Reasoning Together Through Telling Stories: How People Talk about Social Controversies

Abstract

We use focus groups of ordinary citizens talking about social controversies to analyze the role of storytelling in collective reasoning. Prior research has emphasized storytelling and abstract reasoning as distinct rhetorical forms, and elaborated on how they function differently in group deliberation. But we find that people often combine the telling of stories and the articulation of abstract principles as they reason together about controversial issues. We extend prior research by showing how storytelling can foster collective reasoning and how people combine telling stories and stating abstract principles to create morally complex understandings of concrete courses of action. We complicate earlier research by showing that, in some group settings, stories are treated as legitimate justifications for the speaker’s preferences and are not used disproportionately by more marginal group members. Our research emphasizes the constitutive role that storytelling can play in collective reasoning by highlighting the interplay of stories and abstract principles and the way that stories themselves can function as a form of reason-giving.

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Acknowledgments

This research was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation (award #1059748).

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Correspondence to Penny Edgell.

Appendix: Vignette Texts

Appendix: Vignette Texts

Prison Ministry Vignette

Your state’s Department of Corrections is considering a contract with a faith-based prison ministry program operated by the Prison Fellowship Ministries. The contract would put in place a voluntary, 18-month residential rehabilitation program for eligible prisoners. The stated goal of the program is to transform prisoners’ lives and reduce recidivism (return to criminal activity after release from prison). Program staff would select inmates for participation based on their potential for rehabilitation. The program would be housed in a prison wing that offers greater privacy and better facilities than the rest of the prison. The program would include a package of services required for prison release, more freedom of movement, more contact with family, and support at parole board hearings. The program would be run by staff and volunteers and would be highly structured, requiring participants to attend Bible study classes, Friday night revival meetings, and Sunday church services. Other program elements (e.g., substance abuse, anger management) would be delivered from an explicitly religious perspective.

Some citizens and prisoner groups object to the contract because they believe it violates the separation of church and state, or because it allows the state to deliver extra services to prisoners willing to participate in the program, or because they worry that not all religious beliefs will be accepted or supported by the program. Others argue in favor of the contract, pointing out that the program is completely voluntary, there is an urgent need to rehabilitate prisoners, and studies have shown that similar programs have worked in other states. You have been selected to serve on a citizen advisory panel to provide public input to the Department of Corrections on whether to go forward with the program contract. How do you think the panel should advise the state?

Parental Medical Decision-Making Vignette

Jimmy Sloan, a 13-year-old boy from Webber County, Iowa, was diagnosed with a curable form of cancer and received an initial round of chemotherapy treatment. Unhappy with the side effects of the chemotherapy and interested in exploring other treatment options, Jimmy and his parents decided not to continue the chemotherapy and radiation treatment recommended by their doctors. Instead they switched to an alternative medicine approach that included herbs and vitamins. They also sought second opinions from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Iowa; specialists at both of these institutions backed up the recommendation for chemotherapy and radiation. Jimmy’s physicians reported the case to child protection authorities. The Webber County attorney filed a petition accusing Jimmy’s parents of child neglect and endangerment, and sought a court injunction to force the Sloans to continue the recommended treatment, which medical doctors stated had an 80–95 % probability of curing the cancer. In court papers, Jimmy asserted that the recommended treatment conflicted with his religious beliefs. The Sloans self-identify as Lutherans, but also belong to a Native American religious group that favors natural-medicine approaches to healing.

If you were the judge in this case, what would you do? Would you grant the injunction forcing the parents to continue the chemotherapy treatment for Jimmy? If they refused, would you remove Jimmy from their care?

Embryo Screening Vignette

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) refers to the practice of screening human embryos for particular genetic traits prior to implanting the embryo in a woman’s uterus. Embryos are first created through in vitro fertilization (meaning that human sperm and egg are combined outside the womb, using laboratory procedures). These embryos are then examined at the genetic level, usually with the goal of identifying embryos carrying undesirable traits (such as markers for serious diseases, or chromosomal abnormalities that reduce the odds of a successful pregnancy), so that prospective parents can decide which embryos they will or will not use to create a pregnancy. If acceptable embryos are identified, the final step is to implant the embryos and attempt to start a pregnancy. Unused embryos are usually destroyed, although they can also be preserved indefinitely or donated for use by other prospective parents.

You have been invited to sit on a citizen advisory board that will make recommendations on whether and how to regulate the practice of embryo screening in the U.S. As a board member, you must form an opinion on the following issues:

  • Whether PGD should be regulated at all in the United States;

  • What medical conditions PGD can be used to screen for; and,

  • What non-medical (or “social”) characteristics (such as intelligence or eye color) PGD can be used to screen for.

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Edgell, P., Hull, K.E., Green, K. et al. Reasoning Together Through Telling Stories: How People Talk about Social Controversies. Qual Sociol 39, 1–26 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-015-9321-4

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Keywords

  • Storytelling
  • Collective reasoning
  • Social controversies
  • Focus groups
  • Vignettes