Braiding New Narratives in Syria and Iraq
Methodology for the Project on Narrative Braiding
This post is a summary of an alternative approach to narratives — narrative braiding. Its brevity is a means to circulate the ideas articulated by Dr. Sara Cobb in an accessible manner. Any omission of key points or errors in describing the approach are mine alone.
U.S. military doctrine recognizes the centrality of narratives to conflict and specifically insurgencies. It asserts narratives define the logic of action.
“Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. They provide a basis for interpreting information, experiences, and the behavior and intentions of other individuals and communities. Stories about a community’s history provide models of how actions and consequences are linked. Thus, narratives shape decision making in two ways: they provide an interpretive framework for a complicated and uncertain environment and offer idealized historical analogies that can serve as the basis for strategies (JP 3–24, 2013, p. II-9).”
After proclaiming the centrality of narratives in shaping decision making and defining strategies, it relegates the military approach to narratives to merely a supporting messaging effort.
“…planners must reinforce the credibility and legitimacy of the [host nation] and US [counterinsurgency] efforts and compose a unifying message [exploiting] the negative aspects of the insurgent efforts (JP 3–24, 2013, p. I-7).”
“…narrative provides an operational framework for integrating [information operations] with the full range of lethal and nonlethal military and civilian operations in order to shape the perceptions of relevant actors (JP 3–24, 2013, p. III-9).”
Narratives, for the U.S. military, become a means only to express the legitimacy of government actions and delegitimize the insurgent’s actions. In contrast, the insurgent is allowed to employ narratives that compel subversive and violent action (JP 3–24, 2013, p. II-4). Ultimately and, unfortunately, this approach defers the primacy of narratives in defining the logic of action to the insurgent.
Narratives, for the U.S. military, become a means only to express the legitimacy of government actions and delegitimize the insurgent’s actions
Cobb offers an alternative narrative approach to disrupt patterns of conflict — narrative braiding. In the journal, Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice, she articulates, “Narrative ‘Braiding’ and the Role of Public Officials in Transforming the Public’s Conflicts.” Unlike the current U.S. military approach to narratives, simply crafting a message that explains military actions, narrative braiding is an intervention that collects individual narrative strands and weaves more complex narrative strands. Inasmuch, narrative braiding introduces “…better-formed stories [that] provide a more complex description of the history, which in turn, opens up new ways of describing present problems and future solutions (Cobb, 2013, p. 21).”
Her approach recognizes fundamental conflict dynamics in which increasingly simplified narratives marginalize and delegitimize conflict parties. As if reflecting on the military’s approach to narrative she submits, “in a conflict process, [narratives] are condensed and simplified” in a process of “mutual delegitimation” (Cobb, 2013, p. 11). Delegitimation in turn exacerbates the conflict by marginalizing parties to the conflict, reducing the ability to negotiate divisions within society, and rationalizing their withdrawal and/or violence (Cobb, 2013, p. 24). Instead, the alternative she offers recognizes the role of narratives in conflict resolution promoting the capacity to deliberate, engaging in conversations clarifying the discourse between different groups, and ultimately eliciting support for a vision of the future. A narrative approach to conflict resolution seeks to increase complexity with “new character roles, moral values, and episodic components [constituting] a new narrative structure that is better formed across several dimensions (Cobb, 2013, p. 21).”
In the first component of the intervention, Cobb submits that identity groups have narrative strands encompassing stories about self and other providing cognitive and emotional logic for action. Much like a rope with thousands of fibers, bound into yarns, and gathered into individual strands, a group’s narrative is comprised of sub-strands sharing that same narrative material of the main strand. The fibers of religious, linguistic, ethnic, and ideological attributes create composite evaluations of self, others, and circumstances, allowing narrative strands to articulate what identity groups “need or deserve and why” (Cobb, 2013, p. 13).
As narratives are derived within the discourse of politics, religion, education, or popular culture, examining social communication provides access to important conversations articulating separate strands. Cobb encourages taking the next step in developing narrative strands through engagement — conversations exploring the foundation of interests through listening, and asking questions that are designed to elaborate core stories. Additionally, she submits that developing these strands requires conversations with the identity group reflecting elaborations of how they make sense of the world around them.
In the second component of the intervention, Cobb submits the new, better-formed narrative is written as an elaboration of the individual strands woven into “…a collective account of the problem and its context” (Cobb, 2013, p. 23). When the individual narrative strands are braided into a single rope, the new narrative becomes flexible enough to bend and stretch, resilient enough to quickly return to shape, and strong enough to carry the weight of the collective identities. Ultimately, the narrative braid incorporates the attributes and terms of legitimacy of each narrative strand while “altering the structure of conflict narratives” through a process of engagement.
