Scientists as storytellers: the explanatory power of stories told about environmental crises

Jenni Barclay, Richie Robertson, M. Teresa Armijos

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This paper examines how storytelling functions to share and to shape knowledge, particularly when scientific knowledge is uncertain because of rapid environmental change. Narratives or stories are the descriptive sequencing of events to make a point. In comparison with scientific deduction, the point (plot) of a story can be either implicit or explicit, and causal links between events in the story are interpretative, rendering narrative a looser inferential framework.

We explore how storytelling (the process) and stories (or narratives) involving scientists can make sense of environmental crises, where conditions change rapidly and natural, social, and scientific systems collide. We use the example of the Soufrière Hills volcanic eruption (Montserrat) and scientists' experiences of the events during that time. We used 37 stories gathered from seven semi-structured interviews and one group interview (five scientists). We wanted to understand whether these stories generate or highlight knowledge and information that do not necessarily appear in more conventional scientific literature produced in relation to environmental crisis and how that knowledge explicitly or implicitly shapes future actions and views.

Through our analysis of the value these stories bring to volcanic risk reduction, we argue that scientists create and transmit important knowledge about risk reduction through the stories they tell one another. In our example storytelling and stories are used in several ways: (1) evidencing the value of robust long-term monitoring strategies during crises, (2) exploring the current limits of scientific rationality and the role of instinct in a crisis, and (3) the examination of the interactions and outcomes of wide-ranging drivers of population risk. More broadly these stories allowed for the emotional intensity of these experiences to be acknowledged and discussed; the actions and outcomes of the storytelling are important. This is not about the “story” of research findings but the sharing of experience and important knowledge about how to manage and cope with volcanic crises. We suggest that storytelling frameworks could be better harnessed in both volcanic and other contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3603–3615
Number of pages13
JournalNatural Hazards and Earth System Sciences
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2023

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