Everywhere I look I see discussions of British politics cast in terms of “narratives”. Has anyone written anything interesting about this? And do people think this language is at all useful, or is it just the current buzzword that functions as a substitute for thinking about things but which allows commentators to signal that they’re keeping up with the crowd? Does anyone know when it started, or why? And is it mostly a British thing, or are the Americans, French, Canadians, Belgians and Poles banging on about narratives in their politics, too?

15 thoughts on “Narrativity”

  1. I declare myself guilty of using the term.

    In some ways it’s a substitute for “ideology”, which is viewed as outdated and always likely to lose against “pragmatism”. It also strikes me as vaguely post-modern (using a lazy definition of post-modernism), as narratives can be ditched/changed more easily than ideology, narratives can run concurrently and different narratives can be targeted at different people.

    I’ve always thought of it as American in origin (if it isn’t American, it reflects American ways of thinking about elections – eg the election is about hope vs experience, not tax cuts for the rich versus universal health care).

    It reflects the belief that people don’t just need specific reasons to vote the way they do, but need overarching stories that explain what the differences between parties are and why they occur. A narrative reassures and convinces in the way that lists of policies don’t.

    I also see narratives as a way of dealing with the modern media with its unhealthy obsession with commenting on process instead of dealing with issues. Narratives can embrace and react to those kind of stories in a way that ideology can’t necessarily.

  2. I have a really strong recollection (no books to hand) that the “narratives” language *is* American, as tim f says, and that it was first used to talk about Reagan’s electoral success in 1980 and 1984 – the idea being that he didn’t really offer policies, or intellect, or insight, or what-have-you, as a leader, but that he had a good narrative.

    That might imply that it’s something of a residual explanation. Certainly it’s not obvious to me that you can distinguish successful narratives ex ante – perhaps narratives are reassuring stories that the political analyst class tells themselves to enable them to sleep at nights.

  3. You’re right about the link to post-modernism — Hayden White’s keen on talking about history as narrative; and it’s a long time since Alex Callinicos published his Theories and Narratives which, if memory serves, was about why Karl Marx was good and Simon Schama bad. What I’m not at all clear on is why we’ve got the sudden explosion in the use of the language of narrative. Are commentators using it just because other commentators are using it, or is something else going on?

  4. “re commentators using it just because other commentators are using it, or is something else going on?”

    I remember it being used a lot within Labour Party circles three years ago in the run-up to London elections. Probably before that too. Perhaps some people trained to think in those kind of terms back then are now mixing with journalists in whatever jobs they’re in now? Just a guess…

  5. I was just listening to a lecture by Charles Taylor (the Canadian not the Liberian version) this morning on the way into work and he spoke plenty on narratives. He had an amusing line about how post-modernists claim not to believe in master narratives but when asked about where they get their ideas from say something like, ‘Well, everybody believed in a master narrative, and then Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote this book…’!
    But I’m also irritated by this use of the word ‘narrative’ all the time; it seems to reduce discussion to a kind of Jackanory love-in that’s essentially rather narcissistic.

  6. There was a recent boost when Reagan-speechwriter Peggy Noonan and colleagues discoursed (at an open mic) on Sarah Palin:

    Chuck Todd: Mike Murphy, lots of free advice, we’ll see if Steve Schmidt and the boys were watching. We’ll find out on your blackberry. Tonight voters will get their chance to hear from Sarah Palin and she will get the chance to show voters she’s the right woman for the job. Up next, one man who’s already convinced and he’ll us why Gov. Jon Huntsman.
    (cut away)

    Peggy Noonan: Yeah.

    Mike Murphy: You know, because I come out of the blue swing state governor world: Engler, Whitman, Tommy Thompson, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush. I mean, these guys — this is how you win a Texas race, just run it up. And it’s not gonna work. And —

    Peggy Noonan: It’s over.

    Mike Murphy: Still McCain can give a version of the Lieberman speech to do himself some good.

    Chuck Todd: I also think the Palin pick is insulting to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too.

