Professor Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, the author of The method matters: an introduction to micro-narratives, is renowned not only for his vast contributions to the academic discipline of International Relations but also for his straightforward, easy-going and no-nonsense attitude when it comes to research in the field of social science. As seen in his book on micro-narratives, he takes a sharp detour in terms of presentation from the pre-existing literature on micro-narratives. He gives us a unique presentation combining the East’s philosophy, literature, and thoughts while maintaining the over-arching Western ideas to an absolute minimum or mentioning it where it was required.
What is unique about the book The method matters: an introduction to micro-narratives is how Dr. Ahmed presented micro-narratives to his would-be readers, especially the students who might have to implement micro-narratives to conduct their social science research. For a country like Bangladesh, where the literacy rate is 74% (as of 2020), many of us lose interest in research methodology when reading the literary works of scholars who tried their best to make the topic appear more scholarly and sophisticated with complex English vocabularies. However, Dr Ahmed took a detour from it and ensured that we remain hooked to his work by using simple English and some Bengali words or the language more common in the Subcontinent for our ease of understanding is something very unprecedented.
This DIY or Do-It-Yourself type of self-learning book explains the micro-narrative within the contents of eight parts in the book. It has been presented in such a way that even irregular or non-social science background students will feel at home with the language and literature. What intrigued me is that while reading the entire book, I not only learned the way of conducting micro-narrative method in social science research, but I also learned a lot about the Eastern heritage and culture, something Dr. Ahmed brilliantly showcased by using many historical, epical and dialogues between famous individuals which transcended our everyday human thinking and capabilities.
The first part of his book, i.e., Introduction, starts with famous French polymath Rene Descartes’s statement “cogito ergo sum” or I think therefore I am. Even though prominent post-colonial IR scholars such as Franz Fanon (1925-1961) labelled it as a form of “colonialism of the mind,” it eventually sets the tone for a deeper level of discussion as in the case of human consciousness. Distinguished scientists like Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Carlo Rovelli believed that objective reality is vastly different from our human consciousness, making it fascinating. The development in modern sciences such as physics allowed humans as active agents capable of knowing and changing things, with capacity beyond the current scope of knowledge. That being said, the future is the only thing in the hands of humans, as human beings can design, imagine, and work creatively to make a difference. This is what drives human beings to dream and work relentlessly to materialize that dream.
It was a very welcoming experience to see the philosophical discussion in part II i.e. The Einstein-Tagore debate between the people of two extreme polarities, Nobel laureates Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein. It was surprising to see that despite being a man of science who believed in an objective reality devoid of human consciousness, Einstein failed to convince Tagore when talking about truth and beauty through allegories such as books (papers), the Taj Mahal and the Moon. It doesn’t portray Tagore as incompetent, though, as he was well adapted to the modern science of that era. He already had vast spiritual knowledge compared to Einstein due to his affiliation with Baul, the mystic of Sufi minstrels who wandered around the villages of Bengals. Like the Bauls, he (Tagore) believed that human beings have the propensity for attaining divinity. In the same vein, Leo Tolstoy, in his masterpiece “War and Peace,” talks about how the Battle of Borodino turned into a bloodbath between Napoleon and Russia’s troops. Even though Napoleon emerged as the clear winner, he had to pay a hefty price. It was not only his battle; it turned into the struggle of those ordinary soldiers from both sides whose names will remain obscured in history.
If parts I and II were appetizers, Dr Ahmed initiates the main course of his otherwise exciting discussion on micro-narratives by introducing us to the six sources of knowledge in part III, namely 1) perception, 2) introspection, 3) memory, 4) reason, 5) testimony and 6) imagination. Perception helps us acquire knowledge through our senses and experiences with the external world, while introspection includes pre-existing knowledge within our personal belief, consciousness, emotion and free will. Memory acts as the storehouse of wisdom attained from direct (personal experiences) and indirect (reading a book, etc.) experiences. Reasoning refers to using deep conscience and logic to achieve knowledge without compromising faith or belief in religion. Testimony could be both oral and written. The formal testimony is now being transcribed or written down to give the testimony cannot change the content. The ‘text’ could be used, if required, in the court of law for verification or justification. Imagination is the manifestation of thoughts or ideas in human minds which can be materialized for good or evil depending on the human beings.
Before diving deeper into the realm of micro-narratives, in part IV Dr Ahmed ensures that we get a clear idea of the prospects and constraints of macro and meso-narratives. When explaining macro-narratives, we were familiarized with the triadic formulation of history by James Mills. He wrote the history of the Indian Subcontinent by dividing it into three eras, i.e., Ancient (Hindu rule), Medieval (Muslim conquest) and Modern (British domination), without even bothering to visit the subcontinent first hand. It certainly leaves a lot of room for bias in macro-narrative, as it would almost have been the case had Arjuna not become a killing machine when Krishna blurred the pictures of his relatives, friends and teachers in Kurukshetra by making it two dimensional from three dimensional. Similarly, the territorialization of identity through meso-narratives created the same kind of divisiveness and singularity, albeit reproducing fractured cartography of fear and intolerance.
