CNS — Argument & Reviews — Types of narrative in science…

August 22, 2015



Typology of Uses of Narrative in Science —
From Positioning Science in Culture through Creating Affect
to Providing Explanations and Suggesting Concepts

by Hans Fuchs

When working on the concept of narrative framing in macroscopic physical processes ( Fuchs (2015): From Stories to Scientific Models and Back…) I consulted a fairly large number of publications where scholars from various fields investigate the use of narrative and storytelling in science and science education. Before I could make my claim of a deep connection between our narrative mind and science, I wanted to know what has already been studied.

We understand nature narratively and this surely finds its way into the concepts, models, theories, and artefacts—the results—of science.

In order to develop my argument for an extended use of narrative understanding in science, I tried to create a classification scheme of forms and uses of narrative in science discussed in the contributions I found in the literature (see Table 1).

Table 1:

Categorization of types and uses of narrative in science and
science education (*)

Science as narrative
…of human culture and meaning of knowledge

Grand narrative of meaning of science and scientific knowledge

Small narrative of the practice of science as story

Narratives about science
…for motivating learning and creating context of science
Narrative creation of affect
Narrative interaction in the classroom and with the public
Narrative creation of context

Narrative for science
…for science content, learning of science, science method, and formulation of belief about science
Narrative exposition
Narrative setting for conceptual change
Narrative facilitation of scientific thinking
Narrative grounding of science

Narrative as science
…narrative creating of explanations, using of models, and suggesting of concepts
Narrative explanation in historical natural science
Narrative embedding of models in the world
Narrative perception and framing of natural or technical scenes

(*) There are surely many ways of categorizing forms and uses of narrative in a field such as science. The one proposed here will change as the field develops. Note that the entries in the table are not all independent of each other—they form a web rather than a hierarchical structure. Some of the categories may blend into others.

I would like to distinguish between four main groups or categories of narrative in science and science education (Table 1): (i) Science as narrative of human culture and meaning of knowledge; (ii) Narratives about science, for motivating learning and creating contexts for science; (iii) Narrative for science, for science content, learning of science, science method, and formulation of belief about science; and (iv) Narrative as science, i.e., narrative creating of explanations, using of models, and suggesting of concepts. Narrative framing is positioned in category iv.

In short, what I found are mostly discussions of narrative and storytelling surrounding the business of science. Narrative approaches are used to show us the meaning of science (to culture), embed science in the wider concerns of society, tell stories about scientists and science, motivate students, i.e., get them emotionally involved, and support doing and learning science in a general manner. These are cases of the use of stories about science in a wide and most general sense.

There is a smaller group of publications dealing with the question whether or not narrative and narrative understanding have a greater role to play in the business of science itself. Very generally speaking, the answer is yes if we restrict ourselves to cases of natural history or where science is less formally structured than, for example, in physics ( Creager, Lunbeck, Wise: Science without Laws). Moreover, the relation between modeling, simulations, and storytelling ( Mary Morgan: The world in the model…) promises to shed new light upon the question of a deeper relation between science and narrative.

The former, larger group discusses applications of narrative extrinsic to science whereas the latter group deals with cases intrinsic to science (see Norris et al.: A theoretical framework for narrative explanation in science).

Most discussions dealing with the use of narrative and storytelling in science and science education concern extrinsic uses.

Recent research focuses more directly upon intrinsic uses. Keywords: narrative explanation, growing of explanations, narrative embedding of models in the world.

In the following, I will use references to the literature to briefly outline the meaning of the items in the list. At the same time, I will try to point out possible relationships between different meanings.

When associating a source with a particular form and use, I do not mean to suggest that it treats only that type or a particular use of narrative in science, nor do I want to claim that the authors meant exactly what I am making of their work.

Science as narrative

Science as a cultural product is more than its scientific, formal content. It consist of more and means more than the sum of the objects in its laboratories and the statements, graphs, and list in papers and books. There is more to it than can be explained in terms of equations.

(i.1) Meaning of science and scientific knowledge. Science in its totality as well as its parts can be considered narratives—it or they have stories to tell. Science tells a story about the world and our place in it. And it tells a story about itself.

For example, science tells a story about its meaning for understanding human culture and the human condition. It carries messages for philosophical, political, and social discourse. An example of this can be seen in the transition from modernism to post-modernism—the way we view the world has changed and this has been influence by science or by what we believe science to be and to mean (Lyotard, 1979). We can see this influence of science reflected in literary works by, among others, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Eliot, or Vonnegut.

