“Drivel, bilge, waste!”Rush Limbaugh
All power relations have a narrative dimension. Narrative power analysis is a systematic methodology for examining the stories that abet the powers that be in order to better challenge them.
Developed by the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project
Human beings are literally hardwired for narrative. Stories are the threads of our lives and weave together to form the fabric of human cultures. A story can inform or deceive, enlighten or entertain, or all of the above at once. We live in a world shaped by stories.
A traditional power analysis gives organizers and activists an understanding of the power relations and institutional dynamics among key target decision makers and allies. Narrative power analysis provides a framework to extend power analysis into narrative space — the intangible realm of stories, ideas, and assumptions that frame public perception of the situation and the players in question. Narrative helps define what is normal and what is legitimate, as well as the limits of what is politically possible. All power relations have such a narrative component.
Narrative power analysis is based on the recognition that the currency of story is not truth, but meaning. That is, what makes a story powerful is not necessarily facts, but how the story creates meaning in the hearts and minds of the listeners. Therefore, the obstacle to convincing people is often not what they don’t yet know but actually what they already do know. In other words, people’s existing assumptions and beliefs can act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing social change messages. A narrative power analysis seeks to unearth the hidden building blocks of these pernicious narratives, so that a narrative of liberation can better challenge them.
For example, in a traditional power analysis, a group of neighbors organizing against a proposed commercial development might determine that the mayor and the city council are the ultimate decision makers and are influenced by the developers’ campaign contributions and by the opinions of voters in X precinct. Next, the group can build on that understanding with a narrative power analysis of the story and memes the developers are using to promote their agenda. This means carefully examining the developers’ narrative on its own terms: how do they frame the problem they say they are solving? Who are their messengers? How do they portray the community? What are their unstated assumptions?
For instance, the developers may have framed their narrative around “bringing jobs to the neighborhood.” Armed with clarity about the developer’s narrative, the neighborhood group can now craft their own narrative and design a strategy to isolate the developer. Perhaps they decide to organize those same small business owners that the developer claims to represent. Perhaps they organize a jobs fair to show that there are other ways to create employment. If the developers are counting on a “You can’t fight City Hall,” attitude, organizers make sure that their campaign narrative emphasizes how people power has won victories in the past. In short, the group challenges not just the economic and political forces they face, but also the narratives that back those forces up, that legitimate them and allow those forces to threaten their community.
Current realities are often rooted in oppressive narratives. Our role as change agents is to undermine these narratives and replace them with new stories that help build a fairer, freer world.