Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (Suny Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences)

Polkinghorne, Donald E.

The criticism by practitioners and funding agencies of social science research raises the question of the adequacy of its methodological assumptions. Although personally defending the significance of the contributions made by present methods of social science research, I find that our traditional research model, adopted from the natural sciences, is limited when applied in the study of human beings. I do not believe that the solutions to human problems will come from developing even more sophisticated and creative applications of the natural science model, but rather by developing additional, complementary approaches that are especially sensitive to the unique characteristics of human existence. Despite the general lessening of confidence in the ability of social science research to provide useful answers to human problems, people increasingly have been turning for help to the psychotherapists, counselors, and organizational consultants. On the assumption that the practitioners have developed a way of understanding that their clients find helpful, 1 set out to examine what kind of knowledge they used in their practice. The common wisdom has been that the development of research strategies is the province of the academy, who then passed on the results to the practitioners. I decided to turn this wisdom around and look at what could be learned from the practitioners about how research should be done. The idea was that the practitioners, perhaps, are better commonsense epistemologists than academics. What l found was that practitioners work with narrative knowledge. They are concerned with people's stories: they work with case histories and use narrative explanations to understand why the people they work with behave the way they do.

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