Communication research has long recognized the centrality of storytelling in the construction of identities, relationships, and communities. Fisher (1987) went so far as to propose the metaphor of man as “homo narrans,” pointing to the narrativization of experience as a fundamental human cognitive strategy and social practice. Narratives are made up of sequentially organized verbal and/or other types of signs (visual, musical, kinesthetic) that depict a temporal transition from one state of affairs to another (Ricoeur 1988). Using one or more modalities, they create a plot that incorporates the narrated events within a sense-making scheme. Thus, narratives interweave events, circumstantial elements, and emotions by imbuing them with a sense of meaning and order in terms of temporal coherence, causal links, and value orientations. Current research into narration as a socio-culturally situated activity is a multidisciplinary enterprise, spanning literary studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. It encompasses both face-to-face and technologically mediated communicative encounters, as well as the poetics and politics of high-profile narrations and everyday storytelling performances. While some scholars view the term “narrative” as an overarching category designating any explanatory system (such as science), reserving the term “story” to refer to one of its sub-genres, most studies of narration as a discursive activity embedded in social interaction use these terms interchangeably, as will be done here.
Recognizing the constitutive role of narrating, communication researchers have built upon, elaborated, and refined a range of perspectives originally associated with the study of myths, folktales, and oral performance. These seminal approaches have been inspired by structural-functionalist modes of analysis, whether they were textual or interactional in orientation (or both). A major analytic distinction that cuts through many approaches to the study of narration is that between the narrated events that constitute the referential building blocks of the story and the storytelling activity as a social practice (e.g., Young 1987). This distinction anchors a shift from the earlier concern with the study of story-astext to a view of storytelling as a negotiated performance.
Broadly speaking, research into storytelling has involved the following analytic concerns, separately or in combination: (1) characterization of the discursive organization of narratives as structural units; (2) explorations of the socio-cultural functions of storytelling activities in different socio-cultural contexts; (3) investigations of the dynamic, negotiated construction of narrative as situated performances. The first two analytic foci have long shaped research on storytelling; the third represents recent developments in narrative research that focus on storytelling as an interactionally negotiated mundane accomplishment.
The study of narrative structure has been central to the exploration of storytelling in a range of research traditions concerned with the role of narration in social life. Thus, LéviStrauss (1955) analyzed culturally focal myths in terms of the basic underlying tensions between conceptual, binary categories, such as male vs. female, raw vs. cooked; Propp (1968) analyzed folktales in terms of the plot-generating functions of narrative clauses that identify the basic roles of actors and action types in the construction of a tale; Labov and Waletzky (1967) analyzed elicited personal experience stories as a series of sequentially organized clauses that refer to temporally ordered actions and events. Labov’s framework combines attention both to the referential function of the story clauses as pointing to background information (orientation) and plot structure (complicating action, resolution), and to the use of “evaluation” devices, which convey the narrator’s involvement in the storytelling activity and reflect the attempt to impress the recipients with its significance and relevance. This complex speaker- and recipient-oriented dynamics has been central to narrative research within the sub-field of language and social interaction, engendering a number of complementary research directions.
The interactional structure of naturally occurring narrations as they are embedded in the flow of talk has been explored by conversation analysts in terms of turn-taking mechanisms. Scholars have addressed the ways in which access to the conversational space required for telling a story is negotiated by interactional partners, often through the use of a preface signaling the desire for an extended turn-at-talk, and how such access is ratified by the story recipients, who suspend their rights to the floor. The telling of a story is usually concluded with “exit talk” that indicates the speaker’s return to the conversational flow in which it was embedded (Polanyi 1989). This structural focus finds its complement in studies concerned with the function of stories and the meaning of storytelling activities.
Functions Of Storytelling
Storytelling activities are widely viewed as essentially anchored within a broader dynamic of social exchange (Bakhtin 1981), serving a range of personal, interpersonal, and communal functions. Most basically, storytelling serves as an important meaning-making mechanism by narrativizing out-of-the-ordinary, “reportable” events in such a way as to indirectly mark the taken-for-granted, the unremarkable order of things. It serves to span imaginary and everyday contexts by making possible worlds present to contemplation and feeling for both the narrators and the story recipients (Bruner 1986). It serves to link narrators and their audiences through the invitation to empathy and the display of understanding and appreciation.
