M2: Unit 3: Chapter 4 – Four types of narrative (Part II)

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Relationships between narratives Chapter 9: Narration and frames
Chapter 2: Redefining narrative Chapter 6: Four features of narrative (Part I) Chapter 10: Advantages of narrative theory
Chapter 3: Four types of narrative (Part I) Chapter 7: Four features of narrative (Part II) Chapter 11: Using narrative theory
Chapter 4: Four types of narrative (Part II) Chapter 8: Ethics and activism Chapter 12: Bibliography

Chapter 4 – Four types of narrative (Part II)

4.1  Conceptual (‘disciplinary’) narratives

While Somers and Gibson (1994:62) describe these as ‘the concepts and explanations that we construct as social researchers’, conceptual or ‘disciplinary’ narratives can be stories attached to any academic discipline. Baker (2006:39) defines them as ‘the stories and explanations that scholars in any field elaborate for themselves and others about their object of enquiry’. This type of narrative centres around the object of study, whatever that might be, e.g. Gender, the cosmos, or the notion of history.

Like other narratives, disciplinary narratives are narrated as ‘stories’ with a beginning, a middle and an end. Famous examples include Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or Huntington’s narrative of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’. Interestingly, narrative theory does not interpret scientific theories – often narrated as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ – as any more ‘authoritative’ than any other narrative (for an interesting discussion of scientific narrative, see Baker 2008). Like any other narrative, disciplinary narratives – ‘scientific’ or otherwise – exist in order to help us to make sense of the world; however, in this case the aspect of the world which they help us to understand is our chosen area of study.


Some disciplinary narratives have the power to influence public narratives or even contribute to the creation of metanarratives. Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, for examples, has influenced the War on Terror metanarrative of our time. In other cases they are influential only within the direct field of study. Translation and Interpreting Studies has its own set of narratives which help us in our research; narratives about fidelity to the original text provide one example of this.

4.2 Metanarratives

‘Metanarratives are the ‘master-narratives’ in which we are embedded as contemporary actors…the epic dramas of our times’ (Somers and Gibson 1994:63).

Metanarratives are normally public or conceptual/disciplinary narratives which have been reinforced so often and applied to so many different events that they cross spatial and temporal boundaries and touch the lives of millions of people worldwide. The difference between public narratives and meta-narratives is therefore mostly a question of scale. Any public narrative which is very much situated within a particular culture or set of events cannot therefore make the leap to become a metanarrative; a global, international potential is essential. These narratives are therefore extremely powerful, as they will tend to influence actions and politics on a worldwide scale.

Somers and Gibson cite ‘Progress’, ‘Decadence’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Capitalism v Communism’ and ‘Class Struggle’ as examples of metanarratives. Other metanarratives of recent years include the Holocaust and the War on Terror.

Due to the boundary-crossing, international nature of metanarratives, Baker (2006:46) argues that it is impossible for public narratives to rise to the status of metanarratives without the involvement of translators and interpreters. With their ability to communicate and reinforce such narratives across language boundaries, linguists play a vital role in the creation of this most powerful form of narrative.

4.3 The categories mentioned in the last two chapters should not be viewed in isolation to one another. In fact, they constantly overlap and influence each other in many ways. The relationship between personal and public narratives is particularly complex and I will go on to discuss this in more detail in the next chapter.

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