What Are The Bigger “Narratives” of Society or The World?

The stories we tell each other collectively – sorting out the meanings of the word “narrative”, we find the fiction behind the fact.

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Some words are so big that they become meaningless.

Let’s put that more precisely: Some terms are used so generally that their denotations are harder to pinpoint than people who use or people who hear such words may realize. Try to define exactly what “freedom” means, or “democracy”.

Out of the field that concerns us here, at least two terms have reached this general ‘buzzword’ status: “storytelling” and “narrative”.

There are professions and there are fields of study trying to get to grips with storytelling and narrative, for instance the profession of dramaturg or the theoretical approaches of narratology.

  • Dramaturgy is defined as the craft, art, or the practice and techniques of dramatic composition or theatrical representation, where composition refers to the way in which the various parts are put together and arranged. In other words, structure.
  • Narratology is defined as the study of structure in narratives or the study of narrative and narrative structure, where a narrative is something that is narrated, a representation or description of an event or series of events with the connections between them – that is, of a story.

Especially in American English, there is a second meaning to the word narrative, one that hasn’t made it into the British Collins dictionary yet and only to 2c in the OED, though by now the term is used widely in UK media in the same way as in the States and the rest of the world: “A way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values“ (Merriam-Webster). In other words, ideology.

In this second definition, the term “point of view” is used generally, not in the technical or dramaturgical sense that a cameraperson or a novelist would use when talking about a scene. In the same way that PoV is a far narrower technical term within storytelling than in general use, so is “narrative” far broader in general use than among authors talking shop. Hence for technical use, we need yet another definition, one that is much more precise than what you find in a general dictionary: 

We have defined narrative technically as the sum and order of events as received by the audience of a story, which characteristically includes the reveals of relevant backstory events at some point in the narration, making narrative distinct from chronology, which orders the same events strictly according to the temporal sequence in which they occurred. Try telling a story with only “and then” between the events, and you soon notice how boring such an account or report is compared to a narrative, which adds a causal dimension. You can say “because of that” between the events.

Three Meanings of the Word “Narrative”

So the word narrative has (at least) three meanings:

  • Generally, an account or representation of a series of events.
  • Technically, the sum and order of events as received by the audience of a story.
  • Bigly, “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values”.

The Bigger Narrative

In this blog we usually talk about stories that individuals or teams conceive in order to be received by individuals, or rather audiences composed of many individuals. The assumption is that the audience will take in the story from the first page to the last, from the opening scene up to the end credits. In these stories, a novelist presents a narrative to be read by readers or a filmmaking team creates their work in order to be seen and heard by viewers.

But in this particular article we want to talk about narratives that are received collectively. We want to make clear the distinction between the general as well as the technical sense of narrative for authors and filmmakers on the one hand, and this other definition, the “way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values” on the other. It is usually this latter postmodern definition that is being referred to when you hear or read terms such as “narrative”, “grand narrative”, “meta narrative”, “counter narrative”, “master story”, or “deep story” in newspapers, magazines, news radio or news TV or other media that describe the real world rather than fiction.

Some examples of real-world narratives:

  • “manifest destiny”
  • “domino theory”
  • trust in money
  • belief in property
  • humans are rational agents who seek to maximise personal benefit through utilitarian solutions
  • the growth paradigm (perpetual economic growth)
  • trickle-down economics
  • there will always be some people who are rich and others who are poor
  • every person is the architect of her or his own fortune (i.e. we live in a meritocratic society) and the connected idea that you have to believe in yourself to be successful (hence if you are not successful the flaw or fault is within you)
  • people are greedy or selfish by nature
  • religions
  • “race”
  • “good” vs. “evil”
  • the nation state, and with it patriotism and nationalism
  • there are “heroes” and there are “victims” (some people or groups claim to be both)
  • “there is no climate crisis”
  • “the pandemic was created to control the populace”
  • “the CIA planned the twin towers attack”
  • “the moon landing was faked”

And? Feeling triggered by any of the items on the list? Putting together this more or less random list of examples of narratives, two things at least became clear:

  1. The narratives often don’t have specific names. Many are taken for granted and yet they are amorphous and need explaining or defining. The terms we use in the list point towards the narratives without properly distinguishing them.
  2. The narratives are like political dynamite – they are incendiary in that people can quickly get their hackles up when confronted with an opinion which they perceive as running counter to their own understanding of the truth behind such a narrative. This entails that – in order not to alienate, annoy or offend any readers – we should in writing this article probably be very careful not to take sides or appear to challenge deeply held beliefs.

As in the definition of this sense of narrative, “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values,“ the examples we list concern or reflect values. They force us to position ourselves according to our deeply held beliefs. We either accept a narrative or reject it, and this usually has an ethical dimension.

Let’s go out on a limb and pick one item from our list, “race”. Some people believe certain races are superior to others. Others might call such people “racists”. By taking either position one tacitly accepts that there are differences between “races”, indeed that races exist in the first place. If we object to people being discriminated against “because of the color of their skin”, then that is actually not quite right. The person is not being discriminated against because of the color of their skin but because racism exists, and racism exists because people believe that races exist. Biologists know, however, that there are no races – firstly, the genetic differences between all human beings are minimal to the point of non-existence (we share 99,9% of DNA with each other) and secondly, people grouped according to any criteria, such as skin color, exhibit a wide spread of such minimal DNA variations as do occur so that these cannot be used to distinguish one group from another, let alone categorize them into “races”. The whole idea of “race” is a fiction. Authors Barbara and Karen Fields make the analogy to witches and witchhunts. Witches don’t exist, but in medieval times witchhunts certainly did*.

One can deconstruct any of our bullet point items above and many other such narratives and expose them as fictions, ideas not based in fact. These narratives are stories that we tell each other collectively over generations and many people end up believing them. Realities with huge effects for individuals and societies (which are millions of individuals) are created on the basis of fictions.

None of the social, economic, or political narratives of our examples refer to a specific sum of events in a particular sequence; this sort of narrative is not the same as a narrative in its technical sense. This big term implies an idea, but not a whole story. It gets difficult to define a beginning, middle, or end of these narratives. Which specific (historical?) events should we include if we were to tell the whole narrative of “race” rather than just refer to it?

In fact, this definition of narrative bears a great deal of resemblance to our technical definition of the term “theme”:

  • it is a subtext
  • it can often be summed up in a generic concept (for example “race”) or be expressed as an axiomatic statement or proposition (for example “you are the architect of your own fortune”)
  • it may be seen as an implicit message
  • it expresses values or a set of beliefs
  • it concerns what might be considered the correct way to live, or what is “right”

Harder to pinpoint is whether one of these societal, collectively received narratives is consciously posited, i.e. has an author, or whether it has developed over time and is then merely upheld and propagated – consciously by those people who have identified it as a narrative and benefit from it, and unconsciously by people who repeat it as received wisdom without delving into the subtext.

 

* For pointing out Barbara and Karen Fields’ witch analogy and for many of the examples of narratives in our list, we are indebted to Samira El Ouassil and Friedemann Karig’s book Erzählende Affen. Mythen, Lügen, Utopien. Wie Geschichten unser Leben bestimmen. Berlin, 2021.

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

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