Narrative Foundations of Knowing: Towards a New Perspective in the Sociology of Knowledge

by Anna Borisenkova
 State University - Higher School of Economics

Sociological Research Online 14(5)17

Received: 5 May 2009     Accepted: 25 Sep 2009    Published: 30 Nov 2009


There has been a tendency in social science to apply narrative inquiry ways of thinking and working to sociological research. Narratives are present either in theoretical schemes or in methodology. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the contribution made by narrative to social epistemology. Firstly, this is done through the explication of an explanatory potential of the concept of narrative and its ability to transform the analysis of fundamental sociological objects, such as human experience, actions, and communication. Secondly, the paper highlights three points involved in a narrative basis to scientific knowledge: discipline’s biography as a narrative; narrative as a representation of social phenomena; and narrative as a kind of logic, embedded in the process of sociological explanation. Through a consideration of Charles Tilly’s, Paul Ricoeur’s, and Max Weber’s arguments the problem of applying narrative inquiry to the investigation of large-scale phenomena is set. Apart from some insights, interpretative explanations, and illustrations, the paper provides critical arguments concerning the limitations of the narrative inquiry with respect to social epistemology.

Keywords: Narrative, Social Epistemology, Tilly, Discipline’s Biography, Ricoeur, Figurative Representation, Sociological Explanation


1.1 Recent narrative studies have renewed discussions about epistemological issues among social scientists (see Abel, 2004; Czarniawska, 2004; Fisher, 1985). Narrative inquiry asks some uncomfortable but fundamentally important questions for sociology, challenging its image, at least in some parts of the world, as a science producing general laws. Narrative based approaches, however, criticize sociological traditional claims to provide a universal knowledge of social phenomena and to discover constant stages of their development. It stands to reason that narrative inquiry has not been the first to encourage concerning the limitations and potentials of social epistemology. These problems have been set since the foundation of sociology as an autonomous discipline, in the framework of the debates about sociology’s position in the dichotomy between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften (see for example the reviews of these debates by Giddens, 1993; Ricoeur 1973). However, narrative theories, formed as a synthesis of literary theory, linguistic, and historic studies, provide fruitful and deep insights into social cognition. They focus on the way discourse and textuality structure and organize sociological findings, and language rules transform academic writing into a specific genre, compared to that of literature. Also, they emphasize the significance of temporal and historic aspects of knowing consideration. Narrative inquiry assumes that the context, the sequence in which social phenomena occur and then described, and the time characteristics of the investigation made, have a substantial impact on a sociological research enterprise. These insights ease an escape from the idea of sociology as a discipline developing nomological knowledge. As Barbara Czarniawska points out, narrative approaches do not suggest that social science should become a fiction; instead by scrutinizing certain features of knowing they assist sociology in critical self-reflection (Czarniawska, 2004).

1.2 An attempt to apply narrative inquiry to sociological theorizing and research has been made by Charles Tilly in Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (Tilly, 1984). Tilly challenges both narrative inquiry and sociological explanation. He proposes that sociologists who deal with stories should switch over from the small-scale phenomena, i.e. the individual and the local, to the major issues of the social and the collective. At the same time Tilly insists that sociological analysis should avoid ‘the Pernicious Postulates of twentieth-century social thought’, which focus on the large-scale phenomena such as society, social change, social order, differentiation, and conflict in a timeless perspective, ignoring the singularities of a particular historical experience. Instead of this, Tilly suggests developing ‘historically grounded huge comparisons of big structures and large processes and attach the possible explanations to their context in time and space’ (Tilly, 1984: 145). He fairly notes that ‘a well-measured chunk of a single experience will provide strong proof of a theory’s validity or invalidity’ (Tilly, 1984: 144). This is the stage in epistemological discussions at which narrative argument becomes the most significant.

