Sunday, 14 October 2007

Narratives, politics, money, football and stuff

Although I'm aware of the use of the term 'narrative' as a way to describe the way political ideas are put across, I've only recently come across the notion of the Narrative Paradigm developed by Walter Fisher. I'll just the post the Wiki definition to kick off:

"The Narrative Paradigm is a theory proposed by Walter Fisher that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or to give a report of events (see narrative) and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends."

I find this a very convincing proposition. So much media commentary in particular seems to work on this basis. As I have mentioned previously I think this particularly the case with business journalism, but to be honest political journalism (which I enjoy more) is probably much worse as there is very little factual or objective information in a lot of it. As an example I read a bit of analysis in the Observer today of Gordo's situation, and whilst I enjoyed reading it, and will probably reuse some of it in conversation (see later...) on reflection I don't think I have actually learned anything of note from it, it's just helped flesh out a new narrative in my mind about Brown which I will use to interpret information. That's all the analysis was really - a little join-the-dots exercise to pull the new info we have (non-election, botched PBR) into a coherent-sounding story.

Here's another recent political example - I remember what I thought about Thatcher's visit to see Gordo a few weeks ago. Much as Thatcher was a hate figure for me in the 80s and 90s, the meeting didn't really annoy me as much as it did others (unlike the Digby Jones appointment which really did wind me up). I was more impressed with the idea of it being part of a 'dog whistle' strategy to pull traditional Tory voters (many of whom probably see Cameron as a poncey London liberal) behind Brown. It looked 'clever' - using the knee-jerk reactions of Tory voters to our advantage - especially given that the narrative at the time was how smart Brown was. But now, in the wake of the non-election and botched PBR, the narrative has changed. Now Gordo is politicking too much, and his attempt to steal Tory clothes like the Inheritance Tax 'reform' looks opportunitic and even a bit weak. And much as I am aware of the arbitrary nature of both narratives, because the new one 'feels' a better fit for the facts (for now) I find myself inclined to think that the Thatcher meeting has retrospectively become less clever! And by the way I bet if I dug out the Observer's political analysis of Gordo's reign from about 3 weeks ago the narrative would be very different.

Turning to the financial world, there was something similar going on in Tony Golding's book The City: Inside The Great Expectation Machine (a great introduction to how the financial system works by the way) where he talked about how fund managers view investee companies. He said they usually have two or three bullet points about a given company in their head, which might cover recent financial history, views about the management and so on. Sounds like a 'story' about the company to me.

And you can see it at work in sports too. It reminds me of how crowd reactions and commentary changed during the time Marcus Bent used to play for Ipswich a few seasons back. Early on he hit a pretty good run of form, at lots of the commentary was positive. Quite often you'd hear people say that he "nearly got on the end of a cross" or similar. So he hadn't actually converted a chance, but he got close. But after we got relegated an element of the crowd seemed to develop a new narrative for him - namely that as he was no longer in the Premiership he wasn't motivated. Hence "nearly got on the end of a cross" turned into "didn't work hard enough to reach a cross". Same type of incident - chance not taken - different interpretation. I don't think his standard of play actually changed that much (if it did how did he manage to move to other Premiership clubs subsequently?), it's just that the new narrative some of our fans had developed changed the way they viewed similar types of incidents.

Why do narratives appear to be so prevalent? One answer maybe that 'real' information is just a bit too boring for us to want to retain, whereas if we dress it up as a story it becomes more enjoyable to retain and utilise. As an illustration to broaden this one out a bit, I read Derren Brown's book on holiday this year and one section of it deals with methods to help you remember things. One suggestion is to imagine a journey through your house and to tie each thing you need to remember to a particular place in the house (you need to follow the same journey each time). I've tried it out and it definitely works. Is that because when you apply this method you create a little 'story', and it's more enjoyable (and thus easier) to use this to pull up the bit of information we need?

Narratives of course also work as a shortcut. We need to process a lot of information as we go through life, and a narrative can act like a filter, telling us which bits of information to use and which to discard. They can make decision-making easier. But I wonder whether this leads us into a position where much of what we think is comprehension is actually pattern recognition, and what we think of as discussion is actually just cutting and pasting narratives, or parts of them. Again I feel myself doing this sometimes. In political discussions in particular I sometimes find myself getting a little buzz when the other person has deployed Argument A, because I know that the 'correct' response is Counterpoint B. I will no doubt use some of the information from today's Observer piece when I feel the it is the 'correct' point to fit it into the narrative inherent in a given discussion, and get a little buzz from using it in the 'correct' place.

Pushing this a bit further on, it also seems likely to me that we believe certain things because we enjoy believing them, rather than because we have any real basis for doing so. Political extremists are a good example of this. I cannot see how anyone can rationally advocate a revolution in the UK, nor can I see how sufficient numbers of working people have little enough to lose to make a revolution seem like an appealing strategy. Yet despite this there are probably thousands of people in the UK who would still class themselves as revolutionaries. It strikes me that this is in no small part because a revolutionary narrative is more exciting than a 'reformist' one. I would even suggest that on some level such people may 'know' that a revolutionary narrative is ludicrous in a stable, prosperous country like the UK, but that the enjoyment derived from the story is simply too much for them to let it go.

Does any of this matter? To me it does. On a philosophical level I find myself much more sceptical about the extent of our actual knowledge, but that's largely something I will stick to boring my wife about. More practically I find myself a bit uneasy when I hear political strategists argue the need for the development of narratives, since they are effectively arguing in favour of implanting an arbitrary interpretative framework in the minds of the public. Whilst I think this is necessary for survival on occasion (WWII for example), it doesn't sit well when discussing how to differentiate Gordo from the Tories. I would rather that policy did that by itself.

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