Studying narratives in order to understand society

The term "narrative" is being used in more and more contexts – from research to feature reporting and statements by politicians. But what does it actually mean? And why does it make sense for researchers to take a closer look at it? We ask literary scholar Albrecht Koschorke these questions and more, as he studies narratives of liberalism.
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How do the humanities define a narrative?

Albrecht Koschorke: This is a difficult question to answer, since the term actually stems from the field of literary studies but has, so to speak, escaped from captivity. In keeping with this imagery, the term is now roaming freely through the wilds, and my job is mainly to track its movements and see what happens along the way. For this reason, creating a consistent definition for the term "narrative" is thus a complex process.
A common definition would probably be that narratives are formative accounts that create, align and, to a certain extent, also tie together collectives in a certain way. That gives them social impact. This social impact is key for studying narratives.

How do narratives develop a social impact?

Unlike individual stories, narratives represent patterns or templates for framing individual experiences or specific circumstances. They provide a kind of reservoir for collective experiences. This is especially clear in the case of conflict narratives such as: "These cultures have always been incompatible" or "Our ethnic group/minority has always been disadvantaged". All kinds of individual cases can be inserted into such narratives. In this way, individual experiences with hostility or disadvantage stabilize into a lasting feeling of resentment. After all, experiences require a form in order to persist. And narratives are very powerful when it comes to shaping such social experiences.

Albrecht Koschorke is Professor of German Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Konstanz. His work focuses on the history of German literature from the 17th to the 20th century as well as cultural and narrative theory.

Why did the term "narrative" spread into different academic fields?

I would say that "narrative" is taking on the meaning of other terms, such as "discourse" or "ideology". Much of what now falls under the term "narrative" could easily also be attributed to the term "ideology".
However, ideology always implies a certain normative character. We usually speak of ideologies in cases where there is an expression of a deviation from reality. Ideologies are driven by specific interests. This is where "narrative" is more pluralistic, and thus more acceptable today, because nothing is set in stone. The question of whether something is true or not may also be of secondary importance here.

Does that mean that narratives create social facts in this respect?

I would always differentiate between a strong and a weak concept of "narrative". The strong concept assumes that the world can only be grasped through narratives. From this perspective, the narrative determines what we can perceive and respond to as reality. By contrast, the weak concept of "narrative" says "It's just a narrative". The facts provide a counterweight to the narrative, and it could alternatively be called an ideology.

Claudia Marion Voigtmann

By Claudia Marion Voigtmann - 20.06.2024