1.3 This paper explores the problem of a close connection between narrative production and sociological research. To a certain extent, it supports Tilly’s enterprise of using the concrete historical analyses in sociology by assuming that sociological knowledge initially has narrative foundations. It picks out three points involved in a narrative basis to scientific knowledge: narrative as a means of shaping sociology’s vision of its own history; narrative as a representation of social phenomena; and narrative as a kind of logic, embedded in the process of sociological explanation. Following Tilly’s argument, it seeks to demonstrate that sociological research may display narrative features when it deals both with micro-analysis and macro-level comparisons. The paper opens with a sketch of narrative explanatory potentials and narratology’s major contributions to social theory.

Narrative as an explanatory category

2.1 The concept of narrative is fruitful in sociological discussions of epistemology if it acquires an explanatory force. Although examinations of narrative features have been a part of innumerable text studies since the Ancient Greeks (studies of drama, prose fiction, sacral and historiographic texts), the formation of narrative as an explanatory category has been accomplished relatively recently.

2.2 The concept of narrative has gained epistemological value in the framework of narratology, an interdisciplinary research field, which at the beginning was to a large degree influenced by the studies of Gerard Genette, Claude Bremond, Tzvetan Todorov, and Roland Barthes (Kreisworth, 1992). Narratologists have reconsidered the classic distinction between a story / fabula (a chrono-logical succession of events) and a plot (at the level of which the events can form complex sequences by combining in a variety of ways through enchainment, embedding, and joining), introduced by the structuralist/formalist theories of Vladimir Propp, Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, Yuri Tynyanov, Roman Jakobson (Erlich, 1973). They focus their attention on the communicative nature of textuality, considering a text as an event of communication, performing between a subject, a referent of his utterance, and an addressee. Following this, narrative has been analyzed as a special kind of text, and its diachronic, flexible, and discursive traits have been emphasized.

2.3 Narratology has received support from semioticians and literary scholars. An interest in narrativity has appeared in various disciplines: economics, political science, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, and education. This trend has been called ‘The Narrativist Turn in the Human Sciences’ (Kreisworth, 1992). The concept of narrative has moved from the role of ancillary to a position of a domination and constructive category. It means that discussion focuses not only on a narrative as an object of inquiry (a story, a lecture, biography, a play or a film which can be defined as narratives in certain approaches), but on the narrative nature of those texts. Narrative itself has been considered as an explanatory scheme. It has become capable of explaining phenomena by its own logic.

2.4 ‘The Narrativist Turn’ has made a significant impact on sociology. The meaning of the narrative concept is not reduced just to a sort of a container of empirical data, although the significance of narratives as sociological information resources cannot be underestimated (Franzosi, 1998). Narrative interviewing remains one of the most effective qualitative methods. However, it is the appropriation of narrative features by central sociological categories that has made a real contribution to social theory and epistemology. I point out three sociological categories, which have been importantly influenced by narrative approaches: experience, action and communication.

2.5 The fundamental question of the organization of individual and social experience posed in sociology is transformed into a question about the description and representation of experience in a narrative. An assumption that the way to learn about experience is to learn about the way it is told and written by a person, or represented as a collective memory by a social group, lies at the basis of this approach. This issue is central to the feminist project, which has revolutionized the study of autobiography, expanding its definition to include not just a literary genre or a body of texts but a practice that pervades many areas of our life (Cosslett, Lury, Summerfield, 2000). People write about their experiences during their lives, objectifying their thoughts, impressions, and emotions in various documents. As the feminist researchers point out, autobiographical practices are seen to operate in many different written, spoken and visual genres, such as application forms, interviews and family photographs (Cosslett, Lury, Summerfield, 2000: 1). At the same time, it has been suggested by Liz Stanley to make a distinction between autobiography and biography. Stanley proposes that the differences between the narrative produced by a self writing about itself, and the one, written by a self about another being, are not generic, although in relation to these distinct genres the same technological, epistemological, and technical issues arise (Stanley, 1992: 3). A significant contribution by the feminist studies into the investigation of human experience in sociology is the discovery and thorough analysis of social and political backgrounds of auto/biography. A life-story is never purely subjective: it is oriented towards real or imaginary others and socially determined. Biographies and autobiographies are ideological accounts of lives which in turn feed back into everyday understandings of how ‘common lives’ and ‘extraordinary lives’ can be recognized (Stanley, 1992: 3). This is the way that the feminist narrative studies add to the sociological investigation of experience by equating experience to a life story and focusing on the strategies of representation, influenced by a series of inward and outward conditions.