Even while insisting on the universal significance of storytelling as a sense-making human activity, scholars have highlighted the social and cultural functions of storytelling activities in particular contexts of performance. Personal experience narratives have emerged as central to the construction of personal and collective identities (e.g., Langellier 1989), serving to integrate the self by creating a life story that is embedded within a culturally shared understanding of what constitutes a continuous, reasonable, proper, and worthwhile life trajectory. Studies of self-narrations show how narrators construct cognitively coherent accounts that help them and their audiences make sense of past events as temporally ordered, causally linked, and emotionally motivated. Notably, such narratives are grounded in a rhetoric of self-justification. By selectively presenting and organizing autobiographical materials in particular ways, by offering assessments of the actions, the plotlines, and the characters that inhabit their stories, narrators work to present themselves in a favorable light. In so doing, they invite story recipients to join them in probing the moral dimensions of human experience and the trajectories of morally acceptable identities and conduct.
Other scholars have focused on the role of storytelling in the construction of collective and institutional identities. Thus, for example, the stories exchanged in informal organizational settings serve important communal and interpersonal functions as they underscore notable chapters of institutional history and the people inhabiting it. Such stories shape members’ shared knowledge of the organizational landscape, demarcate the boundaries between those who do and do not belong in it, and socialize novices into the norms and values that ground social relationships and practical arrangements in the workplace.
In studying the role of storytelling in familial, institutional, and communal settings, scholars have mainly attended to the solidarity function of shared narratives. Some scholars, however, have begun to address the role of stories in argumentative and agonistic situations as well. The power of narrative to offer definitions of social situations, to inscribe particular versions of reality, and to endow protagonists and their actions with a particular valence makes them effective tools in both interpersonal and collective struggles over domination and control. The politics of narration in struggles over meanings, values, and privilege is often couched in terms of clashes between competing narratives and counter-narratives. Hegemonic versions of national narratives and other deeply felt collective tales, which are routinely appropriated by individuals in both face-to-face and mass-mediated settings, provide idioms for the exploration and display of cultural identities. The narrating of alternative versions of present or past events can be viewed as an act of resistance (as, for example, in the circulation of personal blogs that narrate realities obscured by the mainstream media).
Studies of the performance of narrative roles in face-to-face conversational settings indicate that they are often subject to ongoing modification by story recipients, who challenge, or elaborate upon, the main storyline (Mandelbaum 1989). The entitlement to tell a story is couched in knowledge claims that yield narrative authority. Such claims may be shared by interactional partners or unequally distributed among them. Co-narrations can have a powerful bonding effect, as they both reflect and reinforce a sense of mutuality through the joint enactment of shared ground. Recipient-driven collaborative storytelling, however, may also be associated with asymmetrical social relations. Story recipients may even change the direction or valence of the main teller’s narration by introducing explicit challenge or previously unmentioned materials (e.g., in psychotherapeutic discourse or courtroom interrogations).
The study of storytelling rights – whether interpreted in terms of the management of rights to the floor, of access to knowledge about events, or of the right to express one’s point of view – is anchored in a view of speech as a social resource. Questions concerning the obligations associated with storytelling as a form of social action must, however, complement the research focus on storytelling rights. A variety of social and institutional roles involve an expectation that their incumbents engage in storytelling activities. The obligation to recount past events is intrinsic to testimonial activities such as those included in legal proceedings, news reporting, or national commemorations. The exploration of such storytelling obligations has been marginal in studies of narrative activities, and deserves more research attention.
The foregoing analytical themes come together in studies concerned with storytelling as a discursive tool for the socialization of children and with socializing children to become participants in narrative events. These studies focus on culturally designated occasions in and through which children are exposed to adult narrating and are invited to assume the narrator role, such as mother– child interactions and family dinners (e.g., Blum-Kulka 1997).
Thus, research on the social life of narrative has brought out the complex role played by storytelling performances as a form of social action, their role in the communicative production of personal and collective identities, and the ways in which narrative performances are interactionally negotiated in everyday settings. Current research seems to be building on this foundation in further investigating the role of storytelling activities as social practices in landscapes of cultural diversity and social struggle.
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