(i.2) Practice of science as story. On a less grand scale, part of science or a particular field can have a more general story to tell than what is contained in it from a purely scientific viewpoint. Scientific theories or models have stories to tell, and the practice of science resembles a story (Arnold and Millar, 1996).

Arnold and Millar (1996, p.251) tell us that “[t]he scientific ‘story’ about thermal phenomena then says that, if two objects at different temperatures are placed in thermal contact, heat will spontaneously flow from the one at higher temperature to the one at lower temperature. […] the ‘story’ must be accepted as a piece; it only makes sense as a complete ‘story.’” So there is a “scientific story” as opposed to a possibly non-scientific one, and it is a story because it connects conceptual elements into a whole rather than leaving them as a more or less loosely packed conglomerate of statements (laws, etc.). There is a hint of narrative understanding of the content of science in this statement—see category iv.

In sum, category i helps place science in a greater context. Creating context is most likely one of the easily accepted uses of narrative in science, science learning, and science communication—see category ii.3.

Understanding elements of science narratively is different from using narrative for doing science. The former presupposes scientific content—it wants to explain it. The latter creates it.

Narratives about science

Narratives are created and used for motivating learning and creating context of science. Stories are told about science, scientists, and science in society and its development over time. It is hoped that learning of science content will occur alongside a better understanding of the importance of science.

(ii.1) Narrative creation of affect. First of all, and this may be the clearest and most easily proved case for using narrative in science, stories are probably the tool for creating affect in listeners (Egan, 1986, 1988, 1989; Bruner, 1987, 1990; Spoel et al., 2008). Here is a beautiful expression of this aspect of narrative in science:

All the knowledge in the curriculum is a product of someone’s hopes, fears, passions, or ingenuity. If we want students to learn that knowledge in a manner that will make it meaningful and memorable, then we need to bring it to life for them in the context of those hopes, fears, passions, or ingenuity. (Egan, 2014)

We all know how important it is to be properly motivated to study a field like science. Why should we care about science? We know of the power of stories to elicit the right response in us. We understand stories easily, and good stories let us know how to feel about a subject. Stories catch our attention by connecting with our emotions.

There is more to the relation between emotion and reason—emotion does not just motivate us to reason. Rather, the tools for and the forms of reasoning are based upon emotion.

In my argument for a deep relation between narrative and science it is important to assume that we know nature emotionally long before we turn this experience (knowledge) into formal scientific representations.

(ii.2) Creating affect can be used for narrative interaction in the classroom or with the public—making teachers good storytellers (Kubli, 2001, 2005).

(ii.3) Last but not least, stories are a perfect environment for creating historical and social context for science (Klassen, 2006; Metz et al., 2007; Levinson, 2006).

Narrative for science

Different forms of narratives have been used for supporting science content, learning of science and science method, and formulation of beliefs about science.

With this we come closer to an intrinsic relationship between science content and narrative. Still, there remains a considerable gap between the use of narrative for supporting science and the full-fledged claim that science can be intrinsically narrative (see the next two subsections for a discussion of Subcategory iv). The distinction between narratives being either intrinsic or extrinsic to science, has been made by Norris et al. (2005).

(iii.1) A first application in Subcategory iii consists in blending expository (descriptive) text with narrative elements that are either extrinsic (as in ii or iii) or intrinsic (iv). It creates a narrative setting (ex-tended oral or written accounts) for conveying accepted scientific terms and concepts (see Avraamidou and Osborn, 2009). This leads to results similar to iii.2.

(iii.2) Secondly, narrative for supporting science learning has been explored for environments that try to be conducive to conceptual change. Klassen (2010), in particular, argues that the progression of learning resembles a story—making narrative environments the right setting for productive learning, including explicit conceptual change. This is achieved by relating models narratively to accepted theory.

(iii.3) The third application in this category is very interesting. Ochs et al. (1992) have found by studying verbal exchanges between adults and children at the dinner table that critical thinking and scientific perspectives are formed in narratively shaped discourse. This makes it possible to use narrative to expose learners to argument/dispute as a preparation for nature of science issues; it provides training for forms of reasoning and learning to understand perspective. Finally, Bruner’s observation (1996, p. 126) that the process of science (hypothesis formation, testing, correcting, etc.) is narrative fits neatly in this category: storytelling supports scientific thinking in general.