2.6 Another implication of a growing explanatory force of the notion of narrative is a conceptualization of action. ‘The Narrativist Turn’ makes a significant addition to the sociological debates about the distinction between ‘action’, which is supposed to be reasonable and meaningful and ‘behavior’, considered in behavioral theories as merely happenings and physical responses to the environment stimulus. Alasdair MacIntyre as an advocate of the narrative approach, points out that a meaningful human action, in comparison with behavior, is indicated by its embeddedness in a narrative: ‘Human beings can be held to account for that of which they are the authors, other beings cannot’ (MacIntyre, 1981/1990: 209). According to this view, the meaning of the action is constructed in the process of accounting by a subject for his intentions. A kind of story - ‘What are the reasons for having done this?’ - is proposed as being a condition of meaning production.

2.7 The third classical sociological category, closely connected with the mentioned two and which has also appropriated narrative traits, is communication. For instance, Walter Fisher proposes narration as a human communication paradigm for sociology, as opposed to, as he calls it, ‘the rational world paradigm’, grounded in scientific epistemology and characterized by the rationality of humans, and argument as a paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication (Fisher 1984). According to Fisher’s paradigm, communication in our life does not resemble the rationality of science. Humans are essentially story-tellers, and the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is ‘good reasons’ which vary in form among communication situations, genres, and media. Rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings – their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative probability and fidelity (Fisher 1984: 7). Thus narrative inquiry adds its own optics to a great amount of communication theories, existing in sociology.

2.8 Not only is the narrative theoretical scheme unique because it can be applied to various sociological studies, but also it can transform the logic of existing theories by offering a specific explanation. In a similar way as it proposes alternative conceptualizations of primary sociological notions, it provides an opportunity for sociology to look otherwise at its foundations. From the narratives enveloping the objects of sociology to the narratives, I now move to discuss the basis of sociological knowledge itself (see the distinction of narrative types made by Abel, 2004: 288).

Writing a discipline’s biography

3.1 Any social researcher who has attempted to reconstruct the history of his science and at the same time to reflect on this process of history remaking cannot avoid using the concept of narrative. In the same way as a person exteriorizes their past experience in documents by enumerating events and giving them a particular order, so researchers construct the discipline’s biography. They do this by remembering significant events, coups, and changes in the discipline’s life. For example, Jeffrey Alexander, who examines early modernization theory and its contemporary reconstruction, uses the term narrative to provide a logical description of all the changes, happened in sociology over a period of almost twenty five years (Alexander, 1995). He delineates four distinctive theoretical-cum-ideological periods in postwar social thought:

3.2 For Alexander, social theory must be considered not only as a research programme but a generalized discourse. It is a meaning structure which functions in extra-scientific ways. Thus he describes how the ‘story’ of modernization transforms and how the attitudes towards it change: from optimism to pessimism and then to critical reflection, using the concepts of narrative and plot. The problem of subjective and ideological factors, influencing on the history reconstruction can become a subject of another article or a long-term research. What is interesting about Alexander’s argumentation is that he emphasizes the role of narrative in the organization of the discipline’s history. It means that in order to comprehend the rules of the scientific knowledge formation we should analyze the genres of stories and try to detect a kind of a plot, hidden behind the discipline’s history. Therefore sociological knowledge is considered to be a number of narrative plots, logically connected by a certain idea.

