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Looking beyond narrative traditions

Storytelling is part of our everyday life. We tell stories to relate our experiences to others and preserve moments that are important to us.

But because narratives are transferable – they change depending on who is telling them or who the audience is – they can paint an incomplete picture of an event or experience.

Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Tom Mould studies how we interpret experiences through stories.

He says narrative has specific forms and generic conventions and expectations that guide the way we tell stories: We expect there to be a climax or transformation and a resolution. The problem is, life doesn’t always work that way, so when we share a experience through a story, we often try to make it follow these conventions.

“If you only look at the narrative tradition you’d have a very different view of the experience, and if you only try to understand the experience, you are only seeing the reflection of that experience through the stories we tell,” he says, “so it’s important that we pay attention to those expectations for story.”

Mould recently explored this idea in his book, Still, The Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition, in which he analyzed the way sacred revelations are shared by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In this his third book, Mould looked at the stories of personal revelation, when people narrate their experiences of receiving guidance from God through the Holy Ghost.

“If you just look at personal revelation narratives you would say, ‘To be Mormon and to get personal revelation means every time you ask for some help, you get help,’” he says. “It’s dramatic, it’s clear that it’s the Holy Ghost. It fundamentally proves the love and care of a God constantly watching out for you,” he says, adding that sharing these narratives then became a way to confirm the tenets of the religion for oneself and others.

But when he talked to people about their actual experiences, Mould found that narrative and experience diverged somewhat. Often they prayed but never received a clear answer, or received what they believed to be revelation but a resolution had not come and in fact might never come, in this lifetime anyway. It became clear for Mould that sharing stories about personal revelation had a significantly different function than the experience itself.

Mould’s interest in sacred narratives was first piqued when he worked with Choctaw Indian men and women in Mississippi as he pursued his master’s and doctoral degrees from Indiana University in the late 1990s. There he discovered that prophetic, sacred narratives were used by the Choctaw to make practical decisions about their personal, social and political lives.

His current project, which he started last year, looks at contemporary legends about welfare and their effects on public policy in the United States. He is working with Elon University’s PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies, which he directs, and Alamance County government agencies and nonprofits to collect data and conduct interviews with a wide range of people involved in public assistance and compare those results to existing stereotypes in the community. The project will bring Elon students, faculty, local agencies and community members together to address the impact of these legends.

“My hope is to get people to look beyond those narratives and to actually introduce into common daily conversations what we might call counter-narratives – What is life like when you’re struggling to feed three children, when your husband has left you? – and introduce a far more complex image,” he says. “I’m not saying everybody who receives public assistance is a saint, but let’s take a look at the lived reality of these women, these families, these children.”

Mould joined the Elon faculty in 2001 and has taught courses in video ethnography, folklore, North American Indian cultures and cultures of the U.S. southeast, among others. His research interests include oral narrative, prophecy and sacred narrative, identity construction, expressive culture and ethnography.

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