Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Narrative as the Scaffolding of Understanding

Here's a great piece on the use of "master narratives" in journalism. Evelyn Fox Keller's killer book Making Sense of Life (one day soon I'll write up a real book review) talks about "explanatory narratives" in science. Do these uses of the word "narrative" have anything to do with my running interest in narrative as story architecture? Are they related to the issues of social software as a generator of consent? I think so.

A narrative isn't just a story, a list of events, one damn thing after another. In Prof. Keller's words, "the explanations that propitiate our need for understanding, the stories we like to hear, are those that meet the expectations we bring with us." In other words, when we approach an unknown situation -- a scientific question, a new story, an unsettled question -- we bring with us a certain amount of preconceptions. Those conceptions may come from culture, from similar stories we've heard, from possibly hardwired expectations and symbolism. They both illuminate, by allowing us to reason about the unknown by using more familiar concepts, and obscure, because the mapping from the story to the current situation cannot be exactly correct in all respects. Someone who's never read a detective novel, reading The Big Sleep for the first time, would not only find it unusual, they might even not understand it, since it is grounded so firmly in a (usually) shared set of rules, symbols, relationships between elements that create preconceptions in the reader. In literature, we call a set of these preconceptions a "genre."

So a narrative -- in the sense of a set of expectations and definitions of who is doing the action and what the goal of action is -- is yet another powerful tool (perhaps too powerful?) for engendering consensus in a group. In political reporting, this might be dangerous as it freezes out facts or stories that don't fit into the narrative. But in the exact same way, it represents an extremely efficient, compressed way of communicating a complex set of relationships to someone else, by referring to some shared metaphor of narrative or genre. The stories we share may be our best hope at sharing understanding.