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Science of Story Building: Master and Counter Narratives

Matt Sheehan
May 10, 2018 · 7 min read

By Matt Sheehan and Annie Neimand

Narratives clearly have the power to persuade and impact the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of audiences.¹ However, narratives as tools aren’t neutral. They can be used to persuade people for positive aims such as justice, equality, and sustainability, but they can also be used to build support for terrorism, authoritarianism, and violence.²

Like the types of plots within narratives, many narratives can be placed into groups as well. Researchers call recurring narrative arcs “master narratives” and they play a large role in the how we perceive the world around us. Scholar Michael Dahlstrom writes: “Cultivation theory describes this influence of [narratives in entertainment] on public perceptions about the world. For example, although less than one percent of Americans are victims of violent crime, ∼70 percent of broadcast network television shows characters engaged as either a victim or perpetrator of such violence.”³ As a result, audiences may believe the world is more violent than it actually is.

Popular stories and narratives play a large role in how we see the world. Using the example above, it’s easy to recognize why many Americans may be concerned about violent crime despite the fact that the data shows the threats to themselves personally may not be as grave as they perceive.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares two experiences from her life in a popular TED talk that demonstrate the danger of a master narrative, or what she refers to as “a single story.”⁴ She shares that as a child growing up in Nigeria she used to read a lot of English and American children’s literature. When she started writing her own stories at age 7, she wrote characters who were white, blue eyed, played in the snow, ate apples and talked about how lovely it was that the sun had come out. All of those experiences were foreign to her in Nigeria, but because they were in the books that she read she believed that was the way things were supposed to be. Later, when she went to college in America, she shared how disappointed her roommate was when she asked Adichie to share her “tribal music” and they listed to a tape of Mariah Carey — breaking from her roommate’s single story of life in Nigeria.

These single stories, or master narratives, can have a damaging effect on the veracity of narratives among certain populations, or could have a negative sociological effect by reinforcing stereotypes that could stigmatize certain populations. We have certainly seen this in news stories about refugees who are often portrayed as a threat or burden to society or in popular films where the villains are often played by men of color. These stories create a single story in the mind of the audience about that population, absent of complexity, diversity and nuance, and as a result, reinforce stereotypes and biases.

Narratives that don’t conform to these master narratives are called counter narratives and are an emerging tool to increase the power of our storytelling. Social movement activists and organizations often work to create and amplify counternarratives about a particular issue or population to challenge cultural stereotypes and create new ways of seeing the world. Undocumented students in Chicago tell personal stories to build connections with other undocumented kids and to change how to world sees them.⁵ Black Twitter regularly shares personal stories to combat stereotypical news coverage of police violence toward the black community through campaigns like #iftheygunnedmedown and #sayhername. As Nick Wing describes #iftheygunnedmedown on Huffington Post, “users posted side-by-side photos, demonstrating the power that news outlets wield in portraying victims based on images they select.”⁶ Doing so called out the master narrative on black victims of of police violence and while also replacing that narrative with a narrative that breaks stereotypes and biases.

We can also see counternarratives in popular media. Television shows like FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s Insecure, and Academy Award-winning films like Get Out and Moonlight are providing counter narratives of what it is like to be a young black adult in America. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black was groundbreaking in changing the dominant narrative on the lives and issues affecting incarcerated women. And documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc., that tell stories about the food industry and how what we eat impacts our bodies and the environment, are changing how people think about health and consumption.

The study of counternarratives in communications is relatively new. However, the term counternarrative is already in use in other fields like critical race theory,⁷ feminist and gender studies⁸ and education⁹. There, scholars use counternarrative to describe how oppressed people use stories to establish their own understandings of themselves and their history in a way that runs counter to the traditional historical narrative, as well as how narratives can oppress marginalized populations.

Recently, scholars have begun to turn their attention to the development of counternarratives that work to counteract harmful narratives. They do this by tapping into the same attitudes and beliefs that make harmful narratives persuasive for some groups of people, such as those being recruited for terrorism.¹⁰ They then supplant the harmful narrative with a new narratives featuring beneficial outcomes.

To build support for women’s right to vote, suffragists often played into dominant conceptions of womanhood in order to resonate with and not threaten societal norms, while at the same time told stories that pushed society to see new possibilities for women as political actors. For example, suffragists often held parades in public settings. During these parades, they would act out Joan of Arc narratives to show that women could embody political strength while adhering to feminine ideals. These parades were designed to articulate their goals, demonstrate their capacity to participate in civic life, attract the attention of the press, and build support among the public and government officials. While they played into a master narrative on women’s role in society, they leveraged it to introduce a new narrative that helped others imagine women as political actors.¹¹ Their chosen color of white also reinforced their purity, a master narrative they used to their advantage as they argued that their moral authority made their voices critical to the electoral process.

As Adichie closed in her TED talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

It’s important to recognize that master narratives are fluid, and that by trying to break one, we can create a new one that may also be harmful. The organizations in the humanitarian sector working to protect and serve refugees, for example, seeks to break away from the master narrative in the news media that refugees as a threat or burden by telling stories that show refugees are just like you and me, but need help to have a better life. They tell stories of refugees seeking to better themselves through education and giving back to their host communities. However, we suspect that many of these stories situate refugees as helpless beneficiaries of donors. As a result, a new master narrative of refugees as helpless and destitute has emerged.

A great example of a refugee counter narrative comes from Fusion. Watch this story of a Syrian dancer. How does his story break away from stereotypes and overused plot structures? What are the deceptive cadences and the unexpected emotions? How do the filmmakers leave space for us in his story, while also creating full spaces to replace our assumptions and potential biases?

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Citations:

  1. Braddock, K., & Dillard, J. P. (2016). Meta-analytic evidence for the persuasive effect of narratives on beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Communication Monographs, 83(4), 446–467.
  2. Braddock, K., & Horgan, J. (2016). Towards a Guide for Constructing and Disseminating Counternarratives to Reduce Support for Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 39(5), 381–404. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2015.1116277
  3. Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13614–13620.
  4. Adichie, C. N. (2009). The danger of a single story. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
  5. Swerts, T. (2015). Gaining a voice: storytelling and undocumented youth activism in Chicago. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 20(3), 345–360.
  6. Wing, N. (2017, December 07). When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/media-black-victims_n_5673291.html
  7. Harper, S. R. (2009). Niggers no more: a critical race counternarrative on Black male student achievement at predominantly White colleges and universities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6), 697–712. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390903333889
  8. Jupp, J. C. (2013). What are white progressive masculinities? Counternarratives and contradictions of committed white male teachers in inner-city schools. Gender and Education, 25(4), 413–431. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2013.770827
    Lal, J. (2011). (Un)becoming women: Indian factory women’s counternarratives of gender. The Sociological Review, 59(3), 553–578. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02026.x
    Thoreson, R. (2013). Beyond equality: The post-apartheid counternarrative of trans and intersex movements in South Africa. African Affairs, 112(449), 646–665. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adt043
  9. Schroeter, S. (2013). “The way it works” doesn’t: theatre of the oppressed as critical pedagogy and counternarrative. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(4), 394.
  10. Cobb, S. (2013) Speaking of Violence the Politics and Poetics of Narrative Dynamics in Conflict Resolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  11. Borda, J. L. (2002). The woman suffrage parades of 1910–1913: Possibilities and limitations of an early feminist rhetorical strategy. Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports), 66(1), 25–52.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

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