For all the right reasons, I have firm faith that Dr Ahmed saved the best for the last when it comes to getting deeper into the meaning and scopes of micro-narratives, as seen in parts V, VI and VII. Instead of bombarding us with all the rich and somewhat complicated matters of micro-narratives out of the blue, he explains what exactly micro-narratives are and what types of research are usually put into action through it. And then, he describes how micro-narrative research is conducted in elaborated guidelines.
In part V, Dr Ahmed sets the platform for micro-analysis by citing the story between Vyasa, the writer of Mahabharata and god Ganesh. Even though Mahabharata is an epic between the travails and wars between two factions, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, at Ganesh’s urging Vyasa becomes part of the story he was about to start writing. Interestingly, Vyasa didn’t play any role in the epic of Mahabharata, but his involvement with god Ganesh in the story itself gives us the impression of storyteller and story-collector dynamics. Similarly, the people of South Asia and Bangladesh, in particular, are culturally adapted towards micro-narratives, as seen from the discourse of “adda,” which involves free-flowing conversations ranging from “senseless” to “meaningful” topics between two or more people. Such “addas” provide necessary nourishments to any Bengali, socially or intellectually, as seen in numerous talk shows airing between 6 pm to 12 am mid-night.
Moreover, even people from common backgrounds can associate themselves with such talk-show speakers, in turn, narrate their own opinions to them without having to be socially or politically correct all the time. Such a social practice resulting from millenniums of cultural interaction certainly helps to practice micro-narratives. It is because the latter, free from disciplinary formalism, resembles adda in many ways. The storyteller also gets less intimidated and stops being ‘politically correct’ when talking to the story collector. Dr. Ahmed then hypes part VI by concluding that micro-narratives do have the potential of making a difference to the task of seeking knowledge and transforming the state of things. However, several other methods are similar but would not necessarily be considered as micro-narratives.
In part VI, we get to know about research methods that would almost have been passed of as micro-narratives but didn’t make the final cut owing to one deficiency or the other. It is an “almost there but never actually there” type of situation as the writer exposed us to the methods like 1) methodological individualism, 2) oral history, 3) ethnography, 4) case study and 5) micro-history. Methodological individualism works along the lines of building economic relationships with certain structures and is focused on the decision-making of the individuals. However, while accomplishing this, this method spectacularly fails to grasp the importance of understanding the dialectical relationship between the individual and the structure. That is, the former cannot do without the latter, neither can the latter do without the former, although the two are not the same. Moreover, methodological individualism makes the mess of quantifying the individual, whereas micro-narrative attempts to identify the individual qualities.
As for oral history, it accounts the unwritten stories directly from the first-hand memory of the story-teller, which can be a great basis for micro-narrative but it struggles in the areas pertaining to story-tellers who are not from marginalized or privileged groups (subject to bias) or the fact that the stories might not even be authentic. Ethnography could have made a big appeal to be recognized as a micro-narrative method, but its weakness lies in its strength i.e. focus on the group. Micro-narratives focus on the experiences or stories from the individual standpoint, whereas ethnography attempts to condense all the experiences or stories into a single discourse.
In the case study method, the story-collector collects the stories from the meso-narrative perspective as opposed to only focusing on either the macro or micro-narrative. What becomes even more troublesome with the case study method is that the story collector is given more importance than the storyteller, which destroys the purpose of the micro-narrative. Finally, microhistory does not do any justice to itself as it never limits itself to a single person. There is always the possibility of the method getting tussled into the dichotomy of ‘small and large, micro and macro. Dr Ahmed brilliantly demonstrates it using the household, village and state as metaphors. There, the household remains ‘micro’ in relation to the village, while the ‘village’ remains ‘micro’ when considered against the state. The ‘village’ is otherwise both macro and micro, albeit in relation to the ‘household’ and the ‘state’ respectively.
Before going into the details of part VII i.e. Practicing micro-narratives, some esteemed readers might ask was it absolutely necessary for Dr. Ahmed to go through the trouble of explaining the eastern and western philosophical standpoints, interesting stories from the context of “Bhagavad Gita”, “War and Peace” and “Shahnameh”, “addas” of Bangladeshi people, religious mantras of Andalusian Sufi saint of the twelfth century Ibn Al Arabi, the basics of macro-narratives and meso-narratives followed by all the other “almost micro-narrative” methods. In my eyes, Dr Ahmed not only gave us the valuable knowledge of philosophy but also systemically established the context for a solid foundation upon which we can easily understand and apply the micro-narrative method by differentiating it from individualism, oral history, ethnography, case study and microhistory.