3.3 Another example of the reconstruction of theory’s history is the investigation of Donald N. Levine (Levine, 1995). Looking for ideas, suitable for rethinking changed social and technological conditions, Levine represents the story of modern sociology in the form of a sequence of narratives about the sociological tradition told by a succession of its leading figures: positivist and pluralist narratives, synthetic narratives, humanist and contextualist narratives. He presents different visions of sociology’s pasts and provides some diagnoses for its future.

3.4 Why do both Alexander and Levine apply the concept of narrative to their research on the reconstruction of sociological theory’s history? According to Alexander, narrative is located in the very background of knowledge. It is a form of knowledge meaning structure. Levine proposes a more detailed argumentation. As he notes, ‘narratives provide coherence and meaning generally’ (Levine, 1995: 10-11). In much the same way as a life-story or an individual memory is an essential condition of a functioning personality, narrative plays a role of linking together fragments of the discipline into an integrated logical meaningful plot. Referring to Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of memory, Donald Levine points out that ‘like all human communities, those organized to cultivate intellectual disciplines depend on some view of their past. Such views give their disciplines identity and direction, important for functioning effectively in the present. Such tales, like the tales any group tells of itself, often assist the process of educating and inducting new members into those disciplines’ (Levine, 1995: 11). Not only does narrative make coherent arguments, separated by a short period of time (one after another), but it also makes consequent macro theories like modernization theory or positivism, which have a large-scale time dimension. It provides sociological theory with consistency, completeness and inner logics. Thus narrative influences directly on our comprehension of theory and our attitude towards it.

Paul Ricoeur’s narrative theory: figurative representation of social phenomena

4.1 The second point indicating narrative foundations of social science is a figurative representation of social phenomena. If we take any sociological research report or a monograph as an example, it hardly resembles a chronicle or a mere registration of observed events. A researcher does not present their findings in the order they has made them or in the order the facts have happened. Their description is determined by an idea, in other words, an author’s message, which structures their writing. (Of course, sometimes the author’s idea prescribes a chronicle description. Anyway this chronicle might be subordinated to a more general idea.) The author’s message in academic literature can be determined by a series of conditions: hypotheses, overall tasks, the formal academic requirements for the structure of the text, and, certainly, the author’s creativity and special interests. It is important to note that a social scientist makes a kind of composition, which is reduced neither to a simple sequence of notions nor to a sequence of enunciations. The author's message is expressed in a sophisticated language construction.

4.2 In order to ground this statement theoretically, I contemplate the conception of narrative, developed by Paul Ricoeur. His narrative theory is of great importance, as it provides a detailed view of the most significant philosophical ideas of narrative and at the same time presents its own vision of the issue (Ricoeur, 1984). Paul Ricoeur considers narrative as a form of discourse. In this sense, narrative as a phenomenon has much in common with metaphor, which he investigated in ‘The Rule of Metaphor’ (Ricoeur, 1981). Metaphor belongs to the theory of ‘tropes’, or figures of discourse, and narrative is examined by the theory of literary ‘genres’. However, in accordance with Ricoeur’s theory, ‘the meaning-effects produced by each of them belong to the same basic phenomenon of semantic innovation. In both cases this innovation is produced entirely on the level of discourse, that is, the level of acts of language equal to or greater than the sentence’ (Ricoeur, 1981: ix). The difference between these discursive features is that in the case of metaphor the new thing is a ‘new pertinence in the predication, and in the case of narrative there is a ‘feigned plot, that is, a new congruence in the organization of the events’ (Ricoeur, 1981: ix).

