How Stories Clarify Complexity

“The plural of anecdote is not data.” Since the 1970s, this phrase has become a truism for all the wrong reasons. On its face the statement seems obviously true, but it also suggests a false hierarchy of information where “data” is produced by professionals, and “anecdotes” are the realm of the amateur. It conceals the fact that depending on the problem, stories clarify what statistics cannot.

This past weekend was Jane’s Walk, a festival of free walking tours led by locals. The event began as a way to celebrate the legacy of urbanist writer Jane Jacobs by getting people out on the street, walking, talking, observing, and telling stories.

The inspiration for this event comes partly from the end of Jacobs’ first blockbuster book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she reflects on “the kind of problem a city is.” Citing Dr. Warren Weaver, Jacobs observes that cities, unlike two-variable problems in physics or million variable problems of probability, are problems of “organized complexity.”1 That is, any given urban problem involves quite a few variables, but more importantly, all of those variables interact with one another in specific ways. To steal an example from Jacobs, when planners remove a street from an urban area, traffic doesn’t flow around the gap, like water would if you introduced a new rock into a river. Because of the interconnectedness of urban life, the traffic that once travelled the street apparently disappears.2

Jacobs argues that planners have difficulty grasping these sorts of phenomena, while regular citizens may have a better chance. Once planners know what to look for, complex urban phenomena can often be measured using their tools of the trade, but every statistical method tends to mask other phenomena. The path to measuring the right thing often starts instead with the kinds of anecdotes, singular observations, or hunches that get shared on a Jane’s Walk.

So why do stories do a better job than statistics at understanding cities? They force us to think about cities and other complex problems in terms of what Jacobs calls her “habits of thought”:3

  1. To think about processes;
  2. To work inductively, reasoning from particulars to the general, rather than the reverse;
  3. To seek for “unaverage” clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more “average” quantities are operating.

Like an ecosystem, a city requires micro-level observation to capture the many tiny interactions that make up life, and stories—properly interpreted—can provide an invaluable lens.

1. To think about processes.

By definition, stories are about processes. They inherently exist in time, with a beginning, middle, and end. We often think of a city as a collection of nouns—buildings, streets, parks, and so on. But as Jacobs observes in Death and Life these things only exist and only function as products and producers of processes. People go about their routines of sleeping, eating, commuting, working, housekeeping, and playing; businesses come and go; neighbourhoods gentrify and decline; economies expand and contract. Cities can only be understood through this complex web of verbs, and any given place exists at the juncture of many processes.

Unlike statistics, stories preserve the particular chains of causation that tie together those processes. In fact, storytellers relish causation because it is what drives a story forward. For example, when Jacobs began researching her second book, The Economy of Cities, she read a vast number of business histories recounting how businesses begin, export, and innovate.4 One particularly interesting pattern that emerged from her research was that innovative companies often begin in one industry and move into another (likely a byproduct of what economists now call “Jacobs spillovers“), like a mining company that becomes a dominant producer of adhesives.5 Typical market categories used for statistics (e.g manufacturing, retail, high tech, etc.) overlooked this common story because economists did not consider this crossover a significant factor in economic development. How they posed the question defined the answers they found. Meanwhile, collecting stories connected the dots where statistics could not.

2. To work inductively.

Stories as a form of evidence often get their bad name from their relationship with inductive reasoning, that is reasoning from the particular to the general. Statisticians see anecdotes as highly susceptible to logical fallacies, as storytellers jump to conclusions, make hasty generalizations, and cherry-pick information. But Jacobs saw things differently.

She argues that deductive reasoning, the opposite of inductive reasoning, led to the demolition of neighborhoods and displacement of residents as a strategy for renewing cities. Modernist planners believed that the problems of cities stemmed from high densities, inappropriate uses, inefficient roads, and lack of open space, among other things. But to test their theories deductively, they had to start with a clean slate in the heart of the city.6 By contrast, Jacobs began instead with open-ended observation in the existing city streets to find the sparks of true urban renewal, and saw gradual accumulation as the path to success.

