Language, thinking, and telling fortune

I am often asked to review articles with qualitative research. Unfortunately, time and again, I am disappointed with what I read. One of the most frequent problems I encounter consists of making claims as to a simple relationship between language and thinking. In this blogpost, I would like to elaborate on this.

Let me start with basics. We, as researchers, do not gain access to what informants think. We really don’t. Any story, especially told in an interview, is subject to face concerns, power relations, shame, stigma considerations and a number of other contexts that we may not even be aware of. To say that in an interview our informants simply tell us ‘how it is’, makes no sense at all. It’s also worth remembering that people can lie, embellish, obfuscate, all for a number of reasons and with a myriad of social and communicative goals.

Thinking? No!  There are so many ways in which something can be said that you, as an interviewer, will never know why and for what purpose you’re being told something. Indeed, I was told so many times that an informant-patient had agreed to be interviewed because they were bored out of the brains that I stopped having any hopes as to the truth commitment in the stories I hear. No, I am told stories and nothing more.

I understand, of course, that informants can construct or co-construct honesty, sincerity, they might even assure us and believe themselves that they tell us the truth. Indeed, I can imagine wonderful action-research based on such stories, yet, you still cannot exclude the possibility that some informants simply go with the flow, say what is ‘required’ of them, for example, because of social pressure. So, no, by collecting stories, you still don’t get insight into what I think.

There is another aspect to that, though. A story I often tell students is one my mother used to tell quite often. It’s a story about me aged about 10 on a holiday camp. The story goes that one day, my mum felt very uneasy. She started telling her colleagues that something was not right and after an hour or two decided to phone the camp’s office. Lo and behold, she was told that I was on the operating table after an accident. The operating room was just a small-procedure room where I was given a couple of stitches to my upper lip after a boy had pushed me (I can still feel a little scar on the inside of my lip). I fell down cutting my lip in the process. Nothing major, but the story my mum used to tell was a story of her being able to sense (like mothers do!) that her only child had been in distress.

I have no doubt that every time she was telling the story she was telling the truth as she knew it. On the whole, the story was underpinned by sincerity. Even better, when I started reflecting on what I kept hearing, I started seeing how it evolved, became a bit more dramatic, a bit more emotional. And no, the changes were not about filling in some missing details, rather, they were about making the story more tellable. And, again, I have no doubt that every version of the story was told with the same narrative commitment to its truth.

Lovely as the story is, it’s very unlikely that things happened like in the story. My mother had always been overprotective of me. It is more than likely that my going away on my own was a major emotional event that cost her considerable worry and concern. From other stories I also know that she phoned the camp often just checking that I was doing fine. And so, one morning when she was making her regular call and she was told I had had an accident. All there is to it, but, knowing my mum, I would imagine that after hanging up she said something like: I knew something was wrong, a mother feels such things. And off she went with her story. And as being a good mother has always been very important to my mum, the story fitted well with her public image.

Am I being cynical here? No, not at all. I am just trying make sense of a story that I have heard more times than I care to remember. And it’s a nice story.

Do you learn what my mother thought at the time, or when she was telling the story? Not really. The narrative had too many goals to simply take it as an account of what had happened. Indeed, I don’t think it was ever told as a medical story, or a danger-on-holidays story. No, it’s always been told as a mother-feels-it-story, which makes it of course quite important for my mum’s public image, self-image, the image of the family and so on, and so forth. No doubt the story has always been told (at least to an extent) strategically as a self-presentation tactic. Again, I don’t think this takes away anything from the niceness or sincerity of the story, it just acknowledges the variety of its contexts and communicative and social goals.

And if ever you’re told such a story, you should never dismiss it. Rather, espouse it as a nice story someone shared with you. You can probably learn a lot from it, just one thing you cannot learn is the speaker’s thinking, feeling or whatever else. Every attempt to simply impose an interpretation that the story is about how my mother felt about the accident, me, herself is, in my view, an imposition too far. We don’t know.

I want to finish with a few comments on a related difficulty qualitative research gets itself into all too often. If we accept that we really have no access to the cognitive or emotional states of people who tell us stories, we should give up on trying to read them off the text. For the reasons that I explained above, text is not a door that opens a path to one’s mind and after you hear or read things, you immediately are let in. Just because someone says ‘I love you’, you cannot (and probably should not, but that’s a different matter altogether) simply assume that there is some psychological reality of love behind it.

For example, it irritates me no end that psychology keeps assigning emotions to words. If you see words like ‘love’, ‘nice’, or ‘sweet’, you obviously deal with positive emotions, while if you see words like ‘hurt, ‘ugly’, ‘nasty’, you will undoubtedly see negative emotions. If you’re looking for anger you look for words like ‘hate’, ‘kill’, or ‘annoyed’, and, on the other hand, if you look for sadness, you will (obviously) look for ‘crying’, ‘grief’, ‘sad’.

What a complete and utter nonsense. Let me offer examples I often use. You can easily say things like:

  • I hate your stupid love.
  • When I saw her, after so many years, I was just crying.
  • Yeah, it’s really nice, just plain stupid.
  • I love you so much, it hurts.

basically, messing things around and suggesting that, again, things are way more complex than the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count would have us believe.

And so, when we deal with stories, even as psychologists, it’s better to play it safe. It’s better not to make claims as to what I feel, what emotions I experience, how internalise shyness or shame, how I hate or love things. All you have is a story and you have no access to why and with what goal.

And yes, to finish off, in everyday communication we easily make the leap from language to emotions, from language to reality. This is because, as Grice and Habermas tell us, we operate a truth bias. That is to say, we tend to believe what we are told (even though a world without lying would be hellish – watch The Invention of Lying, if you don’t believe me). But as researchers we cannot afford this kind luxury. It is too methodologically unsound.

I’ll end with another family story. I have an aunt who used to be very keen on telling fortune with cards. She even took lessons from a local (and, apparently, very great and successful) fortune teller. I still remember the man’s name spoken by her with a hushed voice and with much reverence. Although the cards were regular playing card, rather than tarot, whenever I visited my home city, I always looked forward to having my fortune told, which, inevitably, included a long journey (I was always on my way home to the UK). As my aunt ‘stood the cards’, as the Polish expression for the activity goes, I must admit that I never believed it. But I enjoyed how she told me things she already knew and things that could never be tested. I am very certain that she deeply believed in her (growing) ability to predict the future and was always hurt when she sensed any mockery.

And here’s the problem. If you assume that stories simply tell about how things are, you must accept my aunt’s ability to predict the future. Personally, I would not recommend it.


Loading ...