4.3 According to Ricoeur, common sense, historical, and sociological knowledge are anywhere near narrative in their foundations, because narrative is a fundamental characteristic of human experience. Science, which has to be corresponded to the human experience, also absorbs narrative features (Ricoeur, 1981). The sophisticated language construction, which we have pointed out in academic writing, is called a plot. Ricoeur borrows the concept of plot from Aristotel: ‘Plot is a mediation between the individual events or incidents and a story taken as a whole. In this respect we may say equivalently that it draws a meaningful story from a diversity of events and incidents or that it transforms the events or incidents into a story. As a consequence, an event must be more than just a singular occurrence. It gets its definition from its contribution to the development of the plot. A story must be more than just an enumeration of events in a serial order; it must organize them into an intelligible whole, of sort such that we can always ask what is the ‘thought’» of this story. Emplotment is the operation that draws a configuration out of a simple succession’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 65-66). Thus narrative emplotment brings together heterogeneous factors as actions, events, happenings, and unexpected results together. Moreover, a narrative meaningful configuration inverts the so-called ‘natural’ order of time. Time in narrative doesn’t resemble a ‘chain’ or an ‘arrow’ of events (one event after another). By reading the ending in the beginning and the beginning in the ending, a person learns to read time, subordinated by the narrative logic itself backwards (Ricoeur, 1984: 68).

4.4 Why does a sociologist compose a plot? A historian tries to make readers feel that they have seen past events themselves. In the same way a social scientist aims to make readers believe that they have observed their findings, and the regularities a sociologist has discovered, can easily become apparent in everyday life. As Barbara Czarniawska points out, even in academic writing the author and the reader sign a 'referential contract', in which the author promises to provide a convincing argument for claims, using a number of discoursive tools (Czarniawska, 2004: 119). As in a literary work, the author makes an intrigue by setting a problem and specifying hypotheses. Then they list their findings by reference to a general idea of the text, the major problem, and readers' expectations. As in a literary work there is a culmination in an academic text, which indicates the most significant discoveries (which, certainly, could be presented in a non-chronological order). In conclusion, the author may sum outputs and make promises for the reader. The reader, in their turn, agrees to conceive the representation of facts in the sequence, proposed by the author, and to perceive a figurative argument.

An alternative vision of sociological explanation

5.1 The third factor, indicating narrative’s inseparability from sociological knowledge, is its embeddedness in the process of scientific explanation. As Richard Rorty writes in The Contingency of Language: ‘We think of telling a causal story as a paradigm of the literal use of language. Metaphor, linguistic novelty seems out of place when one turns from simply relishing such novelty to explaining why these novelties and not others occurred. Bur remember… that even in the natural sciences we occasionally get genuinely new causal stories…’ (Rorty, 1989: 28). This is a causal story that ignores strict differences between natural and human sciences. Causal stories are composed, whether a historian tries to explain the purposes of a historic agent or whether a zoologist attempts to discover the cause of the disappearance of a rare species of mammals. For the social sciences, causal stories are an inherent element of explanatory procedure.

5.2 According to Ricoeur’s theory, narrative manifests itself in the process of causal imputation, which occurs each time we try to explain social phenomena and to answer the question ‘what is the cause of the given effect?’. As he points out: ‘This kind of logic consists essentially of the constructing by our imagination of a different cause of events, then of weighing the probable consequences of this unreal course of events, and, finally, in comparing these consequences with the real course of events’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 183). Ricoeur justifies this statement by referring to Max Weber’s argument: ‘In order to penetrate the real causal interrelationships, we construct unreal ones’ (Weber, 1949: 185-186). Ricoeur distinctly demonstrates how the Weberian analysis works: ’Consider, as an example, Bismarck’s decision to declare war on Austria-Hungary in 1866. The problem what might have happened if, for example, Bismarck had not decided to make war is by no means an ‘idle’ one’’. We need to ask ‘what kind of causal significance is properly to be attributed to this individual decision in the context of totality of infinitely numerous ‘factors’, all of which had to be in such and such an arrangement and in no other‘. It is the phrase that marks the entrance on the stage of the imagination. Reasoning from this point on moves in the arena of unreal past conditionals: the question becomes ‘what consequences were to be anticipated had another decision been taken?’’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 184). This involves an exploration of the probable or necessary interconnections. After that a scientist can make a judgment of causal imputation that decides the significance of the event. Thus to modify mentally in a specific way this or that factor is to construct an alternate courses of events among which the event whose importance is being weighed acts as the deciding factor. Weighing the consequences of eliminating the supposed event gives the causal argument its logical structure.

