Trying my hand at fiction writing as a research method

I am slowing down on the blog front this month because—and I was going to keep this a secret but here goes—I am participating in National Novel Writing Month ( There, I said it. I have written 25,000 words, which means I am half finished and on track.

This is the first time I have been able to participate in this international writing effort. I have to write about 2,000 words a day, which until the day before yesterday I was cranking out in about three hours. After you count your words on a handy-dandy word count website, you enter your total and see ho you are oing.  It tells you the average number of words you have written each day, how many days it will take you  if you keep it up, and it even plots your progress with a line graph.  I find the line graph very motivating. However, you see before you a new way of procrastination. Usually I clean something. Today, I am writing this blog. After all, I’ve got all afternoon to clean the kitchen. I’m have written only 500 words and have decided to take a writing break…by writing.

You may wonder about what fiction writing has to do with academic research. My formal Fulbright project consists of performing ethnographic research to write an account of the experiences I have here with regard to national identity and the Euro 2012 football championships. The writing will become an important path to insights as I get closer to the end of May. The best ethnographic writing evokes the reader’s sense and emotions so that he or she becomes engaged with the work. This kind of evocation is a fiction writer’s expertise.

My research and teaching experience here in Ukraine has given me the opportunity to read and observe many different aspects of Ukrainian culture(s) as well as of the dynamics within my little three-person family team. My novel-writing project this month represents an attempt to construct a fictional narrative through which I can gain insights about these cultures, too.

I am not wobbling out on a limb, here. Indeed, Ross Gray (2004) of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital says, “From among the possible forms of experimentation, a growing number of social scientists are selecting stories to evocatively reveal the understandings they glean from their qualitative studies.” Art Bochner’s course in narrative approaches to social science research was one of my favorites during my doctoral studies in the 1990s. Art and his professional and life partner, Carolyn Ellis, are trailblazers in the justifying the validity, reliability, viability and importance of this approach through their work and international activities. Feminist Ann Oakley (2011) recognizes Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938) and London’s Burning: A Novel for the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Age by Barbara Wooten as early examples of ethnographic fiction. Lackey (1994) recommended offering sociology students the opportunity of writing short fiction as an alternative to a term paper. The Society for Humanistic Anthropology gives out an annual award for anthropological fiction.

Why does writing fiction work as a social science research method? Well, it has the ability to reveal truths about culture that relying on facts cannot. Tony Watson (2000), in his abstract for an ethnographic fiction addressing organizational describes the article this way: “The story is in part a fiction. But, at the same time, it is a piece of social-science writing. It is `made up’ but it is also `true’. It uses imagination but is also theoretically informed and draws upon research fieldwork. The story demonstrates how ethnographic research accounts can be written in a way that bridges the genres of creative writing and social science.” There’s irony for you. As the marketing blurb for Anna and Stephen Banks’ (1998) book Fiction and Social Science: By fire or ice explains, “fiction can express issues of representation, subjectivity, critique and postmodern discourse.”

The cutting edge Near Future Laboratories held workshops earlier this year on ethnographic fiction and speculative design “to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.”

So that explains why I am exploring novel-writing as a research method this month.  (I just wrote about 800 words. I guess that will make this a 2,800-word day some time after the kids go to bed.)


Works Cited

Banks, Anna & Banks, Stephen. (1998). Fiction and Social Research: By ice or fire. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Gray, Ross. (2004). No longer a man: Using ethnographic fiction to represent life history research. Auto/Biography 12: 44-61 Accessed Nov. 16, 2011 from

Lackey, Chad (April 1994) Social science fiction: Writing sociological short stories to learn about social issues. Teaching sociology 22 (2): 166-73. Accessed Nov. 16, 2011 from

Oakley, Ann (2011). A critical woman: Barbara Wootton, social science and public poiicy in the twentieth century. London: Bloomsbury.

Watson, Tony J (2000). Making Sense of Managerial Work and Organizational Research Processes with Caroline and Terry. Organization 7 (3): 489-510.

Woolf, Virginia (1938). Three Guineas.

Wootten, Barbara (1936). London’s Burning: A Novel for the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Age. London: Allen & Unwin.


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