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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.
The way in which people explain and/or justify their behaviour, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument. The traditional paradigm of the rational world claims that:
- people are essentially thinking beings, basing their reasoned decisions on the merits of discussion and evidential reasoning;
- what is judged rational is determined by the knowledge and understanding displayed, and by how the case is argued, i.e. the way in which the argument is made will determine the outcome so long as the form matches the forum which might be scientific, legal, philosophical, etc. This presupposes that life is a set of logical puzzles that can be solved through the application of rational methods.
Fisher reacts against this model as too limited and suggests a new paradigm of "narrative rationality". He begins with the proposition that:
- people are essentially storytellers;
- although people claim "good" reasons for their decisions, these reasons include history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved (all of which may be subjective and incompletely understood);
- the test of narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate decisions to be made; and
- the world is a set of stories from which each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs.
This does not deny that there is a system of formal logical reasoning. But, following Michel Foucault, such systems are formed through the savoir and pouvoir of the hierarchies that control access to the discourses. Hence, criteria for assessing the reliability and completeness of evidence, and whether the pattern of reasoning is sound are not absolutes, but defined diachronically by those in positions of authority. This will be particularly significant when the process of reasoning admits values and policy in addition to empirical data.
Fisher proposes narrative rationality and coherence (fidelity and probability) as an a priori basis upon which to decide which are good or bad stories. He argues that human communication is something more than its rational form; that its cultural context, and the values and experience of the audience are as important. Perhaps the most meritocratic, democratic or subversive implication of his ideas has to do with who is qualified to assess the quality of communication. In the traditional model, expertise as defined by the power hierarchies is required to present or judge the soundness of any formal arguments. Fisher maintains that, armed with common sense, almost any individual can see the point of a good story and judge its merits as the basis for belief and action.
So, to Fisher, narration affects every aspect of each individual's life and the lives of others in every verbal and nonverbal bid for a person to believe or act in a certain way. Even when a message seems abstract, i.e. the language is literal and not figurative, it is narration because it is embedded in the speaker's ongoing story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and it invites listeners to interpret its meaning and assess its value for their own lives.
The psychology of Walter Fisher's Narrative Paradigm
The first pillar of Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm theory claims that people are storytellers (5). Fisher also states that people interpret stories by using “good reasons”. According to the theory, good reasons are events of history, past events in one’s own life, culture, and characters involved.
When people experience a story, the phase of comprehension is where people form a mental representation about the text (Zwaan 15). The mental representation that is formed is called a situation model. The situation model is a “mental representation of the people, objects, locations, events, and actions described in a text” (Zwaan 15). This supports Fisher’s model in that the components that Fisher claims are valid in determining good reasons, are related to those that are formed in the situation model.
Probability and fidelity
The second part of Fisher’s theory deals with how people determine the probability and fidelity of a story (5). Fisher claims that people have an inherent skill in determining probability. In a test done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which was related to Fisher’s claim, subjects were presented with a brief personality profile (496).
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
The subjects were then asked which one of the two statements they thought was more probable.
- Statement A: Linda is a bank teller.
- Statement B: Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement.
In the sample of undergraduate students who were given this problem, 86% had said that statement B was more probable. However, this result does not correspond with a model of probability that states the probability of A is always greater than the probability of A and B (Kahneman & Tversky 98). What Kahneman and Tversky concluded from this experiment is that with increased specificity in the text, the compound target, (X & Y, or Linda is a bank teller & who is active in the feminist movement) can be judged more probable than a single component (X or Linda is a bank teller) (97). The conclusion that was made from Kahneman and Tversky’s test also supports Fisher’s idea of narrative fidelity. Narrative fidelity is defined as whether or not the stories that people experience relate to what they know to be true in their own lives (Fisher 5). When people draw their conclusion that the compound target is more probable than the single component, they are putting what they know to be true from their own lives into determining the story’s fidelity.
- Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason,
Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
- Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. Judgment under uncertainty:
Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- Zwaan, Rolf A. “Situation Models: The Mental Leap into Imagined Worlds.” Current
Directions in Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society 8.1 (1999): 15-18.
Fisher offers a humanistic model of communication in that individuals take sometimes complex information and transform it into narratives. This characterises humans as "storytelling animals" exchanging messages with each other, and that each message is judged as credible in terms of its consistency and by reference to the values and beliefs of the audience. But, not all human discourse follows the story form and his reference to the subtext of the speaker's or writer's own narratives is less than compelling. Further, he fails to specify how critics are to make their choices between narrative probability or fidelity, and provides no criteria for testing narrative probability. It seems that the critic becomes "a standard unto himself", disposing of more traditional rationality without anything convincing to replace it, e.g. it is not acceptable in most formal contexts that a storyteller would be judged superior in credibility to an expert witness. Finally, the logic of good reasons is inadequately developed, as it fails to consider how values can be presented in argument and, once presented, how the "relative worth" of one value can be evaluated against that of another.
- Anderson, Rob & Ross, Veronica. (2001). Questions of Communication: A Practical Introduction to Theory (3rd ed.). New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-25080-0
- Cragan, John F., & Shields, Donald C. (1997). Understanding Communication Theory: The Communicative Forces for Human Action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0-205-19587-3
- Fisher, Walter R. (1984). "Narration as Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument." in Communication Monographs 51. pp. 1-22.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1985). "The Narrative Paradigm: An Elaboration." in Communication Monographs 52. December. pp. 347-367.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1985). "The Narrative Paradigm: In the Beginning." in Journal of Communication 35.Autumn. pp. 74-89.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1987). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-500-0
- Fisher, Walter R. (1988). "The Narrative Paradigm and the Assessment of Historical Texts." in Argumentation and Advocacy 25.Fall. pp. 49-53.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1989). "Clarifying the Narrative Paradigm." in Communication Monographs 56. pp. 55-58.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1994). "Narrative Rationality and the Logic of Scientific Discourse." in Argumentation 8. pp. 21-32.
- Fisher, Walter R. (1995). "Narration, Knowledge, and the Possibility of Wisdom" in Rethinking Knowledge: Reflections Across the Disciplines (Suny Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences). (Fisher & Robert F. Goodman as editors). New York: State University of New York Press.
- Griffin, Emory A. (1999). A First Look at Communication Theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-246015-6
- Warnick, B. (1987). "The Narrative Paradigm: Another Story," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 172- 182
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