5.3 Narrative construction is embedded in this logical process. If we try to impute a reason or a motive of the action, a case of the event or a chain of events, we make a story, a plot, elements of which acquire a new order and logic. The same mechanism works, while a scientist constructs ‘ideal types’ to explore and compare their object. For instance, if they want to know whether an action is rational or irrational in some circumstances, they have to construct an ‘ideal story’ of a rational action, taken place in a similar situation. That means they build a meaningful configuration or a plot. Arthur Danto in his Analytical Philosophy of History speaks about narrative in the same way. According to Danto’s philosophical theory, ‘a narrative sentence refers to at least two time-separated events though they describe only the earliest event to which they refer’ (Danto, 1968: 143). Each time we put forward a hypothesis about the preceding event, we bring into play our imagination. The past is never fixed, so it is possible to make a range of ‘stories’ about it.

From telling individual stories to narrating large-scale phenomena

6.1 However, this analysis of narrative foundations of knowledge may bring with it some serious limitations. It may seem that this explanation model can be applied only to the knowledge of small-scale phenomena: individual actions, local interactions and historical events, i.e. the unique causes of which a sociologist tends to know. Whereas other objects of sociological inquiry are generalizations of events, macro processes, states, populations, nations, etc. It is important to note that looking for the antecedents of a singular fact is the destiny of historical science. According to Weber’s argumentation, the aim of sociological research is to discover the cause of a fact which may be repeated not once, but regularly, i.e. the constant antecedent (Weber, 1949). It seems that the only way to examine the characteristics of large-scale objects and constant causal relations is to make an extensive statistical analysis and transfer our guesses into large numbers. Still, as Tilly, who strongly encourages conducting a sociological research on the macro level, argues, ‘comparative studies of big structures and large processes yield more intellectual return when investigators examine relatively small numbers of instances. That is not because of the intrinsically greater value of small numbers, but because large numbers give an illusory sense of security’ (Tilly, 1984: 77). Statistics does not provide safety without referring to individualizing comparisons. Even in Tilly’s scheme of comparison, which includes ‘the individualizing, the universalizing, variation-finding and encompassing comparisons’, there is always a space for considering specific instances of a given phenomenon in its unique location within time and space. That means the possibility of using the narrative explanation.

6.2 Meanwhile Ricoeur points out a remarkable example of a causal imputation via narrative outside of the sphere of individual action. This kind of reasoning can be found in a classic Ma Weber’s oeuvre The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber, 1991). Ricoeur argues, following Weber: ‘The alleged connection between certain features of the Protestant Ethic and certain features of capitalism constitutes a singular cause chain even though it does not concern individuals in a unique time and space dimension, but rather attitudes and social institutions’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 191). This causal connection provides the platform for a single process that renders irrelevant the distinction between a point-like event and a large scale span.

6.3 By the means of abstraction, Weber isolates the specific component of the work ethic on the side of the religious phenomenon and, on the side of the economic phenomenon, the spirit of acquisition characterized by rational calculation, the adaptation of available means to desired ends, and the value attached to labor as such. The problem set is not a ‘question of explaining the birth of capitalism as an overall phenomenon but rather the particular vision of the world it implies’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 191). The religious conception of ascetic Protestantism is itself considered only in terms of relation of adequate causality that it maintains in regard to the spirit of capitalism. According to Ricoeur’s analysis of Weber’s type of argumentation, ‘when the problem is set out in this way, the question is that of the adequacy of the causal imputation in the case of any regularity of a nomological type’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 191). A kind of narrative is constructed when Weber imagines a historical course from which the spiritual factor considered would be absent and in which other factors would have played the hypothetical role assumed by the Protestant work ethic. Among these other factors there are: the rationalization of law, the organization of commerce, the centralization of political power, technological inventions, the development of the scientific method. Thus a probability calculation applied to these various factors suggests that in the absence of the spiritual factor, these other factors would not have been sufficient to produce the effect.

