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“On many occasions it deploys humor as a political weapon: Beautiful Trouble is an entertaining and audacious book which provokes smiles in the reader.”

Julia Ramírez Blanco, Re-visones

Narrative power analysis

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In Sum

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.

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over twenty years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music.

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