When I first watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, I was drawn in to her discourse on the way in which Africa and Africans are usually negatively portrayed in the media and imagined by people outside the continent. As a South African living in the United States, I identified with her lament that these negative stories overlook the many other stories that reflect people’s actual lived experiences. Focusing on a single story or interpretation of anyone’s reality leads us to portray people in stereotypical ways. Stereotypes are not just “untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This talk made me think about my work as a qualitative scientist.
As an anthropologist and ethnographer, my work is gathering stories (plural). I reach out to many different stakeholders in a community to understand their varied experiences, perspectives, and opinions. The people I interview, observe and work with live in these communities; they not only have different experiences but they have opinions on what is happening in their community. They, like me, are theorizing about what is going on and often times are also thinking and talking about ways in which to bring about change. My job is to figure out how to ease my way into a community or organization and gather information on multiple levels so that I get different perspectives that open windows onto particular experiences. When we get multiple views or knowledges we can begin to put together a composite, complex picture. Taking time to do this ensures that we are not giving power to any one story but rather giving credence to the many different stories.
In telling other people’s stories we need to recognize the power we wield. We need to be humble enough to acknowledge the power we have to make our view, our interpretation, of the situation “the definitive story of that person [or community].” As ethnographers, we too bring a particular perspective, we are never neutral. The best we can do is gather and tell multiple stories, we must insist on complexity; by rejecting the single story, we help others to see that there is never a single story about any peoples or places. In so doing, in Adichie’s words, “we regain a kind of paradise” – a place for everyone’s reality to be represented.