6.4 Weber constructs a narrative by eliminating the rationalization of law as a relevant cause of the birth of the spirit of capitalism: ‘The rationalization of private law, for instance, if it is thought of as a logical simplification and rearrangement of the content of the law, was achieved in the highest hitherto known degree in the Roman law of late antiquity. But it remained most backward in some of the countries with the highest degree of economic rationalization, notably in England, where the Renaissance of Roman Law was overcome by the power of the great legal corporations, while it has always retained its supremacy in the Catholic countries of Southern Europe’ (Weber, 1991: 77) Weber denies that the spirit of capitalism is best understood as ‘part of the development of rationalism as a whole and could be deduced from the fundamental position of rationalism on the basic problems of life’ also by considering the role of rational philosophy. He points out that ‘the worldly rational philosophy of the eighteenth century did not find favour alone or even principally in the countries of highest capitalistic development. The doctrines of Voltaire are even to-day the common property of broad upper, and what is practically more important, middle-class groups in the Roman Catholic countries…We have already convinced ourselves that this is by no means the soul in which that relationship of a man to his calling as a task, which is necessary to capitalism, has pre-eminently grown’ (Weber, 1991: 77). Weber comes to the conclusion that the scientific method would also have been capable of focusing energy on a specific goal. But it would have lacked the emotional force and the power of dissemination that the Protestant ethic alone could contribute. The same reasoning has to be repeated with respect to other candidates for the role of being a cause before the Protestant ethic can be held to be the adequate cause of the development of the spirit of capitalism.

6.5 In general, Weber’s argumentation serves as a particularly good illustration of the embeddedness of narrative in sociological knowledge, no matter if it is unique or nomological, if it concerns small-scale and individual phenomena or it deals with global processes and large-scale phenomena. When a researcher tries to explain the cause of the given phenomena by weighing its probability, comparing relevant hypotheses, and eliminating the least probable, they encounter with the procedure similar to narrating or story-telling. While reflecting on the processes, accompanying the procedure of sociological interpretation, they face the appearance of imagination, opened by a multifarious world of discourse.

Conclusion: limitations of the narrative approach towards social epistemology

7.1 Through the analysis of some sociological and philosophical theories, this paper has provided an interpretation of the impact of narrative studies on rethinking epistemological issues in sociology. It has sought to demonstrate an explanatory force of the concept of narrative and its ability to transform a traditional sociological logic of analysis. The concept of narrative relates to two fundamental categories – time and language – the reference to which is necessary in the research of social phenomena such as actions, communication, and experience. Probably, this is an account for a growing explanatory potential of narrative.

7.2 There are certainly limitations in using narrative analysis in epistemological debates. Narrative analysis serves as an effective means of self-reflection for sociology, focusing on a crucially important role of discourse in organizing and structuring knowledge. However, in my view an uncritical application of narrative analysis may lead to the disappearance of the borders between common-sense and sociology, sociology and history, sociology and natural sciences. By developing the narrative argument to a great extent, it could be possible to discover narrative foundations almost in every type of knowledge, as far as it is represented in discourse. This could lead to a sort of relativism and reduction of a scientific enterprise to the construction of one of a large amount of possible discourses. Each scientific argumentative process could be reduced to the construction of plots. That is not the purpose of this paper. I argue that there is always a space for the validation of guesses, logical and empirical evidence, and all sorts of methodological procedures typical for the scientific rationality, in sociology. A narrative approach does not propose a radical alternative to science. It aims to challenge sociological pretentious claims to provide universal explanations of phenomena and reminds us of a great potential of language.


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