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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.

This is why in any social change effort, it’s crucial to understand the landscape of ‘narrative’ – the concepts and conventional understandings that are the territory within which thinking and action takes place.

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

Our ‘Power in Place’ report investigated the underlying assumptions about the relationship between land and people that justifies and perpetuates the continuing deprioritization of land reform.

Understanding narratives: our analysis

To understand how narrative operate, across these levels and in practice, we carry out analysis:

Concept: the Narrative’s logics, arguments and core frames; i.e. how it appeals to certain values, identities and worldviews

Power: looking at who is involved in maintaining and spreading the dominant Narrative; who is impacted by or opposing it; and the role of technology and media 

Affordances: looking at the gaps and opportunities for promoting alternatives, and the maturity of existing options

What understanding Narrative allows

Any effective strategy needs to properly understand how its attempts to engage and persuade will be received, and the network of relevant understandings and concepts at play in public discourse.

Understanding this properly not only allows for more sophisticated, far-sighted and resilient strategies, but also the identification of specific practical opportunities and intervention points, as well the easy production of  particular tools, materials and approaches, for example:

  • How to overcome barriers and reach new audiences
  • Understand opposing influence & communication efforts, and effective counter-narratives
  • Discover new ways of framing your objectives and work that will resonate more widely
  • Ensure your activities and communications do not unwittingly reinforce unhelpful frames
  • Identify the most effective allies to engage in building power for change

All of these and more can also contribute towards the longer term goal of shifting deep narratives in our society that sustain injustice. We will have more to share on this soon.

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