Publication - Research and analysis

Social capital in Scotland: research study

Published: 14 Feb 2020

A study to consider how stories and case studies can provide insight into the nature of social connections and places in Scotland.

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53 page PDF

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Social capital in Scotland: research study
2. Why use stories within a policy research context?

53 page PDF

781.5 kB

2. Why use stories within a policy research context? 

Reflections on storytelling as a means of communicating research

Policy research involves the dissemination of evidence and providing recommendations for change. This is done more often than not through writing reports. The development and deployment of arguments is a fundamental part of the policy process.[2] If we want to simplify and generalise, we could define stories as a structured account that describes a phenomena or experience as told or written by an individual and from the perspective of that individual.[3] [4]

Any argument or coherent text that aims to communicate a policy message is already a story in some way. Yet, many policy reports and publications are difficult to read and fail to spark interest and excitement in most readers. While we as policy researchers put effort into making sense of data, we seem to pay less attention to how to communicate our data’s ‘story’ in compelling and engaging ways[5]. This might be because storytelling techniques within policy making seem to move too far away from ‘the facts’[6] and there seems to be a perceived danger that using emotions and drawing on the perspectives of individuals threatens research validity. This is not an unfounded fear as the recent scandal of ‘made up’ stories by an award winning Spiegel journalist shows[7]. Stories are told from a certain perspective and they involve interpretation by the storyteller and by the reader. The message the stories is trying to bring across might be ambiguous and this stands in conflict to values such as transparency, reasoning and clarity. However, research has shown that the use of stories to communicate key-messages is more powerful than giving people a list of evidence, using numbers or citing findings as bullet points [5] [6] [8]. People make use of stories to understand their own experience and the life of others and the ability to tell and understand stories seems to be inherently linked to our sense of self and identity[9]. Creating a story around ‘the facts’ seems to help people remember and relate [8]

We argue that stories can honour all of the above and in combination with quantitative data they can be powerful to transcend phenomena.  As most western societies have seen a decrease of people’s trust in government and voter turnout over past decades[10] and in our recent times of ‘fake news’ we might need to rethink our way of communicating to and engaging with people. 

Advantages of using stories

Academic research has shown that stories offer advantages, that may be useful for policy researchers [3], [5], [6], [7], [8]:

  • stories help people remember and relate
  • stories help people to empathise with the subject
  • stories help people to make connections 
  • stories help people to re-live the complexity embodied in a situation
  • stories are able to build bridges between policy areas
  • stories are able to amplify a message through the way they enable re-telling

In my conversations with academics, researchers and third sector organisations on the role of stories I saw and heard about examples of research that collected people’s stories to illustrate complexity and develop empathy. Researchers used stories to understand the social causes and connections between for example organised crime and certain geographical locations or between kindness and formal service provision in different localities.  People identified a number of advantages and benefits during our conversations and they seemed to mirror the literature review but also added some additional thoughts. Stories were seen as valuable to illustrate the complexity, richness and messiness of people’s lives and experiences. This was seen as helpful to challenge existing narratives and simplistic typologies (e.g. people on benefits are lazy) and to highlight the role of systems, environmental factors and organisational practices. Stories were described as having the ability to create or build on empathy, to humanise and enrich, thus helping readers and audiences to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and see life from their perspective. 

Additionally, a number of researchers reflected that the use of stories might be key to move policy research forward. Participants felt that policy research was often conducted within specific subject areas and that consequently there was a danger of researchers and politicians losing sight of the overarching values and aims of the National Performance Framework. Participants argued that single indicators were unable to capture interactions of areas in people’s lives (e.g. health, education, transport, security) and that stories might facilitate a holistic understanding of policies and their impacts. Stories might therefore be a way forward to illustrate interconnections and to build bridges between subject areas. 

Furthermore, stories were described as a powerful tool due to their flexibility to be used and presented in different settings (report, presentation, speech, media) and retold in different forms (written, oral, visual). 

