Articles Calling time on ‘anecdotal’ evidence

Calling time on ‘anecdotal’ evidence

A ceasefire may have been declared in the paradigm wars but ideas about what counts as real evidence runs deep argues Dr Cathy Sharp, Director of Research for Real. We lose too many chances to learn about what matters when stories of lived experience, that can cut to the heart of the issues, are discounted. Research and evaluation reports, Sharp argues, provide information and argument but stories provide insight and the empathy needed for action.

I notice my irritation rising whenever someone refers to ‘anecdotal evidence’. As if people are saying the evidence is merely anecdotal. It’s unreliable and based on hearsay. It doesn’t count for much. And so often, such remarks are made in a situation where what we are actually discussing is people’s lived experience, of those who use public services or who work in them.

We must improve how we talk about lived experiences

My appeal here is simply that we need better ways to talk about and value the rich, insightful and yes, useful, evidence that can be gleaned from paying attention to the stories people tell us. If we are to value experience we need to seek out those stories more deliberately. Language matters. And stories tell us what matters to people.

Transforming public services? Don’t dismiss the stories people tell us

I’m a strong believer in the importance of good and useful evidence. I know it would be easy to get in trouble with those who are doing important work to gather evidence of ‘what works’; even with those who have shifted from the ‘evidence-based’ to the ‘evidence-informed’ policy and practice camp.

The flip side of wanting good and useful evidence is not to dismiss or undermine with barely disguised derision what is actually a form of unique and insightful expertise. We all need access to these accounts of the diversity and ambiguity of human experience if we are to stand a chance of transforming public services.

Don’t miss chances to learn about what matters

Of course, we know the paradigm wars are over, don’t we? (Bryman, 2008) Yet ideas about what really ‘counts’ as evidence run deep. The default setting, even now, seems to be that ‘we’ll do a survey’ even when people have a sense that it probably won’t really get to the heart of the issues. Confidence in qualitative research rarely goes much beyond the focus group. Too often we miss those chances to learn more about what really matters to people. When we do, we can be surprised – usually a sign that our own assumptions are being challenged.

Stories, language and emotion can illuminate the real issues

Stories can help us to change the questions we ask. The words people use are important and often provide the key to what the real issues are. The emotional content of stories is valuable data not accessible through official reports or questionnaires. When you hear a story you can’t dispute the emotion – you might not like it, but you can’t disagree with it. I hear people describe stories as ‘honest and compelling’ and importantly they are often profoundly moved by the stories they hear.

Stories provide the insight and empathy needed for action

At their best, research and evaluation reports provide information and argument. They invite the reader to agree with them (or to pick holes in their methodology). As Geoff Mead (2014) says ‘argument and intellectual assent are not enough to move people to action’. Stories provide insight and the empathy needed for action.

The science of storytelling offers insight into the human intrinsic search for meaning and the role of the limbic system in allowing us to learn from vicarious experiences. Geoff Mead writes on these issues and challenges us to notice our reactions to this short film. Essentially stories are a form of relational knowledge – where we ‘know with feeling and the knowing is in the feeling’ – that comes from connecting and interaction (Park, 2001). They can unearth the theories-in-use; ‘the often tacit cognitive maps by which human beings design action’ (Argyris, 1985).

As people interested in good evidence, useful to promote insight and change, we need to create the conditions in which people can articulate and share what they know and their values. We need to create the right kinds of spaces and conditions for stories to be told and for collaborative sense-making and action.

Interested in reading more? Check out Trish Greenhalgh’s blog ‘Stories or numbers OR stories and numbers‘.

References and a selection of inspiration and further information on using stories as evidence:

Argyris, Chris; Putnam, Robert and McLain Smith, Diana (1985) Action Science, p82 Jossey-Bass

Bate, P and Robert, G (2007) Bringing User Experience to Healthcare Improvement, The concepts, methods and practices of experience-based design, Radcliffe

Brown, B (2013) Daring Greatly, Penguin

Bryman, A (2008) The end of the paradigm wars? in Pertti Alasuutari & Leonard Bickman & Julia Brannen, The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods, Sage

Burns, D (2007) Systemic Action Research, Policy Press

IRISS (2013) The role of personal storytelling in practice, Insights No 23

Mead, G (2014) Telling the Story The heart and soul of successful leadership, Jossey Bass

Park, P (2001) Knowledge and Participatory Research, in Reason, P and Bradbury, H (eds) Handbook of Action Research, Sage

Quinn, M (2014) Anecdote as Epithet – Rumination #1 Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods

Sharp, C (2014) Creating a community of reflective practice – supporting children and mothers in recovery from domestic abuse, in Promoting Change Through Action Research: Current Trends In Education, Social Work Health Care And Community Development, (Eds) Stern, T., Rauch, F., Schuster, A., and Townsend, A , Sense

Space Unlimited (2013) Changing Places with Stories

Wadsworth, Y (2011) Building in Research and Evaluation Human Inquiry for Living Systems, Allen and Unwin


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.