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The Power of Narrative

The missing link between the humanities and the social sciences, the psychological and the social—and scholars and general readers.

November 30, 2022

The war in Ukraine, says Ronald G. Suny, a leading historian of the Soviet Union and Russia and perhaps the foremost authority on ethnicity policies in the former Soviet bloc, is not just a military conflict. It’s also a war of narratives—stories that undergird the policies and strategies of the opposing sides.

There is Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s leaders came to power illegitimately, as a result of 2014 coup, and have since pushed the country toward an alliance with the West. On the other side, there’s a counternarrative that Ukraine rebelled in 2014 against Russian influence in order to become a truly sovereign, democratic state free to reach out to the European Union and NATO.

We typically conceive of international conflicts in coldly realist geopolitical and strategic terms. But Suny argues that in this case, such a view is grossly mistaken. Putin’s motives rest on a “hyperemotional narrative” in which Russian actions have arisen in response to certain deep-seated anxieties about the decline of Russian power and Western neo-colonialism as it encroaches into Russia’s sphere of influence. In Suny’s view, Putin’s narrative—that “Ukraine needs saving from the clutches of the West and Western culture”—is not window dressing or delusional (however deluded and patently incorrect it might be).

Suny’s emphasis on the power of narrative is in line with a broader drift in scholarship that is exerting a powerful influence on anthropology, history, medicine, psychology and sociology. It represents an effort to define an alternative to two conflicting points of view. On one side is a crude materialism that treats narratives as weapons or propaganda that seek to promote a political cause or point of view and that, when effective, produce false consciousness. Then, there’s the opposing perspective, a crude idealism that reifies ideas and treats them as autonomous entities that can be understood and analyzed independently from specific contexts and interests.

Instead of simply reducing a narrative to a story or a descriptive account of connected events, the sociologist Margaret R. Somers argues that narrative is better understood as a conceptual filter or perceptual lens rooted in political and social contexts. Narratives, she writes, are “unanalyzed and powerful shapers of human experience.” Narratives, in short, are best understood as a way to explain, understand and make sense of a complicated, complex reality. Not an objective description, narratives, in this sense, screen out conflicting evidence and reflect and advance particular interests.

Somers distinguishes between four kinds of narratives:

  • Ontological narratives that individuals use to understand their lives (why, for example, I divorced or who I am, defined in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality or some other favor).
  • Public, cultural and institutional narratives that groups draw upon to define their collective identities and interests and that inform policies and actions.
  • The conceptual, analytical or sociological narratives deployed by scholars.
  • The metanarratives or master narratives that underpin thinking about large-scale social developments, such as notions of progress or decadence or conflicts between capitalism and communism or dictatorship and democracy.

Narratives, in this view, are constructs. They’re creative fictions, neither true nor false. They are not, however, idiosyncratic or purely personal. Even the narratives that individual people use to make sense of their lives draw upon a pre-existing repertoire of public discourses that are historically and culturally specific.

The emphasis on narrative arose, in part, as a response to structural or quantitative explanations that failed to take account of the importance of perceptions and emotions—that is, the human mind. It also represents a way to reach a broader readership put off by abstract theorizing that omitted human elements and storytelling. The great challenge facing scholars is how to successfully and stylishly integrate analysis and interpretation into a literary form that reads like a story with drama, plot and a narrative arc.

Interpreting narratives requires social scientists and other scholars to use techniques developed by literary critics and psychoanalysts: to deconstruct and analyze the way that individuals or collective groups assemble a series of events into a narrative with a plot and to understand how these stories are embedded in an intricate web of social relationships, societal practices, interests and cultural and professional discourses.

There is no doubt in my mind that the narrative turn has allowed scholars to make sense of episodes that can’t be understood simply in terms of rational choice theory. Thus, many American revolutionaries became convinced that the British Parliament was engaged in a plot to enslave them; a growing number of Northerners in the 1850s believed that a vicious slave power had engineered economic depressions, war with Mexico and even presidential assassinations to expand slavery; and that policy makers following World War II genuinely thought the Soviet Union was embarked on a plan of global conquest and that the loss of a single society to Communism would quickly lead to Communist takeovers elsewhere.

Human beings are not just political animals or social beings. We are storytellers who conceive of our lives in terms of narrative episodes. These stories are invariably ideologically laden, reflecting various interests that are often unexamined, unconscious and unrecognized. Often, these narratives prove to be objectively false. The result is to lead individuals and groups to act in ways that contradict their real self-interest. That, as Suny has argued, is certainly the case with Putin’s narrative, which is “crumbling in the face of reality.”

What I find especially exciting about the narrative turn is that it bridges a series of divides: the disciplinary divide between humanities and the social sciences; the analytical divide between the psychological and the sociological; the conceptual divide between the individual and the collective. Equally important, the embrace of narrative provides a way to bring the human mind and emotions and people’s sense of identity into our interpretations of social and political behavior without losing sight of structures, interests, networks, cultural discourses, social relations and social, political and economic systems that are themselves distillates of historical change.

This analytical turn also encourages scholars to re-embrace narrative as a form of representation and argumentation. If we want our scholarship to reach an audience broader than our scholarly peers, we must write in ways that go far beyond Twitter’s 280-character cap and not allow analytical abstraction to remove the contingent, the historical, the contextual and, above all, the human. However sophisticated conceptually and analytically, scholarship without human voices is barren and bleak, a wasteland devoid of the qualities that make the fruits of our research worth reading.

The challenge, then, is to craft narratives that show how individuals and groups defined their identities and translated into humanistic terms the realities that social scientists and social historians have worked so hard to uncover.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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