Stories vs quotes

In my conversations people struggled to explain how to write stories and many admitted that they often used the more traditional approach to qualitative data, of using extracts of quotes, in their reports. In policy research reports quotes are often used to illustrate a statement, view or experience of an individual and they are usually not longer than a few sentences. They are commonly used in reports that follow a thematic structure to illuminate a theme that is proposed by the author. In this sense they differ from stories as they do not attempt to describe the whole experience of a person’s journey[11]

Academics and researchers spoke about the difficulty of writing good and complex stories and the fact that social science researchers more commonly will analyse narratives, and report them in traditional report format, instead of practising how to write compelling narratives themselves, even where the benefits of these might be relevant. 

Organisations said they used stories to engage with people in creative processes and encourage them to write their own stories and explore their experiences through art. Thus, there seems to be great potential to work with organisations for future projects. 

Ethics - Risks and caution

People reflected that working with someone else’s experience of life requires sensitivity. The importance of stories to be authentic was emphasised by all of the people I spoke to. People felt that it was important for researchers not to ‘storify’ someone’s experience and to make their life fit a plot-template. The person’s experience needs to be central and inform the story line instead of the story line coming first. There was also some discussion around the term ‘story’ and the importance that writing stories in a policy context would need to be about real life, real experiences and real impact and not about made up stories. 

Everyone felt that the core of stories should reflect inequality and highlight how inequalities are created. Ethical considerations are discussed in the research process section in more detail.

Stories as communication and as method

The word story has started to gain attention within research but it can mean very different things. 

Stories might be best understood as a concept that includes a variety of methods and that spans different disciplines. In this report, that relates to the policy and research process, we make a differentiation between (1) stories as a means of communication and (2) stories as a method. 

We make this distinction to discuss possible ways that stories might be helpful in different policy research contexts.  Focussing on narrative can be helpful in both settings: to communicate both quantitative and qualitative data in more compelling and accessible ways (hence the emphasis is on communication) and as a technique to make sense of people’s experiences and encourage participation of people within the research process (emphasis on stories as a research method).  

This report does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview but will provide a brief discussion of the benefits and limitations of using stories in a policy context and present particularly compelling and striking examples. 

This is not a methodological paper and does not offer any discussion on how to analyse stories or explore how narratives are constructed. Instead it discusses stories as a tool that can help researchers to depict and illustrate a phenomenon or experience (although there will be some overlap). The report focusses on written and read stories, which can be presented in reports or in other forms such as film or audio. Visual illustrations can be a powerful way to communicate research and the report includes a number of examples where the use of visual illustration in combination with stories has been particularly powerful. 

Stories as communication

It is essential for policy researchers to ask themselves who their audience is and what they would like their audience to take away from the policy narrative they present. Keeping in mind who the audience is, is particularly important as the power of story to bring about change comes not from the story itself but from the reactions that it creates in the minds of the listeners.[12] 

How one attempts to make meaning of or explain a concept (climate change, poverty) is important because that one story will need to be embedded within the bigger political debate and vision that a government tries to communicate. Who is responsible? What can be done? What should be done?[13]

Working with techniques such as plots, and following a consistent story-line can help to navigate through complex phenomena and help readers to understand subsequent policy recommendations and increase their believability[14]. Readers will judge messages based on their plausibility, trust of the author but also if they feel moved by the text, if it keeps their interest and if they can connect to the content[15].

During conversations with academics and organisations and while reviewing existing literature it became apparent that using stories as a way of communicating a policy message can be done in different ways and with different aims in mind. In the following section I will discuss three main techniques:

(1) Case studies – the classic technique, 

(2) Stories to create a vision – campaign stories, 

(3) ‘Zooming out’ – stories of complexity.

Table 1: Stories as communication

1. Descriptive case studies – the classic technique

The use of case studies within research has a long tradition within the social sciences and is most commonly classed as a form of qualitative research.[16] Descriptive case studies aim to provide a rich description of the phenomenon under study[17] and to provide real life context. [18]

In a policy context case studies are often based on knowledge that has been gained from projects, or services. Case studies might include summaries of what took place and describe the event or intervention.[16]


Case studies are often based on observations and evaluations are based on the subjective experience of participants. They might be powerful to illustrate existing practice but can be unsystematic in their choice of what to present. This means that there is room for bias in concentrating on practice examples that fit the argument or that are easy to access for researchers.

