Anecdote and Story : Real and Pertinent Evidence

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Exploring story-telling as a way of revealing the identity of our work is at the heart of our Campaign. This emphasis on using story to unravel the distinctiveness of our practice led to our book, ‘This is Youth Work’ and is about to lead to the appearance of a web-based resource, ‘story-telling in youth work’. However it’s no secret that our perspective has been met with scorn by those wedded to the idea that youth work must be measured against prescribed outcomes. For such as the National Youth Agency and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, partners in the Catalyst Consortium with its rhetoric of evidence-based targeting, we were [and are] soft-bellied romantics, whilst they remain the hard-headed realists. 

Thus in recent weeks it has been fascinating to discover that the Campaign’s stance is not at all eccentric or impoverished. Within social research in general there continues to be a tension between qualitative and quantitative approaches to gathering evidence. Indeed back in the 1980’s this strain between competing views was described as a ‘paradigm war’. I’ve been drawn into understanding this clash, courtesy of a revealing piece, ‘Calling time on ‘anecdotal’ evidence’, written by Cathy Sharp of Research for Real., which follows and gives us a renewed sense that we are not at all on our own or off our trolleys!


I notice my irritation rising whenever someone refers to ‘anecdotal evidence’. As if people are saying the evidence is merely anecdotal. It’s unreliable and based on hearsay. It doesn’t count for much. And so often, such remarks are made in a situation where what we are actually discussing is people’s lived experience, of those who use public services or who work in them.

We must improve how we talk about lived experiences

My appeal here is simply that we need better ways to talk about and value the rich, insightful and yes, useful, evidence that can be gleaned from paying attention to the stories people tell us. If we are to value experience we need to seek out those stories more deliberately. Language matters. And stories tell us what matters to people.

Transforming public services? Don’t dismiss the stories people tell us

I’m a strong believer in the importance of good and useful evidence. I know it would be easy to get in trouble with those who are doing important work to gather evidence of ‘what works’; even with those who have shifted from the ‘evidence-based’ to the ‘evidence-informed’ policy and practice camp.

The flip side of wanting good and useful evidence is not to dismiss or undermine with barely disguised derision what is actually a form of unique and insightful expertise. We all need access to these accounts of the diversity and ambiguity of human experience if we are to stand a chance of transforming public services.

Don’t miss chances to learn about what matters

Of course, we know the paradigm wars are over, don’t we? (Bryman, 2008) Yet ideas about what really ‘counts’ as evidence run deep. The default setting, even now, seems to be that ‘we’ll do a survey’ even when people have a sense that it probably won’t really get to the heart of the issues. Confidence in qualitative research rarely goes much beyond the focus group. Too often we miss those chances to learn more about what really matters to people. When we do, we can be surprised – usually a sign that our own assumptions are being challenged.

Stories, language and emotion can illuminate the real issues

Stories can help us to change the questions we ask. The words people use are important and often provide the key to what the real issues are. The emotional content of stories is valuable data not accessible through official reports or questionnaires. When you hear a story you can’t dispute the emotion – you might not like it, but you can’t disagree with it. I hear people describe stories as ‘honest and compelling’ and importantly they are often profoundly moved by the stories they hear.

Stories provide the insight and empathy needed for action

At their best, research and evaluation reports provide information and argument. They invite the reader to agree with them (or to pick holes in their methodology). As Geoff Mead (2014) says ‘argument and intellectual assent are not enough to move people to action’. Stories provide insight and the empathy needed for action.

The science of storytelling offers insight into the human intrinsic search for meaning and the role of the limbic system in allowing us to learn from vicarious experiences. Geoff Mead writes on these issues and challenges us to notice our reactions to this short film. Essentially stories are a form of relational knowledge – where we ‘know with feeling and the knowing is in the feeling’ – that comes from connecting and interaction (Park, 2001). They can unearth the theories-in-use; ‘the often tacit cognitive maps by which human beings design action’ (Argyris, 1985).

As people interested in good evidence, useful to promote insight and change, we need to create the conditions in which people can articulate and share what they know and their values. We need to create the right kinds of spaces and conditions for stories to be told and for collaborative sense-making and action.

Fully referenced version at Calling time on ‘anecdotal’ evidence


In addition Cathy furnished some excellent links, to which I’ll return in a separate post. However there’s a sting in the tail, certainly for me. Whilst Cathy’s piece appeared originally on  Alliance for Useful Evidence I found it as a link on the newly created Centre for Youth Impact site. Now I’ve been less than generous in my welcome to this partnership of the NCVYS, Project Oracle and the Social Research Unit, pump-primed by the Cabinet Office – see more pseudo-scientific posturing in the service of competition. However there may be signs that the Centre is open to a greater diversity of approaches than I imagined.

Hence posts to follow in the next few days on The Wider World of Story-Telling, The Centre for Youth Impact revisited and our own Story-Telling developments, the web-based resource and a new offer of workshops. Are you sitting comfortably? Then watch this space.


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