For centuries, rhetoricians, communication scholars, and practitioners have recognized narrative’s rich descriptive and persuasive appeal. Numerous essays, books, and monographs address the nature and functions of narrative in disciplines as varied as rhetoric and communication, biology and anthropology, psychology and sociology, political science and public policy, and theology and philosophy.
Throughout rhetorical history, narrative has assumed many roles from a rhetorical trope or figure, to a part of speech, to a paradigm that explains how humans make sense of their world. Such diverse roles reflect the varying levels of privilege theorists have accorded to narrative at any given point in time.
Discussions of narrative in classical times emphasize narrative’s role as a part of speech and a form of proof. Rhetorical handbooks dating back to the fifth century bce catalog narration (narratio or diégésis) as a formal part of speech. Handbooks were an important resource for citizens of democratic Athens. Male citizens, who were expected to speak on their own behalf in Athenian law courts, outlined the particulars of their case in the narration (Kennedy 1999, 21). In his Art of rhetoric, Aristotle conceived of narrative as a form of artistic proof. He outlined proof by example, noting that examples could arise from historical accounts as well as invented parables and fables. Cicero expanded the discussion of narrative further, attending to both fictitious and historical narratives in De invention.
Narrative in all its forms (e.g., anecdotes, examples, allegories, fables, parables, stories) was a popular, if sometimes suspect, type of persuasion and instruction from classical Greco-Roman times through the establishment of the early Christian church and the Middle Ages. Surviving progymnasmata or handbooks of teaching exercises include sections on anecdotes, fables, and narratives among others (Kennedy 1999, 27, 205). Wary of narrative’s appeal, some scholars questioned narrative’s validity and truth value. Unlike scientific discourse and formal logical proofs, which resulted in certain knowledge, rhetoric yielded only probable knowledge. As unproved suppositions that could be imagined and falsified, narratives frequently prompted skeptical audience responses.
Nevertheless, narrative persisted in rhetorical treatises, handbooks, and theories, receiving some of its most significant attention in recent years. Contemporary rhetorical treatments have produced a richer understanding of narrative’s nature, scope, and function. Some theorists have explored the role of narrative in politics, the legislature, and judiciary while others have attended to the function of scientific narrative (Bennett & Edelman 1985; Jorgensen-Earp & Jorgensen 2002). Rhetorical discussions also include the role of narrative in social change, in health communication, and in professional communication.
Narrative’s influence in rhetoric is magnified by the number of theories and methods that rely on principles of narrativity. For example, rhetorical-critical theories and methods such as depiction, fantasy-theme analysis, metaphoric criticism, and dramatistic criticism all draw on narrative concepts such as characters, examples, and stories.
Much of the contemporary research on narrative draws on Walter Fisher’s theory of the narrative paradigm. Outlining arguably the most comprehensive account, Fisher contends that narration is the dominant mode of human communication: humans are storytellers who create and communicate stories that form understanding, guide collective reasoning, and shape behavior. Contrasting his narrative approach with the formal logic associated with traditional argument, Fisher points out that the narrative paradigm has several advantages. In particular, because all humans have innate storytelling abilities, the narrative paradigm is democratic; that is, all people, not just experts, are qualified to render judgments. In addition, Fisher claims that the narrative paradigm promotes just decision-making based on good reasons (Fisher 1984, 1985).
Narrative theory and especially Fisher’s narrative paradigm have been the subject of many critiques. Some critics argue that the narrative paradigm may not engender critical thinking since people will likely accept stories that reinforce beliefs they already hold even if those pre-existing beliefs are flawed. Others are troubled by Fisher’s tendency to dichotomize traditional argument and narrative argument. Still others question the democratic and participatory nature of narratives (Gring-Pemble 2001; Rowland 1989; Warnick 1987).
In spite of the critiques, scholars recognize the value of narrative as both theory and method. Since rhetoric’s inception, rhetoricians have valued narrative’s capacity to help audiences “see” through vivid imagery, memorable characters, and unforgettable stories. Through narratives, people can celebrate common values, strengthen community, and assess the strengths and limitations of potential scenarios. As a heuristic, narrative theory will, no doubt, be strengthened as scholars attend to its many critiques. One especially fruitful line of inquiry that extends narrative’s classical roots centers on narrative as a “rhetoric of possibility,” a way of exposing alternatives and guiding people to moral judgment and action (Kirkwood 1992).
- Bennett, W. L., & Edelman, M. (1985). Toward a new political narrative. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 156–171.
- Fisher, W. R. (1984). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 51, 1–22.
- Fisher, W. R. (1985). The narrative paradigm: In the beginning. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 74–89.
- Gring-Pemble, L. (2001). “Are we going to now govern by anecdote?” Rhetorical constructions of welfare recipients in congressional hearings, debates, and legislation, 1992–1996. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 87, 341–365.
- Jorgensen-Earp, C. R., & Jorgensen, D. D. (2002). “Miracle from mouldy cheese”: Chronological versus thematic self-narratives in the discovery of penicillin. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 88, 69– 90.
- Kennedy, G. A. (1999). Classical rhetoric and its Christian and secular tradition from ancient to modern times, 2nd edn. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Kirkwood, W. G. (1992). Narrative and the rhetoric of possibility. Communication Monographs, 59, 30–47.
- Rowland, R. (1989). On limiting the narrative paradigm: Three case studies. Communication Monographs, 56, 39–54.
- Warnick, B. (1987). The narrative paradigm: Another story. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 172–182.