2. Stories to create a vision – The Obama campaign

Stories are helpful to build a connection between people’s own personal experiences and the experiences of the ‘other’ [4]. Thus, stories have the ability to connect people and the use of stories has been explored as a way to unite people to create a common vision. In this context stories focus on the question of WHY more than HOW: Why does it matter? Why should we care?[19] [20]

Ganz [19] [20],  a lecturer at Harvard university and a key member of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, offers guidelines on how to write stories that are able to influence policies and change government agendas. Ganz writes: Public narrative are woven from three elements: a story of why I have been called, a story of self; a story of why we have been called, a story of us; and a story of the urgent challenge on which we are called to act, a story of now. 

Ganz (2008) suggests that the structure of the story is centred around a main character who is faced with a challenge that leads to them making a choice which leads to a certain outcome. In the end the story needs to be able offer a moral, an argument for what the underlying problem is and how to solve it

(Ganz, 2008,

Further resources can be found here: 


Stories that centre around a main character do not automatically result in a recognition that there is a need for social change. They might even add to an individualised view, emphasising individual responsibility over systemic influences. Therefore it is important to highlight societal influences and the interdependence of people and their circumstances throughout the story.

Additionally, the story of one might not be representative of all and references to quantitative data can help to increase trust in the credibility and transferability of the story.

3. ‘Zooming out’ – Stories of complexity

One of the limitations of categorical and thematic approaches to writing reports is that they often struggle to communicate circumstances and interdependence.[11] Stories on the other hand are able to illustrate context and complexity and to make causal relationships visible.[6], [21] Throughout a story, actions and events can be positioned within their societal, organisational, cultural and historic context. This can help readers to gain a better understanding of how the world works by embedding contextual influences in the concrete doings of people.[22] [23] Stories of complexity encourage researchers to take a step back from their data to identify key problems, draw out ethics and build bridges to the cultural and political spheres that surround the data.[6], [24] 

Developing an understanding of context is particularly useful for researchers who work with complex concepts that are multi-layered. This report will illustrate this later on in relation to the concept of ‘social capital’. 


Research highlights that existing stories on the same subject can vary significantly. For example, within research on climate change the use of stories to influence people’s attitudes has been shown to be very effective but it has also highlighted that different stories will identify different villains/problems[24] (e.g. large companies, national governments, scientific community, the consumer). Stories can have multiple valid interpretations and the possibility that people will view different stories on the same problem as equally true is the main limitation of using stories within policy research. It is not enough to merely present stories and researchers will need to engage in careful analysis to unravel the complexity and identify key-factors. Making reference to quantitative data and using robust evidence within stories is crucial. Risks can be mitigated by being transparent, striving for clarity and making reference to quantitative data.

Stories as method

The two main reasons to use stories as a research method in a policy context can be summarised as:

(1) to make sense of experiences, and 

(2) to promote participatory practice and involve people within the policy making process. 

While a research project that aims to explore experiences might involve participatory methods it might also draw on methods that are more researcher led, especially in the phase of analysis and writing up findings.

Table 2: Stories as method

1. Making sense

Quantitative data can help researchers to give an overview of the extensiveness of a problem but questions of how and why will often remain unanswered. Listening to the stories of people affected can help researchers to understand the barriers and constraints that people experience, how they make sense of their experiences and the resources and strategies they find helpful. 

As we have argued before, using stories as a method to make sense of the data stands in contrast to thematic approaches to data analysis. Thematic approaches attempt to find similarities across their data, thus the analysis is ‘similarity based’ [12]. Interview and text sequences are coded and recoded into smaller units and consequently by working with quotes, the small text units are decontextualized and categories instead of process frame the analysis. Stories on the other hand can inform an analysis that closely works with context.[11], [25] Researchers often use interviews but data collection might also involve other methods such as observations or arts based approaches.

Examples of analytic approaches that work with a focus on stories are narrative inquiry[26]; narrative research[27]; narrative profiles[28]; writing as a method of inquiry[29]; ethnography[30] and life story research[31] or narrative ethics[32].

Limitations: Stories will often be based on the perspective of one individual and leave out different perspectives. Furthermore, the storied text might be interpreted differently than intended based on readers’ own assumptions and experiences. Therefore it is helpful to provide a discussion that surrounds the stories and that includes contextual information and draws on further evidence and information. 

Researchers carefully need to think about who will have ownership of the story (also applies to participatory approaches).

