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Narrative theory is based on the concept that people are essentially storytellers. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most universal forms of communication and so individuals approach their social world in a narrative mode and make decisions and act within this narrative framework (Fisher 1984).
Narrative theory was developed by Walter Fisher. Fisher obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1960 and went on to become a professor, among other things. Perhaps Fisher’s most notable contribution was his formulation of the narrative approach to rhetoric and communication theory. In 1979 he was awarded the Golden Anniversary Monograph Award from the Speech Communication Association for the article that introduced narrative theory to the field of communication. However, as is the case with most new theories, narrative theory was not totally accepted by the discipline (Miller, 2005, p. 92). Narrative theory clashed with several pre-existing beliefs as to the nature of human beings and how they communicate and act. Fisher describes this contrast by identifying the tenets of what he sees as two universal paradigms: the rational world paradigm, and the narrative paradigm.
- Rational World Paradigm:
- People are essentially rational
- People make decisions based on arguments.
- The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
- Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
- The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.
- Narrative Paradigm:
- People are essentially storytellers.
- People make decisions based on good reasons.
- History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
- Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
- The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.
Source: From Fisher, 1987
According to Fisher, the narrative paradigm is all-encompassing. Therefore all communication can be looked at through a narrative lens, even though it may not meet the traditional literary requirements of a narrative. Individuals are able to distinguish what makes a story legitimate by using what Fisher refers to as narrative rationality. Rationality is comprised of two factors: coherence and fidelity. Coherence can be best defined as if a story makes sense structurally. Is the story consistent, with sufficient detail, reliable characters, and free of any major surprises? The ability to judge coherence is learned, and improves with experience. Narrative fidelity is concerned with whether or not the story is true. Fisher establishes five criteria that impact a story’s narrative fidelity (Fisher, 1987):
- questions of fact that examine the values embedded in the story, either explicitly or implicitly
- questions of relevance that consider the connection between the story that is told and the values being espoused
- questions of consequences that consider the possible outcomes that would accrue to people adhering to the espoused values
- questions of consistency between the values of the narrative and the held values of the audience
- questions of transcendence that consider the extent to which the story’s values represent the highest values possible in human experience
Concepts in Narrative theory
- Agency in narrative theory
- Master narratives
- Positioning in narrative theory
Narrative theory has been widely applied within the field of communication, although not specifically. Those that have used narrative theory within their research refer to it as a general way of looking at communication. Fisher’s theory has been applied to organizational communication, family interaction, racism, as well as advertising. One example of a study that used narrative theory more directly was conducted by L.D. Smith in 1984. Smith looked at the fidelity and coherence of narratives presented at Republican and Democratic Party platforms and found that despite obvious differences, each party was able to maintain coherence and fidelity by being consistent in both structure and overarching party values (Smith, 1989).
Critics of Fisher’s narrative theory contend mainly that it is not universally applicable as Fisher states. For example, Rowland (1989) believes that narrative theory should be applied strictly to communication that fits classic narrative patterns, because the generality with which Fisher applies narrative theory undermines its credibility.
- Fisher, W.R. (1984). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 52, 347-367.
- Fisher, W.R. (1987). Human communication as a narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Herman,D., Jahn,M. & Ryan, M.-L.(2005)(eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. New York: Routledge.
- Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: Perspectives, processes, and contexts. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- Rowland, R.C. (1989). On limiting the narrative paradigm: Three case studies. Communication Monographs, 56, 39-54.
- Smith, L.D. (1989). A narrative analysis of the party platforms: The Democrats and Republicans of 1984. Communication Quarterly, 37, 91-99.