Narrative 1: An Introduction

Posted by PH on April 05, 2007

One of my main interests these days is narrative: specifically, I am half way through a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning, and I teach narrative as part of a Contextual Studies module on the BA (Hons) Interactive Digital Media course at Swansea Metropolitan University.

The problem with studying narrative is that it is an “overloaded” concept (Dettori & Giannetti 2006). Since the so-called “narrative turn” of the early 1980s there has been an explosion of interest in narrative, and untold books and papers have been published in disciplines as diverse as Management and Organizational Studies, Anthropology, Gender Studies, Medicine, History, Psychoanalysis, Art, Multimedia (particularly Virtual Reality environments), Museum Studies, Sociology, Literary Theory, Law, Cultural Studies, Education, and New Media Theory. It is an important topic in both Discourse Analysis and Semiotics.

The problem is that the different disciplines often define narrative in different ways, even when using the same basic terminology. What’s more, these definitions often defy everyday usage: most people use the terms ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ interchangeably, for example, whereas to a narrative theorist the distinction between the two is vital. Even in cases where a basic functional model of narrative can be agreed upon, terminology varies: ‘story’ becomes fabula or histoire, the ‘narrative discourse’ becomes sjuzet or récit or discours, and even a seemingly straightforward and widely-used term such as ‘plot’ becomes problematic.

Another huge issue is that much of the literature on narrative is reflexive, that is, concerned with narratives in literature (and particularly the novel). It is only since the publication of pioneering work by Labov & Waletzky on oral narratives that attention has turned to its role in everyday speech. This is kind of strange, because it seems obvious that thought and speech necessarily predate writing. As Ong puts it, oral expression is our primary modeling system, written or otherwise textualized expression our secondary modeling system. Consequently, a lot of my own research has been focused on looking at narrative as a function of the brain, as a mode of thought, as the primary means of human expression, and therefore as a cultural artefact crucial in the formation of both personality and culture in general.

Of course, it is precisely because it is so fundamental to human thought and expression that this multi-disciplinary research into narrative is going on in the first place: narrative is what Herman has called a “domain-general” cognitive tool. It’s everywhere, everyday, for everyone. As Brooks says, we’re immersed in it.

For those wishing to investigate this fascinating topic a little further, here’s my Introduction To Narrative (96k .pdf file).

Brooks, P. (1984) Reading For The Plot. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

Dettori, G. & Giannetti, T. (2006) A Concise Introduction to Narrative Learning Environments. Course material, VDS Workshop on Narrative Learning Enviroments. From

Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking, in Herman, D. (Ed) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1967, 1997) Narrative Analysis: Oral Version of Personal Experience, in Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7 (1-4), 3-38. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen & Co


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