What is it about?

In the world of escalating environmental crises, many scholars have turned to the power of storytelling as a way to help people understand the complexity of these problems and deal with them psychologically. We had our participants read short stories engaging with elements of the nonhuman environment -such as a melting glacier or an endangered tree species- and analyzed the participants' descriptions of these nonhuman characters. We showed that the participants make complex and nuanced descriptions of the agency (the abilities or powers) of the environment depicted in the story. These constructions challenge and complicate some of the more common ways of conceptualizing and discussing nature in the Western society.

Featured Image

Why is it important?

Previous literature has made many theoretical claims about what reading nature- or climate crisis oriented stories does to people, but empirical research that analyses what people actually say when discussing a story has been very rare. We argue that the "impact" of environmental literature is in how reading and discussing a story can help people to compose more complex and less stereotypical ideas about what the nonhuman environment is like. This finding points to the potential of guided discussions on environment-themed stories as ways of cultivating complexity in the general public’s environmental imagination.


This study, a joint effort of a psychologist and a literary scholar, was an interesting deep-dive into understanding how we in Western societies commonly talk about and conceptualize nature. We realized how stories highlighting the nonhuman perspective can really shake our conceptualizations and potentially invite new ways of relating to the environment. This study demonstrates the promise of a guided discussion about stories as a way to invite more complex and nuanced talk about the nonhuman world.

Heidi Toivonen
University of Twente

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Storytalk and complex constructions of nonhuman agency, Narrative Inquiry, June 2022, John Benjamins, DOI: 10.1075/ni.21062.toi.
You can read the full text:



The following have contributed to this page