(iii.4) Finally, there is the counterpart to science as narrative (i.1: science is a narrative about who we are). Stories are a perfect environment for a narrative creation of a web of scientific beliefs. This is the same as taking a particular philosophic stance—deciding how we can or want to understand the world from a scientific perspective. Formal science cannot do this, that is not its job; the kind of thinking needed to form scientific beliefs is by nature narrative (Herman, 2009, Chapter 5).

Narrative as science: Narrative intrinsic to science

Let me now discuss what may rightly be called narratives intrinsic to science (Norris et al., 2005). There is research that has made important contributions to narrative explanation in science and narrative use of models which I would like to discuss here. The third form of narrative in this category, narrative framing (suggesting of concepts and models) will be described in the following subsection.

(iv.1) Norris et al. (2005) have written an extensive survey of forms of narrative in science, both extrinsic and intrinsic. This makes it possible for me to be brief—in fact, their research is a valuable source of background information for what I have only touched upon above; they recount in some detail how we might want to define narrative. With regard to the phenomenon of explanation, the authors argue against a narrow reading of explanation only in terms of the deductive-nomological model (see, for example, Hempel and Oppenheim, 1984). Norris et al. (2005) show how the deductive reading of explanation cannot do justice to a vast range of science. Where science treats either singular events (a meteorite striking the Earth 65 million years ago) or historical events in nature (evolution, the development of a particular ecosystem), strict deduction fails. In the end, only narratives of the (special, singular, historical) events can be produced. Such stories properly and sufficiently explain what we want to know.

The application of explanatory narrative in historical natural science—when nature has a history—has since been widely accepted. Philosophers of earth science are among those who explain to us how their field can be scientific and narrative at the same time (Kleinhans et al., 2010). It is no surprise that the issue of narrative explanation is a hot (and hotly contested) subject in the study of history (Carr, 2008; Velleman, 2003), and researchers in the historical natural sciences profit from this debate.

A particularly interesting case of science as historicizing narrative has been described by Wise (2011). Wise contrasts the traditional mode of explanation as deduction from differential equations with explanation through simulation. He argues that narratives that accompany simulations are natural historical in kind: they (the narratives) explain phenomena by growing (developing) them rather than by referring them to general laws. This is indeed a phenomenon well known to those working in computational fields of science: explanations (of the behavior of systems) grow from many simulations; a picture emerges from a vast number of trajectories followed rather than from a single analytic solution of a set of equations.

(iv.2) The following application of narrative in (social) science has been described in a noteworthy publication by Mary Morgan (2001). I consider this paper on economic modeling one of the most important (not the least for the natural sciences) for showing how far the theory of narrative in science has come. Morgan demonstrates that using models and relating them to the world is a narrative activity. How to make use of a model or what to look for in a simulation are aspects that are not covered by the model or its underlying theory. Posing questions that lead to the definition of parameters and initial values for subsequent simulation is a narrative act.

In summary, simulating a model is telling a story. In the case of dynamical models, telling these stories means creating a history of and for the system being modeled; Morgan’s example of the application of narrative in science is definitely related to iv.1, but her emphasis of how to embed models in the world is worth discussing separately. (See also McCloskey, 1990.)

Morgan’s (2001) discussion is important in another respect as well. It shows where researchers seem to draw a line when it comes to using narrative as science. Morgan makes it clear that storytelling means simulating (existing) models that were derived from theory in classical manner. Theory is given—it exists prior to modeling and the subsequent narrative act of embedding models in the world. Storytelling does not seem to lead to theory. [This is similar to another important contribution to our theme of explanation: Ohlsson (1992) speaks of theory articulation, i.e., application of theory that must take narrative forms since the procedures to apply a theory are not part of the theory itself. Again, Ohlsson does not suggest the reverse, that using narrative would lead to theory. Closer reading, however, shows that Morgan speaks of using stories for suggesting possible extensions and changes to existing models. This is a step in the direction of framing and conceptualization.]


Arnold and Millar, 1996

Bruner, 1987, 1990;

Creager, Lunbeck, Wise

Egan, 1986, 1988, 1989, 2014

Fuchs (2015)

Klassen, 2006;

Kubli, 2001, 2005

Levinson, 2006

Lyotard, 1979

Metz et al., 2007;

Morgan 2001

Norris 2007

Spoel et al., 2008

Local Links…

From Stories to Scientific Models and Back…
Hans Fuchs
Science without Laws
Creager, Lunbeck, Wise
The world in the model
Mary Morgan
A theoretical framework for narrative explanation in science
Norris et al.

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