorker discusses how people seeking asylum might sometimes embellish their stories to the courts so as to improve their chances. He focuses on a person he calls Caroline, who was beaten in her home country, and legitimately feared persecution were she to return there -- after all, her parents were part of the opposition. However, in talking with her social workers and appealing to an immigration judge, she fabricated a story of rape as well. The author says in a podcast that this story should not be taken as demonstration that all asylum-seekers' stories are lies, but rather that the asylum system puts people in a position where they have to "augment" their claims -- which may be based on perfectly legitimate fears of reprisal in their home countries. Mehta started as a novelist, and says that he is "fascinated by the ways in which we shape our own identities" -- all of us, not just refugees. Caroline's story is "indicative of the human condition in general, and certainly in a schizophrenic city like New York, which demands an origin myth of all of us."

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