    Peggy Noonan: Saw Kay this morning.

    Chuck Todd: Yeah, she’s never looked comfortable about this —

    Mike Murphy: They’re all bummed out.

    Chuck Todd: Yeah, I mean is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?

    Peggy Noonan: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this — excuse me– political bullshit about narratives —

    Chuck Todd: Yeah they went to a narrative.

    Mike Murphy: I totally agree.

    Peggy Noonan: Every time the Republicans do that, because that’s not where they live and it’s not what they’re good at, they blow it.

    Mike Murphy: You know what’s really the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is no cynicism, and this is cynical.

    Chuck Todd: This is cynical, and as you called it, gimmicky.

    Mike Murphy: Yeah.

    narrative: it’s a modish word for baggage, even ostensibility.

  7. I don’t suppose our host ever taught Jonathan Rowson? Jonathan uses the term a fair bit in his very good book Chess for Zebras, to describe (for instance) how we misjudge chess positions because we are telling ourselves a story in which we punish our opponent for their errors, and therefore view their moves (which may not be errors at all) in the light of that assumption.

  8. Well, narratives aren’t *entirely* bullshit. I’ve been thinking about this, and the best metaphor I can come up with is trying to draw a best-fit curve through some data-points. There is an aesthetic component to this: you (or a computer program) has to decide which points (if any) are ‘noise’ and can be discarded.

    There are several well-known data-points on Gordon Brown’s career to date. The salient ones, the important ones, this year are different from those you may have picked 18 months ago. Before he became PM, Brown had been an excellent debater in opposition, and a convincing Shadow Chancellor who became a hard-working, possibly obsessive, Chancellor. Now, he’s a humourless wonk who micro-managed the Treasury and wouldn’t be moved (as almost all ministers are), a mistake which in some ways left him with less PM-in-training experience than his Foreign Secretary; he’s the guy who sold gold when he should have bought the stuff; and he was ‘disloyal’ (Oliver Kamm’s term). Both of these versions contain truths, but it’s hard to bear both in mind at once – much like a Necker cube or a duck-rabbit picture. Anyway, that’s what i think narratives are or do. I think narratives also should have a more overt cause-and-effect mechanism, which I haven’t explained at all.

  9. I think ejh comes closest to what i thought narratives are in the political sense.

    my understanding is that it grew out (or at least the renewed interest did) of the American analysis of how and why people vote as they do. That they do not behave as rational actors choosing candidates/parties with policies best suited to their interests but rather the candidate they emotionally connect with.

    Drew Weston’s Political Brain does the best job i’ve seen of spelling this out – that Democrats focus overly on policy and not emotive narrative and hence lost twice to Regan and Bush Jr with their ‘aw shucks’ lines when polling showed that people sided with the vast majority of democratic policies (when listed independently of party).

    So in my mind you can have the same policies and/or ideology and have very different narratives to defend them. That inheritance tax is good because it is only paid by 3% and encourages economic efficiency versus i don’t see why its fair that people slave away for x an hour while the Paris Hiltons sit on their backsides.

    Narratives are basically arguments – ones that have a common theme that can therefore be used accross several policies.

    e.g. ‘rights and responsibilities’

  10. i should have added that this can therefore fit with a personal historical narrative which basically details how said candidate lived by such ideals/arguments.

  11. I think it’s basically “the pattern in which you try and fit events and through which you interpret them”. You don’t necessarily do so entirely, it doesn’t imply a total loss of rationality, but it’s somethig slightly more complex, more formed than “prejudice”.

    It may indeed not be irrational at all: it may be the product of a valid and rational analysis. In one sense it’s just a way of saying “worldview”. But in the political sense it can be taken as a set of feelings and assumptions which are not really connected with by way of rational discussion about policy.

  12. Hi Chris, i don’t know where it came from originally, but for a recent and influential elaboration of the idea (and also of ‘governance stories’) in a British political context, you might want to check out the work of Rod Rhodes and Mark Bevir, if you haven’t already.

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