David Brooks’s review of George Packer’s book “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” (June 9) is befuddling. First, Brooks praises Packer’s “gripping narrative survey” of recession-era life, comparing it to earlier efforts like that of John Dos Passos. Then, bizarrely, he faults Packer for not providing a “theoretical framework and worldview” that would include “sociology, economics or political analysis.” Narrative description and evocation has for centuries been among the most powerful forms of argument — so powerful, in fact, that the social psychologists Brooks admires appropriated the styles and cloaked them in the pseudoscientific garb of “ethnography” (which we used to call “journalism”).
Have we reached a point where devotion to instrumental reason is so maniacal we can’t handle mere stories anymore? Or perhaps we accept stories only when they’re accompanied by the tenuous methodology of social “scientists.” I would bet that a single profile by Packer, one of America’s best journalists, provides a better snapshot of real life than the legions of sociology and economics articles published since the crash.
Here is someone suspicious of social science. This is not an uncommon position. There is no doubt that stories and narratives are powerful and also have a longer history than the social sciences which developed in and after the Enlightenment. Yet, we also live in a world where science and data have also become powerful arguments.
Intriguingly, ethnography is a social scientific method that might help bridge this gap between narrative and data. This method differs from journalism in some important ways but also shares some similarities. The ethnographer doesn’t just work with statistics and data from a distance or through a few interviews. Through an extended engagement with the research subject, even living with the subjects for months or years, the researcher gets an insider perspective while also trying to maintain objectivity. The participant observer is engaged with larger social science theories and ideas, trying to understand how more specific experiences and groups line up with larger theories and models. The research case is of interest but the connection to the bigger picture is very important in the end. At the same time, ethnographies are often written in a more narrative style than social science journal articles (unless we are talking about journal articles utilizing ethnography).
Stories and data can both be illuminating. I know which side I tend to favor, hence I’m a sociologist, but I also enjoy narratives and “mere stories.”