Showing, not telling: some thoughts on social science and (science) fiction

Monday 18th April, 2016

Paul Graham Raven

In the eleventh part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Paul Graham Raven reflects on the resources offered by fiction for the communication of sociological ideas to diverse audiences.

Given the venue and topic, I should be probably writing this piece as a sociologist of technology (albeit a predoctoral one), and using the more formal style that role implies. Nonetheless, I think it perhaps more appropriate and illustrative to write instead as a science fiction writer and critic (albeit a minor one) who has unexpectedly ended up becoming a sociologist of technology, as I feel that to be a truer voice with regard to my positionality on the topic, namely the promise of sociological (science) fictions.

When one is learning to write fiction, one almost inevitably encounters certain nigh-canonical bits of advice and rules-of-thumb, among which the admonition “show, don't tell” ranks very highly. For our purposes here, I'm less interested in the rule itself (which should really come with plentiful caveats and exceptions attached) than I am in the distinction upon which it hinges. Sometimes a narrative simply tells us what happens (“Sheila felt ashamed”), but other times a narrative shows us what happens (“Sheila's face flushed, and she felt as if everyone in the room was staring at her”) and, in doing so, invites us as readers to interpret the action and infer its meaning for ourselves.

Neither such “mode”, showing or telling, is inherently superior to the other. Indeed, the afore-mentioned rule of thumb is pernicious in its implication that showing is necessarily “better”, or even generally more appropriate most of the time, when in fact narratives-that-tell – which have the merits of brevity and directness on their side, among others – is as vital a tool for fiction writers as for any other sort of writer. Nonetheless, the qualitatively different experience of reading the two modes is inescapable, and while fiction may contain no small amount of narrative-that-tells, it is from narrative-that-shows that fiction acquires its accessibility. We might say that narratives-that-show tend to encourage greater identification with and/or empathy for the characters; that's the established writer's-workshop truism, at any rate, and I've lately heard neuroscientific arguments involving mirror neurons and so forth which, at the very least, suggest there is a genuine and observable effect involved (even if stuffing people into MRI scanners isn't perhaps the ideal way of studying it).

People bring themselves into fictions, both as readers and writers; the same is significantly less true of journal articles, where (in many disciplines, at any rate) we authors are under an injunction to keep ourselves completely out of the narrative (regardless of the impossibility of actually doing so), and where the necessary density and precision of our disciplinary language effectively excludes the majority of readers not already a member of the club.

And so, donning my science fiction writer's hat – thus rendering myself temporarily a subject rather than a sociologist, and thus absolving myself from the burden of pretending that objectivity is desirable, let alone achievable – I'm going to claim that the magic and power of narrative-that-shows emerges precisely from the way in which it implicitly trusts the reader's ability to make sense of events without having it all unpacked for them by some omniscient interlocutor.

Now, that's not to say that narratives-that-show can't also be massively patronising or overburdened with their author's personal agendas and opinions – far from it! (Indeed, I'd argue that the seeming generosity of narrative-that-shows is a fairly effective vehicle for trojan-horsing all sorts of inferences into a story, if not at all an efficient one.) The point is that many if not most people are perfectly able to grasp sociological dynamics and relationships as things-in-the-world, so long as one simply depicts them taking place, rather than tagging them immediately with the relevant sociological labels.

At the risk of making a sweeping statement, we social scientists believe that language matters (lingering disagreements over the hardness or softness of Sapir-Whorf notwithstanding), and that's true enough: complex topics plainly demand a correspondingly complex dictionary. But narrative-that-shows offers the possibility of comprehension preceding nomenclature – or, in other words, letting people play with ideas for themselves before introducing all the rules and dynamics and exceptions that we've teased out through years of study. By way of analogy, you don't get children interested in football by sitting them down to read the official rulebook of the game; if anything, the exact opposite is true, in that children get interested in the rules of football through playing pared-down versions of the game and realising, through experience, that there are certain circumstances or situations in the possibility-space of the game that are more needful of arbitration and analysis than others – which is to say that the rules governing any complex system are more easily understood and appreciated once they have been seen to be both necessary and useful.

In my own field, which we might call “infrastructure futures and theory”, there are a whole bunch of stakeholder problems – foremost among which is the hollow euphemism of “stakeholder” itself, but that's a rant for another day. My own research in particular has more than a little of the “one man, two guv'nors” about it: ostensibly funded to bridge the interdisciplinary gap between civil engineering and the social sciences, my meta-challenge is to present my work in a way which is legible to both disciplines at once (not least so that my supervisory sessions are a little less fraught for all concerned). 

But my stakeholders aren't only located in the various hermetically-sealed silos of academic specialisation: they are to be found in industry, and lurking among the cogs of the policy machine. So I don't just need to talk to academic engineers and planners; I also need to talk to geographers, environmental scientists, CEOs, SPADS, think-tank wonks, the media... the list goes on.

And that's without even mentioning the most important (and most consistently neglected) stakeholder in the infrastructural discourse, namely “everyone else”: the people who depend on infrastructure for their survival and pay for its upkeep, but who don't get much input otherwsie. Furthermore, this isn't a problem unique to my own work: scratch any doctoral candidate whose funding mentioned the word “interdisciplinary”, and you'll reveal someone struggling to reconcile the ways in which different audiences explain and experience the world, often with very little in the way of substantive methodological guidance or precedent for doing so.

Perhaps this is (one reason) why sociology and fiction are drawing together: Might it be that narrative-that-shows, a mode native to and associated with fictional accounts, offers the opportunity to portray complex sociotechnical relationships in action while simultaneously de-specialising them? Might it be that, as a prelude to analysis, presenting the challenge in a format whose only entry requirement is basic literacy would allow engagement across the silos and across the sectors? Might it be that the tools of fiction offer a way to quite literally get everyone on the same page?

Particularly in policy-facing fields, but not uniquely, we are obliged by tradition and precedent to use languages and narrative modes which euphemise and obscure that which we are trying to explain. Small wonder, then, that the public tends to think of the social sciences as the quintessential dwellers in la tour ivoire – an illusion which the policy machine is only too happy to indulge. But no small irony, assuming we really want to change the world, rather than simply describe the change we observe: in that case, it is the public whom we need to engage, not civil servants and regulators.

Swapping hats one last time, to speak as a committed (yet frustrated) social theorist: our theories are worthless if no one can understand them but ourselves. If sociology is to truly serve that which it studies, it must speak directly to those which it studies. The tools of fiction are not the only ones which can be put to such ends, of course... but right now, from where I'm stood, they feel like the right tools for the job.

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