Chapter 2 – Redefining narrative
2:1 What do you think of when you hear the word ‘narrative’? A traditional answer might be: ‘It’s a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s something people tell. It’s a way of communicating or expressing experiences’.
This description depicts narrative as primarily representational; we have experiences – or we invent imaginative experiences – and use language to relate these back to an audience. Yet this concept raises many questions: how do we decide what to include in our narrative, for example? And why do different people tell different narrative versions of the same events? Even a brief consideration of these questions suggests that ‘narrative’ means much more than a straight-forward representation of reality.
2.2 In the second half of the 20th century, scholars from a range of academic fields challenged the idea of narrative as a solely representational form. While in literary studies and linguistics the study of narrative still tends to focus on structural categories such as plots, characters and episodes (see Baker 2006:20), the study of narrative in the social sciences has taken a different turn. Since the 1980s, sociologists and communication theorists have redefined narrative as the principle way of understanding and ordering reality, playing a vital role in shaping our sense of identity and ultimately our actions.
As Somers and Gibson (1994:59) put it, ‘It is through narrativity that we come to know, understand and make sense of the social world, and it is through narratives and narrativity that we constitute our social identities’.
According to this approach, narrative is ‘the shape of knowledge as we first apprehend it’ (Fisher 1987:193). Everything is made up of narrative: ‘an element that is not configured in narrative form is by (my) definition unimaginable and/or incomprehensible to the human mind’ (Baker 2008:24). As Hayden White (1987:4) writes, ‘real events do not offer themselves as stories.’ Other ways of organising reality do exist; in Chapter 6 we will look at the particular features of narrative which distinguish it from historical annals, for example. However, the sociological approach to narrative posits that humans naturally impose a narrative form on events in order to make sense of the world around us. This is why we tell our children stories from a very young age: so that they can practice inhabiting stories and begin to draw on these narratives to understand their own reality.
2.3 Narrativity does not only help us to understand reality. According to a narrative theory approach, every person subscribes to a selection of narratives about various aspects of reality and our belief in these narratives guides our actions and therefore helps to construct reality. As Somers puts it: ‘Everything we know, from making families, to coping with illness, to carrying out strikes and revolutions is at least in part a result of numerous cross-cutting relational story-lines in which social actors find or locate themselves’ (Somers 1994:607). The personal and public narratives (see Chapter 3) to which we subscribe affect our choice of career, our partners, a school for our children, whether to go on a demonstration or not to go on a demonstration, whether to stay in our own country or to study abroad, whether to save money or to blow it all on an expensive holiday – and all the other big and small decisions in our lives.
2.4 Before we go any further, let us talk briefly about what we mean by ‘narrative form’. We will explore different types of narrative and how they are constructed in more detail in Chapters 3-5. However, it is worth mentioning that narratives are usually described as having a beginning, middle and end: a narrative is ‘a version of reality with a past, present and projected future’ (Boéri 2008:27). Another important feature of narratives is that they include key characters and events; Bennett and Edelman (1985:159) speak about ‘the who, what, where, why, how, and when that gives acts and events a narrative frame’. It is also worth noting that narratives do not necessarily have to be described in words; graphic novels are good examples of this. Kennedy (2003), for example, has demonstrated how a narrative of 9/11 was rendered effectively through a photography exhibition.
2.5 The following chapters will look more closely at what we mean by ‘narrative’, focusing on how this relates to translating and interpreting and how this might be incorporated into your own research.