Skip to main content

Narrative and why it matters

What has more power than what doesn’t need to be said?

When an idea is assumed to be true, it is no longer up for debate. It forms the boundaries of acceptable discourse — what is seen as relevant and possible. All too often, this is one of the biggest barriers to improving the world: unwritten rules that limit our imagination and trap us in binary oppositions and regressive definitions.

In any social change effort, it’s crucial to understand the landscape of ‘narrative,’ or the concepts and conventional understandings where thinking and action takes place. By analysing and understanding narratives, we can find ways past barriers, combating and ultimately replacing regressive belief systems.

What that means in practice

We work in narrative across three main areas:

Narrative Analysis & Mapping: Foundational to all our work is the interrogation of the existing narrative landscape. By exploring the different connections, logics and dynamics of narratives and how they work, we gain vital context not only for our other work, but for efforts such as movement building, positioning and organisational strategy.

Strategic Reframing: The effect of regressive narratives is often that issues can appear ‘stuck’ — an inevitable or natural part of the status quo. In order to escape this, it is often necessary to design entirely new ways of depicting them, that can effectively evade and undermine the established framing. 

Message Development & Testing: The most common and practical opportunity allowed by narrative analysis and understanding is the design of more effective messaging to resonate with a particular audience, honed through a process of systematic testing.

Principles of Our Approach

  • Narratives have particular domains with their own dynamics and ecosystem, which need specific attention. While they are always connected at a deeper level, we must resist the temptation to  work on everything at once.
  • Narratives are implicit, and the more implicit they are, the more power they have.
  • Narratives never operate in a vacuum. To understand how they work, we need also to understand how they interact with, influence and are influenced by material factors, including power, wealth and technology.
  • The first step and precondition of any successful narrative work is a proper understanding of the dominant narrative, why it works, and how it appeals. An important aspect is understanding narratives across all their levels, as outlined below.

Levels of Narrative

A full understanding of narrative needs to appreciate their presence at multiple interrelated levels, with complex interrelationships and dynamics, from the surface level of everyday discussion, down to core aspects of our identity and values:

Stories & Opinion: the surface level of public discourse, reflected in everyday news, and captured through methods like polling and focus groups

Collective Agendas: grouped perspectives and interpretations of the world; most discussion and analysis of ‘narrative’ focuses on this level

Operating Assumptions: conventional definitions and understandings often unspoken, determining what is possible, relevant, and worthy of attention

Mental Models: deeper societal concepts and norms, mostly unconscious, around fundamental ways that the world works

Identities, Values & Worldviews: base cultural and psychological frameworks that inform and draw from our collective culture

Making the distinction between these different levels gives a more fine grained sense of how narratives operate at and between different levels, helping avoid the confusion and conflation that can commonly plague work described as ‘narrative’, and giving a clearer sense of what interventions make sense where in each case.

What Understanding Narrative Allows

Understanding narrative and its role within public discourse allows for more sophisticated, long-term and resilient strategies. It enables the identification of specific practical opportunities and intervention points, and the production of particular tools, materials and approaches. It allows organisations to:

  • Understand opposing influence & communication efforts, and creating constructive counter-narratives
  • Ensure actions and communications do not unintentionally reinforce unhelpful or unjust frames
  • Identify effective allies to engage in building power for change 

All of these contribute towards the longer term goal of replacing dominant regressive narratives, and ultimately creating a more just and equal future.

For more information on any of our work, contact us at info@futurenarrativeslab.org