Five reasons why using narrative is important for understanding social change

In this post I want to share the five reason I have found so far why using narrative is central to understanding and engaging in social change. In an earlier article, I described different types of narrative and different types of working with stories.

Narratives are central in how we humans organise our society. Gossiping about others allows us to exchange reliable information about who can be trusted, who’s behaviour is acceptable and who is behaving in a ‘bad’ way. Talking about metaphors, legends and myths gives us a common framework of meaning. Weaving life-lessons into stories that get repeated again and again helps us to learn how to behave and become accepted members of a society.

The intention of this post is for me to bring some weeks of reading on narrative together, it is not yet the final word. What’s in here will no doubt further develop and I would appreciate your comments and thoughts – and links to further sources.

So, after this disclaimer, here the five reasons I have come up with.

One. The narratives we exchange in the form of gossip, shared experiences, metaphors, myths and legends enable human collaboration in large groups. 

In his book “Sapiens”, Yuval Noah Harari writes [1]:

The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions [i.e. about observations]. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

There are two types of narratives in these quotes. The first one is gossip. Talking about other people behind their backs. This is often frowned upon in modern society, but it is important in building trusted human networks. Yet, Harari notes that gossip allows humans to build up groups of a maximum of around 150. This is in line with research by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. What is now often called Dunbar’s number is also said to be around 150.

The second type of narratives in the quote are about things we never experienced or that do not exist. This is important because it not only separates us from other species but it allows us to break the cognitive limit of groups of people we can collaborate with in a trusted relationship. We can assume the we can to a certain extend trust people we don’t know but who believe in the same deity or work for the same company. Both the deity and the company only exist in our imagination – although they feel very real for us and in case of the deity believers would obviously contest that it only exists in our imagination. This type of trust that is catalysed through the fictional entity might not be deep enough to tell this person all my secrets, but it is enough to engage for example in a trade relationship.

Harari again:

But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. The secret of how Homo sapiens crossed that threshold was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. (p. 30)

Two. Continuously repeated narratives constitute the basis of behavioural patterns in social groups and societies.

Another important aspect of living in social groups, large or small, is to be able to have a reasonable level of certainty about what behaviour one can expect from others in a specific situation – or what form of behaviour others expect from me in certain situations. This reduces the levels of uncertainty in human collaboration – and humans don’t like uncertainty. These ‘behavioural norms’ are often called social institutions and are codified in metaphors and habitual practice.

Dave Snowden writes [2]:

Common use of metaphors and habitual practice over time create assemblages that act as downwards constraints on behaviour and which escape the bounds of their creators to have independent existence. Metaphors carry associative meaning that emerges from use over time, not from an individual. It is interactive use and application which allows them to act as enabling constraints.

The main point Dave makes here is that metaphors and habitual practice over time create a scaffolding of ‘how one should behave’. This scaffolding is independent from each individual, it is an emergent property of continuous interactions in society. The ambiguity that is inherent to metaphors allows their meaning to fit different contexts and different times. The scaffolding creates an overall disposition of a system, a system’s character, and a propensity for certain behaviours to be more probable than others.

This means that if we can identify these common metaphors and practices, we can understand how they influence the behaviour of individuals who adhere to these narratives, i.e. who are part of that social group. If we want to nudge a social system, we should nudge in a direction of what is possible within the given disposition, not jank people into new and ‘better’ behaviours.

Or, as Barbara Czarniawska writes [3]:

To understand a society or some part of a society it is important to discover its repertoire of legitimate stories and find out how they evolved.

These two initial points are so important that the two following points might be mere corollaries of them, but still worth pointing out distinctively.

Three. Narratives are central to sensemaking and the attribution of meaning to events occurring in everyday life. 

The attribution of meaning to situations and observations as part of everyday sensemaking are central to human life. To quote again Barbara Czarniawska:

Whole communities as well as individual persons are engaged in a quest for meaning in ‘their life’, which will bestow meaning on particular actions.

Gerardo Patriotta, referencing Karl Weick’s work, writes in a great article on using narrative in organisational research [4]:

Sensemaking seems to be associated with the conceptualization of disruptive events as emblematic situations, either real or hypothetical. … Emblematic stories serve as narrative maps or ‘guides to conduct’ (Weick, 1995).

This quote somehow links my points two and three. On the one hand, it confirms again that common metaphors or, to use Patriotta’s phrasing, emblematic stories serve as narrative maps or ‘guides to conduct’. On the other hand, Patriotta introduces here the concept of sensemaking and associates it with the ‘conceptualisation of disruptive events’ into such emblematic stories.

