Distinctions – stories, narratives, master narratives and narrative habitus

Although the concepts of story and narrative are often used interchangeably, it is important to understand the distinctions between them to highlight the impacts that journalists have on societal formation. Here, we briefly consider those distinctions and introduce the concepts of master narrative and narrative habitus to demonstrate the ways that journalism can contribute to identity formation, as well as how and whether the stories told will resonate with the potential audience. Halverson, Goodall and Corman (2011) offer what we believe are important and vital distinctions between the concepts of story, narrative and master narrative:

A story is a particular ‘sequence of related events situated in the past that is recounted for a rhetorical or ideological reason’ (14). Regardless of genre -news, fairy tale, fiction - all share similar structural integrity. Story forms include desired endings; when these endings don’t materialize, people are often driven to act in extreme ways to bring about the desired ending.

A narrative is ‘a coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve conflict by establishing audience expectations according to known trajectories of its literary and rhetorical form' (14, emphasis in original). Not all conflicts are resolved, but the desire to do so drives the narrative trajectory.

A master narrative is ‘deeply embedded in a culture, provides a pattern for cultural life and social structure, and creates a framework for communication about what people are expected to do in certain situations’ (7). It is a ‘transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture’ (15). It is master narratives that allow people to make sense and organize their understanding of events in the present and to connect information in the present to information from the past. Master narratives serve as the basis for understanding appropriate action to take in each circumstance and to project towards a specific future.

(7, 13-14, emphasis added)

Journalists do their work in spoken and written form by telling stories. For audiences to make sense of the stories, the stories themselves conform to well-known narrative and master narrative forms. When the narrative forms for news sharing are drawn from the Westernized cannon of acceptable forms, it is almost inevitable that the forms will also draw on Westernized, or at least non-African, master narratives. It is the collection and interrelation of master narratives, characterized by Arthur Frank (2010) as the narrative habitus, that undergird culture and establish cultural context.

One place where modern authentic representation is needed and should be possible is in the representation of the current African experience and condition as articulated in various news media. The forms of storytelling are not inconsequential. The argument is not simply that stories told in an African way are somehow more authentic or relatable; rather, there is a power of a story, when resting on foundations of culturally affirming narratives and master narratives, to create space for the full flourishing of capabilities in ways that honour the values and possibilities of African people. The collective narratives and master narratives that act as the foundation and containers of particular cultures are what might be called its narrative habitus.

Narrative habitus

In Language and Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu (1991) presents the concept of the habitus as a set of symbols and ideas that incline people to think and act in specific ways. It is habitus, according to Bourdieu, that shapes class distinctions, including aesthetics, fashions, desires, morals and political discourses, which are sometimes also described as ‘ideologies’. Particular logics, values and norms are embedded in particular ways of speaking, which are indicative of the occupation of certain stations in society. Class distinctions are often marked in a society by the capacity to proficiently produce the discourse associated with each class. In this way, Bourdieu (1991) notes, the dominated classes often seek to imitate the dominating classes (83). While Bourdieu’s analysis was focused on class distinctions in Europe, the same patterns attain among the colonized peoples of Africa. The successful articulation of the discourses of the dominating forces (colonisers) would make, at least one often hoped, the integration into the society of the dominator more possible - and if not integration into, then at least manoeuvring through. The adoption of speaking forms and storytelling modes would become important for material and symbolic success within conditions of domination. Habitus is internalized to establish one’s ‘position in the field’ or identity. Creativity is possible within the limits prescribed by the habitus.

Following Bourdieu, Frank (2010) describes a narrative habitus as having certain core elements: knowing a corpus of stories, feeling comfortable telling and hearing certain stories (and not others), and sharing with others a sense of where the story is likely to lead. The issue is not only expectations for how plots develop in stories, but also expectations for how people ought to emplot their lives (Frank 2010, 195). The narrative habitus structures individuals’ narratives and narrative identities. It sustains and motivates action in two ways: narratives may be habitual, as ongoing rationalizations for behaviours, or evaluations may take place through narrative. Finally, narrative doxa pertaining to fields structure how stories are received, including notions of truth (Frank 2010).

For journalists, adopting the narratives and discursive forms of a dominating class is not an inconsequential choice. Narratives are powerful, and their power is tricky. They can illuminate, manipulate, inspire, entertain, blame, seduce or provide an alibi. Narratives are never neutral; their very nature is strategic. There is no narrative that is devoid of strategy. Narrative is a rendering of events, actions and characters in a certain way for a certain purpose. The purpose is persuasion, and the method is identification (Maan 2015).

‘He who is bitten by a snake fears the lizard’ (Ugandan proverb)

Language and syntax never exist apart from social facts. The ways that language and syntax are utilized to tell stories represent expressions of specific cultural values. The values are drawn from and representative of culturally embedded, transhistorical master narratives. The narrative habitus in which news is presented and received shapes the sense of belonging by connecting historical patterns of knowing and being to the present, and by connecting the present representations to the body of knowledge. To do so in ways that create space for the full postcolonial flourishing of Africans, news forms should adopt narratives, syntax and story' forms that draw from the specific wells of cultural resources of the people for whom and to whom those representations are made (i.e. consumers of news). While this seems to be a logical conclusion, these ideas are strongly contested. The contestation occurs not so much in Western spaces, which utilize traditional Western models of storytelling, but more so in African journalistic environments where the debate rages between the adaptation of Western modes and the insertion of story models based on Africa-affirming master narratives.

In the next section, we discuss a particular African storytelling form of the Moaaga people of Burkina Faso to identify the ways that Western story' forms fail to convey culturally significant information vital to people’s understanding of current conditions.

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