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Thinking about Narratives: Part 1

May 3, 2011

One concept that crops up in relation to PD is that of narrative.  It’s an idea that I find interesting but not completely persuasive.  In the last couple of weeks I’ve I come across several items that use the idea of narrative in different ways.  At Duck of Minerva Ben O’Loughlin has a post on strategic narratives which links to a paper he wrote with Andreas Antoniades and Alistair Miskimmon on the way that great powers add to their influence in the world by projecting narratives.  Ben also links to a piece by Monroe Price about narratives and the ‘Arab Spring’  Monroe argues that ‘strategic narratives are something like scripts with their authorial consensus about how actors should function.’ he then comments on the failure of Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi to ‘follow the script’ .

Finally Crisisblogger has a post discussing BP’s communications efforts in response to the Gulf of Mexico explosion and oil spill in 2010 and their inability to influence the ‘media narrative’.

In a later installment I’m going to think about these examples  but first some theory.

The basic attraction of narratives is the view that people make sense of the world through stories.  This can lead to a stronger sense of narrative as script, a set of expectations that people are required to fulfil and where failure to meet expectations lead to sanction.  The consequence of these ideas from from a PD or strategic communication point of view is that it then follows that if we can influence the narrative we can influence how people think and act.

My take on narratives is that we need to understand them in the context of  the set of social relationships that sustain them. Narratives have a sociology.  A narrative is not just a story that exists in a book but is one that is part of social practice.   Napoleon commented that a ‘revolution is an idea that has found bayonets’ –  that is an idea that has gained the ability to move people to action; the questions that then follow are which people and why have they embraced this particular idea? – the view that is sometimes labelled sociology of culture (eg Hannerz 1992)  Talking about narrative in isolation from the underpinning networks weakens the ability to explain why some narratives are powerful and others aren’t. I think that some strands of recent social thought have tended to collapse concepts of social structure in to culture or language – the result is an overstatement of the power of narrative or discourse.

Stephan Fuchs argument in Against Essentialism (2001) is helpful.  The more tightly connected the members of a group are the more they will accept an unproblematized realism about their construction of the world.  Looser network structures produce greater relativism and pluralism in constructions.  This would lead me to the corollary that dense networks have apparently powerful narratives which are very difficult for outsiders to influence while looser networks are possibly easier to influence but where they are less influential.  It’s also worth pointing out that tightly connected groups will have stronger social pressures to conformity than will less connected ones.

In part 2 of this post I’m going to have a look at the idea of media narratives, narrative as script and consider what is arguably the most successful narrative in contemporary world politics that of the BRICs.

Fuchs, S. (2001) Against Essentialism: A Theory of Culture and Society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Hannerz, U. (1992) Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.
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