Earlier in his paper, Patriotta writes

… narratives deal with the politics of meaning, i.e. how meanings are selected, legitimized, encoded, and institutionalized at the organizational level.

The collection of stories that we accumulate in a social group over time allows us to make sense of novel situations. This is particularly important if we face disruptive situations and ask ourselves how to react. Humans are pattern recognisers and the larger the collection of stories we have at our disposal, the more likely is that a new situation we face will match in certain aspects some pattern that we have seen in the one or other form before.

This, in turn, means that the process of collecting these stories over time is a process of learning and the stories themselves are a storage of knowledge, which brings me to my next point.

Four. Narrative is a central form of knowledge transfer and storage in human communities.

A lot of work has been done with regards to narrative and learning/knowledge in an organisational context. Shawn Callahan in his White Paper titled “How to use stories to size up a situation” [5] writes:

Collecting workplace stories—anecdotes of people’s lives at work, how they get things done, who they work with—enables a rich tapestry to emerge. Such a tapestry reflects the reality of the messy complexity of organisational life.

Patriotta writes that …

… narratives emphasize the processual nature of knowing and organizing. Like routines, they act as carriers of tacit knowledge as well as storage devices. However, while routines refer to organizations as governed by mechanisms of repetition and standardization, narratives exhibit organizations as enacted through discourse and characterized by ongoing processes of transformation and social becoming.

Patriotta makes an important differentiation here between narratives and routines. Routines refer to mechanisms that can be repeated. Routines can be written down and taught through classroom training. What is transferred by narratives, on the other hand, is more intangible and not easy to codify. If the stories just get written down, they might not make sense. They make sense if they are told in the right moment, in a situation where the context resembles the context of the situation when the story happened. Over time, the people in the group know which stories to use at what point of time to convey a particular message.

Patriotta found a telling quote from Carlo Ginzburg:

Knowledge of this [narrative] sort in each instance was richer than written codification; it was learned not from books but from the living voice, form gestures and glances; it was based on subtleties impossible to formalize, which often could not even be trans- lated into words . . . These insights were bound by a subtle relationship: they had all originated in concrete experience. The force behind this knowledge resided in its concreteness, but so did its limitation – the inability to make use of the powerful and terrible weapon of abstraction.

This means that “knowledge management” needs to recognise the importance of narratives in organisational knowledge beyond routines and explicit operating procedures and facilitate the capture and exchange of learning narratives. The ability to transfer implicit knowledge is also important in a societal context. Narratives are carriers of knowledge in a social group but can also be used to transfer knowledge in a context sensitive way between social groups.

Five. With narrative research we are better able to capture attitudes, perceptions and connections that cannot be expressed by people when they are asked directly.

This point is extremely well exemplified by a quote by Daniel Kahneman during an interview for the podcast On Being:

When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

This means, for example, that if we ask somebody in a development context to explain why the person thinks an observed change has happened, they will give you an explanation. But this explanation will be influenced by many factors, among others by the fact that you do the interview and the interviewee is trying to figure out what you want to hear.

Shawn Callahan finds four problems with traditional interviews and surveys:

  • interview and survey questions assume the validity of a hypothesis—interviewers tend to find what they are looking for;
  • interviewees rationalise their answers when asked for their opinions—the messiness
    of their day-to-day activities are quickly tidied-up to provide neat answers;
  • interviewees provide the answers that are on the top of their minds—they only know what they know when they need to know it; and
  • the questions provide minimal context— how many times have you answered a survey and found yourself thinking: ‘It depends … ’.

He suggests to complement traditional surveys and interviews with narrative techniques. One possible narrative technique is to use SenseMaker®, which I have described in an earlier posts (here and here) and I will probably come back to in future posts.

So to conclude there are many reasons to use narrative in our work on social change. These are five I found in my reading so far. There are probably many more. If you have been using narrative in your work, I would be curious to hear what your learning has been. Please feel free to share them in the comments.


[1] HARARI, Y.N. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Vintage Books: London.

[2] SNOWDEN, D. 2015. Think trope not meme. Cognitive Edge Blog.

[3] CZARNIAWSKA, B. 2004. Narratives in Social Science Research. SAGE Publications.

[4] PATRIOTTA, G. 2003. Sensemaking on the shop floor: Narratives of knowledge in organizations. Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 40(2):349-375. (Paywall!!)

[5] CALLAHAN, S. 2004. How to use stories to size up a situation: Why traditional interviews and surveys are insufficient for understanding what is really going on in your organisation. Anecdote.

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