Specifically, the process of engagement includes facilitated conversations that create conditions materializing and elaborating the voice of the different conflict parties. These conversations can occur in multiple settings, publicly and privately, formally and informally, in meetings and planning sessions (Cobb, 2013, p. 19). These conversations include questions building a framework of legitimacy by having critical aspects of one’s narrative strand elaborated by others (Cobb, 2013, p. 20). This interaction, Cobb submits, alters existing conflict narratives legitimizing protagonist and antagonists and in the process introduces complexity to an interdependent narrative with the addition of episodes and the logic of those episodes resident in the individual narrative strands (Cobb, 2013, pp. 20–22).
Where and how could we apply this approach? As offered earlier, this approach offers the potential to produce solutions to the wicked problems of complex campaigns. There is a tremendous opportunity and a moral interest to consider the wicked problem of civilians caught in the cross-fire of the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State’s ambitions, and sectarian conflict in the region.
In Syria, the United Nations estimates 220,000 conflict-related deaths and 7.6 million internally displaced persons (Hadid, 2015 and IDMC, 2015). In Iraq, the UN estimates 8,000 conflict-related deaths and 2.2 million internally displaced persons (Associated Press, 2014 and IDMC, 2015). The compounding the sheer weight of these aggregate numbers is the array of identity groups — Syrians, Iraqis, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Palestinians, Jews, Christians, Druze, Alawites, Yazidis, Turkmen and many others at risk groups — each with their own narrative strand creating a tremendously complex narrative landscape. Even the international coalition combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, itself a mix of American, Australian, British, Canadian, Saudi, Jordanian, Emirati, French, Danish and many others, is challenged by the complexity of its own complex narrative landscape.
Implementing the first component of this intervention requires analyzing the narrative landscape to identify the extant narrative strands. It is first an accounting of the array of identity groups at risk. Secondly, it is necessary to begin engaging in conversations that matter. It is exploring the attributes and interests of those groups in public and private meetings designed to elaborate their core stories.
Project team members, each with particular area studies interest, will reach out to an identity group extant in the narrative landscape of the conflict. We will also seek out opportunities as “braiding agents” to have conversations with multiple parties to create the conditions to materialize and elaborate the component narrative strands. They will elicit conversations elaborating the group’s interests and values. This allows the intervention to begin promoting the legitimacy of each group’s interests in the public space ensuring the marginalized begin to be heard and recognized (Cobb, 2013, p. 10 & 18).
The second component of this intervention, the core of this approach, requires facilitated conversations where the braiding begins. Starting conversations with questions that begin to interrupt the conflict narrative by having the critical interests articulated in the previous step elaborated by other groups. Conversations can occur where “points of concurrence” are evident — at the intersections where one’s interests are compatible with the interests of others (Niebuhr, 2010, p. 94 and Bacevich, 2008, p. 175). The braiding will be evident when groups begin to elaborate the interests of others in their own terms building a complex accounting of the problem (Cobb, 2013, p. 20). Again, the process of producing an interdependent narrative of multiple strands can occur in public and private meetings. Additionally, we would again leverage social media to articulate and interact with this new narrative braid.
Throughout the braiding, each strand retains the particularity of their distinct group. They take on richer meaning in which to make that identity materialize. Yet as these strands become more complex, the more opportunities there are to link to other narratives. The narratives that emerge will constitute, Cobb describes, “collaboration, rather than conflict, providing a foundation for improved relationships (Cobb, 2013, p. 21).”
This conflict has trapped millions of civilians in an unending tragedy; it deserves our best effort at weaving a new narrative.
Associated Press (July, 31, 2014) “Iraq Government Casualty Figures via AFP (Google Docs)”. Docs.google.com. Retrieved 5 June 2015 https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qx5xfgQVNNcJosG_EN8m3D2RRkJNpRbLsVKWdYAxKvA/edit#gid=29
Bacevich, A. (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Cobb, S. (2013). “Narrative “Braiding” and the Role of Public Officials in Transforming the Public’s Conflicts.” Conflict and Narrative: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 1(1), pp. 4–30. Retrieved from: http://journals.gmu.edu/NandC/issue/1
Department of Defense (November 2013). “Joint Publication (JP) 3–24: Counterinsurgency.” Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hadid, D. (January 1, 2015). “Syrian Rebels And Government Reach Truce In Besieged Area”. Associated Press. Retrieved 5 June 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/15/syria-rebel-truce_n_6478226.html?ncid=txtlnkusaolp00000592
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) (May, 2015).“The Global Overview 2015: People internally displaced by conflict and violence.” Retrieved 5 June 2015 http://www.internal-displacement.org/assets/library/Media/201505-Global-Overview-2015/20150506-global-overview-2015-en.pdf
Niebuhr, R. (2010). The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.