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What is Narrative?

Starting in 2016, Narrative Initiative began gathering up different ways people talk about narrative change, how it’s structured, and how it moves in the world. As our staff—a team experienced in capacity building, organizing, communications, philosophy and culture work—engage partners and practitioners, we’ve found it helpful to highlight existing terms in use and offer shared terminology where we identify gaps.

Narrative change is a practice that draws on many different disciplines. Some have well-established standards, like the legal profession. Others, like digital organizing, for instance, rely on an evolving set of practices to get the job done. We and many others are doing the work of “narrative change” every day and, depending on where we’re coming from, we talk about it in many, many different ways.

We don’t want to define terms for a field that is busy getting work done. But we are interested in lifting up the various approaches and lineages of practice, and weaving together the languages of our peers. We do hope this high-level framework will enable us to think and do better together.

These core concepts articulate the different levels at which we engage with narrative specifically in the context of social change. Each category has discrete functions, expressions, and modes of transmission.

For more about narrative and related terms, read this blog post.

Story

Simply put: "In a story, something happens to someone or something. Typically, a story has a beginning, middle and end." (​Toward New Gravity​)

Narrative

Narratives permeate collections or systems of related stories. They have no standard structure but, instead, are articulated and refined repeatedly as they are instantiated in a variety of stories and messages. (T​oward New Gravity​)

Deep Narrative

Deep narratives are characterized by pervasiveness and intractability. They provide a foundational framework for understanding both history and current events, and inform our basic concepts of identity, community and belonging. Just as narratives permeate collections of related stories, so too do deep narratives permeate collections of related narratives. In T​oward New Gravity​, we used the term m​eta-narrative​. Over two years of dialogue with peers in the field, we’ve evolved to a preference for the term deep narrative. We see that deep narrative lends itself to more illustrative uses.​

There is always a danger when a term becomes a trend, because it starts to become a shortcut for thinking—a term without precision—where everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody really does for sure.

Brett Davidson, Open Society Foundations

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