Thoughts on the Nature of Narrative

The stories we tell are what most often gain buy-in from our clients.  We convey moments and those moments illustrate the bigger themes and analytical complexities of of our fieldwork. For people not in love with anthropological text, narrative brings ideas to life and helps produce action.  But is narrative just another $10 word or does it mean something more? While descriptive observations such as these work well to qualify and explain narrative in a poetic manner, definitional approaches tend to provide conflicting views of the nature of narrative, since scholars will single out different features as constitutive of the nature of narrative. The following dilemmas illustrate some of the more contentious points.

First, does narrative vary according to culture and historical period, or do the fundamental conditions of narrativity constitute cognitive universals? That narrative was slow to emerge as a theoretical concept, and typically enjoys recognition largely within academic culture, seems to speak in favor of a relativistic approach, but the culture-specific feature could be the awareness of the concept, rather than the properties that define it.  The relativistic approach raises the problem of comparability: if narrative takes radically different forms in every culture, where is the common denominator that justifies the labeling of these forms as narrative? If one opts for the culture-universal approach, the obvious differences between the narratives of different periods and cultures are a matter of thematic filling in and of variations on a common basic structure.

Second, does narrative presuppose a verbal act of narration by a narrator, or can a story be told without the mediation of a narratorial consciousness? What is at stake in this question is whether dramatic media or media that does not use language alone as their primary mode of representation are capable of narration. Take film, for example, where language may take a back seat to cinematography.  The story is conveyed through a non-verbal set of symbols and language may indeed be secondary. My position is that film narration does not necessarily require  a narratorial figure.  Some scholars have attempted to reconcile the narrator-based definition with the possibility of non-verbal narration by analyzing drama and movie as presupposing the utterance of a narratorial figure, even when the film or the play does not make use of voice-over narration.

Both of these issues hold significance in large part because they impact how we construct and distribute a narrative piece to our client audience(s).  Additionally, these issues impact how a final report or video is understood.  Is the intended message conveyed?  Is there a necessary conflict between what in differing contexts might be labeled “science” and “drama”?  If the piece is understood as science or art, what value do the audiences place on both of these concepts?  The overarching issue at hand is less about determining what constitutes ownership of the narrative voice than it is about whether or not we, the anthropologists in the field, are able to successfully convey meaning that results in some degree of change or understanding.

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One thought on “Thoughts on the Nature of Narrative

  1. Thanks for the reflections. When a word starts to mean anything and everything, it loses its currency. When commentators on the political process are always talking about narrative this and that, I cringe, because it makes it harder for us to be clear in our own usage as professionals. I have shifted to using “Narrative Method” that means, its not just stories, when we talk about narrative and that is how I describe my work-eg., http://www.newstoryleadership.org And to use verbs such as “storying” over against “story,” because the power is in the act, not the state. Language either captures our moving world, with a dynamic language equal to the dynamism of life, or else, we are using language that impedes our grasp of life, or slows it down so much as to falsify it.

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