As I mentioned earlier, part VII has been presented as a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) or self-learning guide for conducting micro-narrative research. Here, the concept of micro-narrative has been presented in detail as well as how to conduct it first hand. However, the relationship and interactions between the storyteller and story-collector have been regarded as the most vital component of micro-narrative. It is sort of like the “Guru” (scholar) and “Shishiya” (apprentice/pupil) dynamics that had been pre-existent in the subcontinent since time immemorial as mentioned in Dr Ahmed’s rhetoric of Hindu “Upanishads”. However, in modern times, we assumed both the roles of a scholar and a student in terms of dispensing knowledge as well as acquiring knowledge wherever required. This makes the story-teller and story-collector relationship dialectical i.e. both can’t do without the other.
There are seven phases for conducting micro-narrative research. In phase I, it is pertinent that a relevant subject or topic is chosen for conducting research. It involves reaching out to a wider audience and finding the most intriguing or unknown story that is not prevalent in mainstream literature. It must be unique but sensitive issues that no one would usually talk about. Once a suitable subject matter is chosen, phase II can commence with the selection of story collectors. Story-collectors are like the musical maestro, it is their responsibility to maintain the symphony or make the conversation more engaging with the storyteller. He/she must have proficiency in the language spoken by the storyteller as well as have a knack for both listening and writing. In phase III, it is also equally important that the storytellers are selected on the basis of their diverse socio-economic backgrounds irrespective of gender.
It is essential that the story-collectors are properly trained in the ways of micro-narrative, as mentioned in phase IV. They (story-collectors) must attend a training workshop and ideally receive a study pack on the relevant micro-narrative topic at least two-three weeks prior to conducting the research. The story-collectors would also have to properly train in the matters of ethical boundaries so as to not to harm the image of the story-collector and maintain confidentially. As a whole, there has to be a small group of persons for the purpose of supervising the entire micro-narrative project at the field level. As seen in phase V, they must oversee logistical matters (living accommodations and catering for the story-collectors) as well as perform a small reconnaissance with the local storytellers for identifying the perfect candidate for a story collection. Clustering of stories could also begin from this phase at the formal level.
Phase VI is where the main micro-narration begins with the storyteller and story-collector synchronizing their works. While scribing, the story collector would have to pay close attention to the time and space when the story is being narrated by the storyteller. Time is very important in the sense that it helps in keeping track of the day, month, and year of collecting the life story. It is also ideally important for augmenting the biography of the story-collector with the main micro-narrative. Spatiality also plays a major factor when it comes to understanding the storyteller’s environment and living space when the story is being collected. By now, the story-collector must have gained the trust of the storyteller and is writing down the personal pain and pleasure of the storyteller which is very important when clustering. Lastly, the original meaning of the micro-narrative shouldn’t be lost in translation and it is advisory that the local dialect or language is used to explain certain parts of the story.
After the completion of phase VI, phase VII or the clustering phase can commence with the story-collectors joining the researchers and sharing their micronarratives with the objective of identifying the clusters. Once the clusters are identified, the researchers have to make a critical assessment of them. The researchers usually accomplish this feat by undertaking literature reviews of pre-existing works or corroborating the clusters with the open-source data from the surveys conducted prior by government and non-government organizations. The researchers can also apply the knowledge of macro and meso-narratives relevant to the subject matter by holding seminars and workshops with the participation of story-collectors who are more familiar or knowledgeable about the subject under investigation. The imaginative power of both the researchers and story-collectors is crucial as effective clustering depends on understanding the imagination of the storyteller and then imagining it in their own right state of mind.
Dr Ahmed ends his otherwise very special and wonderful presentation of The method matters: an introduction to micro-narratives with a firm belief that method does matter during the conducting of any type of research. Micro-narrative is such a method that tends to nurture therapeutic and educational values among both the storytellers and story-collectors. Given the circumstances that micro-narrative would typically deal with sensitive issues, it is quite likely that the storytellers would feel respected and become appreciated by the very fact that someone (story-collector) has come, possibly for the first time, to listen and write about his/her life story. Live narration of a living person’s life in his/her own words has a symbiotic effect on both storyteller and story-collector, more so when the subject of investigation is related to life and living and the recollection of pain and pleasure. This therapeutic value of micro-narratives could play an extraordinary role in dealing with many social archetypes and have them replaced with, quite purposefully if not ideally, peaceful and tolerant ones.