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Narratives Part 2: Media Narratives, Scripts and Great Powers

May 4, 2011

In the last post I argued that the characteristics of the social networks within which narratives circulate will tell you quite a lot about their influence. In this post I want to pick up on the examples that triggered this post – the idea of media narrative,  the extent to which it is useful to think about the downfall of Mubarak in terms of a script, and the question of great power narratives.

In the post at Crisisblogger Gerald Baron points to the tendency of the media collectively in covering a story to develop an interpretive framework that guides reporting and comments. This narrative is resistant to new information from the outside – inconsistent information is either ignored or reinterpreted to fit with the overall framework. In network terms media systems (at a national level at least) are tightly connected and relatively stable – media outlets monitor each other and the literature on the sociology of journalism points to the way that journalists manage risk by coordinating agendas and framing. Tightly connected groups are prone to groupthink. Newsvalues select particular types of stories and frame them in predictable ways.

Stability and dense connections produce social configurations where there are shared expectations, narratives that are resistant to change and which in turn have an impact on how people behave.

This is why I’m more sceptical of interpreting a situation like the downfall of Mubarak through the notion of narrative as script. In a novel situation involving a newly assembled set of actors (Egyptian elites, protest groups, a variety of external actors) who come from different social contexts you have to ask where the script is? The different groups may have their own narratives but the overall outcome emerges from the interaction between the different groups and their narratives. Whether a shared narrative emerges is a question for investigation. While narratives certainly provide a basis for expectations about future behaviour expectations are a concept that have broader resonance across the social sciences.

This is not to say that narratives don’t matter only that they need to be tied to a broader understanding of the social world. A nice example of this is the meeting of the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa on Hainan on 14 April – the Third BRICS Summit. The idea of the BRIC countries was put forward in a 2001 paper from Goldman Sachs this idea was taken up within the financial community because it was felt to capture an aspect of the contemporary world – the diffusion of economic activity from the North America-Western Europe-Japan trilateral. In turn the BRIC idea was taken up by the BRIC countries themselves because the narrative fitted with their objectives with the result that they began to meet regularly. The narrative provided the basis for a political grouping. Indeed the incorporation of South Africa into the group reflects and evolution and a step towards using the BRIC narrative as the basis for a broader grouping. An important point here is that there is agency at work – the countries involved chose to adopt and use the narrative because it served their interests. To the extent that the BRIC narrative is shared and repeated it feeds into perceptions of the global order in other countries. The tensions between India and China will limit the scope of BRICS action but for some purposes it provides a useful basis for action.

The wider point about great power narratives is that their success depends on the extent to which they are accepted by other actors. Simply talking about yourself doesn’t ensure that your narrative will be taken up.  The danger for great powers is that the narrative they project internationally (eg US, China, Russia?) is simply an outgrowth of their domestic narratives but sophisticated external audiences are likely to be sceptical if not actively hostile and promoting counter-narratives. Further policymakers choose which narratives to accept on the basis of their conception of their interests. Regardless of the rhetoric of globalization and global networks domestic political-media networks are densely connected and provide a basis for distinctive perspectives on the world. Public Diplomacy has to try and break into these networks which is not easy. In conclusion narrative is a useful concept when tied to an analysis of their social context. We come back to the questions raised by the sociology of culture: who believes what, why and when with what consequences. Network concepts provide an essential route into resolving the complexities of the issues.

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