2. Empowering participatory practice

The co-creation of stories goes one step further as it empowers participants to write their own stories. Using stories might be one way to promote participation and involvement and link people’s experience with policy-making processes.[33],[34] To ensure that participation does not stop at the data collection level researchers need to think in how far they will involve participants within the analysis of data and the development and presentation of findings.  Stories offer researchers the possibility to draw on a wide range of creative methods that lend itself to the involvement of participants within all steps of the research process. This might range from story writing workshops to writing poems or developing films/theatre plays to using photography or art where participants themselves create the visuals that will be used in publications. 

Limitations:  People’s own assessment of their circumstances might overlook important contextual information. References to available evidence that can challenge stories or provide support will be helpful.

Reflecting on power relationships between researchers and participants is crucial. Additionally, researchers should reflect on who they engage with and whose voices they include and whose voices might consequently be missing. As participatory research is time consuming there can be a tendency to engage groups that already have strong links to local authorities and government. 

It can be frustrating for participants if nothing changes for them once the research is completed and this can lead to anger and resignation.

Table 3: Summary – Purposes and Story approaches

Linking to Practice – Descriptive Case Studies
Aim: To illustrate impact or implementation.
Format: Classic reports (case studies alongside main text), Websites
Methods: Descriptive case studies [16], [17], [18], [35], [36]
Example: Greater Manchester Victims’ Services; Creative Scotland – Creative Learning

Creating a vision – Campaign Stories 
Aim: To unite people and convince them of key-messages
Format: Speech, presentation; An introduction or conclusion in a report
Methods: Public narrative [19], [20]; Sociology of Storytelling[37] 
Example: Obama speech; Tom Hanks story; Obama campaign stories

Zooming out – Stories of Complexity 
Aim: Illustrate complexity and communicate processes
Format: Report or articles, radio or podcasts, non-fiction novels
Methods: Narrative profiles 28; In-depth case studies [17], [23]; Ethnography [30]
Example: David’s story; Serial (podcast); Palaces for the People; Homeless relocation; Boy Xthe water we eat

Making Sense 
Aim: To understand how people make sense of their experiences; To understand how people make decisions
Format: Report; Book chapter; Short stories; Poems
Methods: Narrative inquiry [26]; Narrative research [27]; Narrative profiles [28]; Life story research [31]; Ethnography [30]; Writing as a method of inquiry [29]; Narrative ethics [32]
Example: Seidman’s profiles (p.133ff);  Social fiction series; The Renewal of Generosity

Empowering Participatory Practice
Aim: To empower people to write their own stories and to be equal partners in the research process
Format: Written, visual or oral stories
Methods: Participatory research methods [33], [34]
Example: Young People Creating Belonging; Places for all; Place Standard


During my interviews, the researchers, academics and organisations with experience of using stories in their work saw the benefits of stories for policy research, as a means of capturing complexity.

This was for two main reasons: 

1. stories can complement existing quantitative indicators and show interconnections between different areas (e.g. housing, transport, social infrastructure, health, education) 
2. stories can help to communicate findings in more compelling ways and connect with audiences on an emotional level.

Additionally, all interviews emphasised that it would be best practice to use participatory methods to empower people to write or communicate their own stories. Using stories of complexity could help researchers to include contextual information and create larger stories to reflect how inequality is created.

How To Write Stories Of Complexity?

How To Write Stories Of Complexity?

The literature review and interviews highlighted a number of tools

that researchers can use when attempting to write stories of complexity. However, they are quite broad and looking at the examples given in table 3 will be an important first step.

Some tools to help:

  • Identify a main character and write the story from their perspective (individual, place, group). This will include references to emotions and feelings. Difficult and emotional content should not be left out but the story should be written in simple language.
  • Focus on movement and momentum by creating a sense of time. Events or actions can build on each other so that the reader gets an understanding of sequence and process. 
  • Include contextual information to ‘zoom out’ and illustrate how the story is embedded in larger stories of organisational practice, institutions and cultural and economic circumstances.
  • Create space for questions and uncertainty to encourage the reader to think and engage with the complexity.  

The report now considers if and how these methods could relate to an important element of the National Performance Framework’s outcome on ‘communities’ and the social capital measure within it.