The Value of Stories in Geographical Knowledge

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

The use of oral narratives, or storytelling, in how geographical knowledge is produced and disseminated is being increasingly adopted as an alternative approach to conventional forms of knowledge transfer in contemporary academic life. In this article, I will explore the importance of Indigenous storytelling in contemporary Western scientific epistemologies and research, drawing together diverse ontologies through the stories told by senior Indigenous women in north-Western North America of life on the glaciers. I will draw on the concept of ‘small stories’ to demonstrate how oral narratives find ways for accounting for lives and experiences as a networked reality. Finally, I will discuss the potentials of ‘storying for change’, where feminist geographers have a longstanding history in using individual narratives to challenge patriarchal and masculinist systems of knowledge and power.


The role of oral narratives in Indigenous communities across North America was explored by geographer Julie Cruikshank as a way of integrating traditional ecological knowledge into existing, conventionally Western knowledge frameworks. Conducting interviews with senior Indigenous women in North America who had spent their lives on and around glaciers, inhabiting the St Elias Mountain range in Canada, Cruikshank was told stories about growing up in their community and the transitions from childhood to adulthood that these women experienced. These stories provided a framework for these women to reveal details about their own lives, providing blueprints for others in their community to follow to achieve a ‘well lived out life’, but also revealed environmental and ecological concerns and phenomena.


For example, the glacial stories told of these icy masses having bodily forms, shape-shifting metamorphic capabilities, and that as glaciers have a sense of smell therefore no food should ever be fried or liquid spilled near a glacier, uncovers Indigenous traditions and ecological ontologies regarding how one should act around glaciers, how one should conceptualise them as sentient entities, and also the truths behind glacial surges and movements as represented through a holistic and spiritual Indigenous ontological perspective. Oral traditions from this region merge natural histories of landscape with local social histories, providing a helpful way to conceptualise anthropogenic change by focusing on the reciprocity between humans and glaciers, and on more-than-human forces intrinsic to the glacier.


Stories also remain important conduits through which to understand the world around us by drawing attention to the mundane aspects of everyday life to reinforce lives and experiences as networked realities. Drawing on Hayden Lorimer’s notion of ‘small stories’, where ‘story’ equates to an assemblage of memories, practices, and materials through which particular narratives are produced, his notion highlights the material practices and relations through which ‘things’ come to matter. For example, understanding ‘copper stories’ whereby through copper one can trace the geographies of colonisation and decolonisation, and the historical, social, political and environmental relations of copper mining today, illuminates how broader discourses are revealed through the stories of material things.


Storying for change is a vital aspect as to why stories matter in geography today. The longstanding interest by geographers in the capacity of stories to create social, political and intellectual change stems from the way stories hold affective power. They do not just inform, they move, creating emotional openings through affiliation, identification and shared senses of community through emotion. William Cronon’s plea to defend storytelling as a mode of academic knowledge production, but also maintain the importance of the broader social value of stories, stating that ‘narratives remain our chief moral compass in the world’ reinforces how stories hold the ability to challenge power structures and the discourses within which they are embedded in. Storytelling thus remains a powerful tool through which to practice and generate change, drawing on collaborative senses of identity to build up an oppositional politics among marginalised groups, providing a politics of hope through which change can conceptualised, rallied for, and achieved.


The use of stories within geography’s cultural turn is providing deeper understanding and analysis in the workings and relationships between personal experience and expression. Although scholarly divides remain when considering Western and indigenous ecological concepts, the use of stories to bring together differences to create geographical knowledge is highly productive. Furthermore, using stories to connect the everyday with the extraordinary is an exciting way to create real-world change that geographers must recognise today.


Further reading:

  1. Cruikshank, J., 2012, November. Are glaciers ‘good to think with’? Recognising indigenous environmental knowledge. In Anthropological Forum (Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 239-250). Routledge.

  2. Lorimer, H., 2003. Telling small stories: spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the institute of British geographers, 28(2), pp.197-217.

  3. Cameron, E., 2011. Copper stories: Imaginative geographies and material orderings of the Central Canadian Arctic. Rethinking the great white North: Race, nature and the historical geographies of whiteness in Canada, pp.169-190.

  4. Cook, I., 2004. Follow the thing: Papaya. Antipode, 36(4), pp.642-664.