Narratives and science
My work is largely informed by mediated messages and I explore how meanings about science, health, risk and the environment are created in news and entertainment that impact American Indian communities. That is, I look at what people say about Indigenous people.
Clearly if we want to know what Indians say about themselves we need to look to their narratives. This approach–welcomed and acknowledged by a small stream of scientists in the past—is gaining traction in current circles.
A new area of research is cutting a swath in health communication and Columbia University inaugurated a master’s program a few years ago in narrative medicine.
The purpose of the program is embedded in the oblique mission statement on the website which I’ve translated as “a graduate program to help medical professionals (nurses, physicians, etc.) understand and treat illness through their clients’ stories.” http://www.narrativemedicine.org/references/links.html
Indigenous people have always practiced this: told their stories. So important is story-telling that, for many cultures, it’s considered the height of impropriety to interrupt a speaker. My Penn State colleague and friend John Sanchez (Apache) told me that if he interrupts his grandmother she will stop speaking altogether and it will take some time to return to her graces.
Now Western science is looking at story-telling as a way to understand how individuals think about and express their health. This isn’t a novel approach (just look at Indigenous communities) but what is new is the legitimacy accorded by the mainstream medical cognoscenti.
Still, forgive me if I remain cynical in the legitimacy given to native perspectives. My forays into journalists’ coverage of Kennewick Man and other conflicts demonstrate that Indigenous ways-of-knowing continue to receive short-shrift in coverage.