So deductive reasoning could lead to a destructive attitude, but how can you avoid the logical fallacies of inductive reasoning? Jacobs followed a few other unspoken guidelines to avoid these pitfalls:

  • Firstly, she only ever included firsthand stories in her thinking. No gossip or friend-of-a-friend urban legends.7
  • Secondly, most of her stories come from what I would describe as “naive observers,” people who have witnessed something but do not theorize about its greater significance. For instance, the business histories Jacobs drew on for The Economy of Cities were not written with any thought of what they might mean for economics as a whole. Whenever she cites an observer who does theorize about the importance of their observation, she is always careful to divorce their logic from the observation itself, addressing them separately. This leaves all of the inductive reasoning to Jacobs herself, who happens to be very good at it.
  • Thirdly, Jacobs’ method mirrors James Surowiecki’s three criteria for good crowdsourcing: she draws upon stories that are diverse, independent, and decentralized.8 For every one of her books, she read, listened and watched voraciously, taking in stories from all sorts of observers in all sorts of places with all sorts of backgrounds—settlement house workers, archeologists, historians, ethnographers, scientists, journalists, biographers, industrial workers, business owners, family members, and observant neighbors.
  • Finally, Jacobs always followed up on any inconsistency between stories. Is it true? If so, what made the difference? What does this inconsistency tell you about the overall pattern? Jacobs said these black sheep helped temper her own temptation to jump to conclusions.9

Perhaps some storytellers are prone to finding a misplaced moral in their observations, but that shouldn’t discount all stories. Counter examples, like Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave or Doug Saunders’ Arrival City, show us how to complement stories with careful observations, diligent reasoning, and yes, statistics.

3. To seek for “unaverage” clues involving very small quantities.

Great stories almost always include unique details. Those memorable characters, coincidences, horrible or wonderful surprises—they make the best fodder for stories, and although they’re outliers, some of them have a disproportionate impact on city life.

Anyone familiar with biology knows it’s ridiculous to look at a cell under a microscope and say that those tiny strands of protein must be insignificant because the majority of the cell is made up of other stuff. We know that those proteins carry vital information between the cell’s parts. Same goes for trace elements in our food or in the soil that plants grow in. These tiny quantities are essential for life. And yet, when we study cities, we still often rely heavily on majorities and averages to make decisions. We pay attention to a city’s biggest employers or the median income of neighborhoods, and we still write zoning codes that sort “non-conforming” uses out of neighborhoods.

But just like in nature, the organized complexity of cities relies on small quantitates to function properly. Perhaps the most important of these “unaverage clues” involves a neighborhood’s social capital, the network of relationships that provides daily trust and safety on the street, enables neighbors to organize politically, and facilitates neighborly aid in an emergency. Jacobs coined this term in Death and Life,10 pointing out the disproportionate role of certain people in developing, maintaining, and mobilizing social capital in a neighborhood. “Public characters,” like shopkeepers, community organizers, social butterflies, or stoop-sitters, know many more people than the average person in a neighborhood, and often act as the bridges between less connected people in times of need. While this may sound old-fashioned to some, many writers today have observed similar phenomena in the information age, whether it’s the lopsided structure of social networks, the anatomy of a flashmob, or the 1% rule of online participation.

It’s no coincidence that Jacobs uses the term “character” to describe these catalysts of social capital. In my experience, one of the best ways to identify the public characters of a neighborhood is to just ask residents to tell some stories. These memorable personalities often show up again and again and again (sometimes with a colorful imitation).

A Mere Anecdote

Despite what many experts will tell you (outside the humanities, that is), sometimes only a story can tell us the right information. This is especially true in trying to understand so-called wicked problems, with their interconnectedness, their small but vital quantities, and their evolution over time. As complex systems, cities are rife with such wicked problems, so the stories of city dwellers are of the essence.

As one last piece of evidence about the value of stories, there is a grand irony behind the saying that I started this blog post with: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” When Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations investigated the origins of the truism, he found an interesting anecdote at its source. 11

Political scientist Raymond Wolfinger first used a variation of the common phrase in a graduate seminar at Stanford. A student in the class dismissed a simple factual statement as “a mere anecdote,” and Wolfinger snapped back, “The plural of anecdote is data.” Somewhere along the line, Wolfinger’s words got twisted into their reverse, and it has been repeated in that form ever since.

But of course, statistically speaking, Wolfinger’s the one who got the quotation wrong.

  1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 433
  2. It turns out, this disappearance is not magical. Traffic engineers now call it “triple divergence.”
  3. Jacobs, Death and Life, 440.
  4. Jane Jacobs, “The Self Generating Growth of Cities,” Ideas That Matter. Ed. Max Allen.
  5. See 3M.
  6. Although, one could argue that this approach emerged from dogmatic beliefs, rather than reasoning of any kind.
  7. Jane Jacobs and John Sewell, “Jane Jacobs in Conversation,” Ideas That Matter 3.3, 32
  8. See The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki.
  9. Jacobs & Sewell, “In Conversation,” p. 32
  10. Jacobs, Death and Life, 148
  11. David Smith, “The plural of anecdote is data, after all,” Revolutions. Posted 04/06/2011. Accessed 05/06/2015. <>

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