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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Stories We Tell

As I was skimming the hundreds of books I have been checking for the working draft of my Dispatches to the Next Generation , I was reminded of the idea of there being only a small number of basic plots writers use in their novels (eg voyage and return; rags to riches; the quest; the tragedy). Some people have suggested seven basic plots, others twenty; one even 36. In an amusing clip, Kurt Vonnegut made it even more simple!

But what about non-fiction books? Since we were small children, we have all needed stories to help us give meaning to the strange world we inhabit. In this post-modern world, “narratives” indeed have become a fashionable adult activity for the same reason. Just google “story telling in management” if you don’t believe me – this booklet is just one fascinating example which the search produced

At University in the 60s I had been interested in how social systems held together and why people (generally) obeyed - Max Weber’s classification of political systems into – “traditional”, “charismatic” and “rational-legal” was an eye-opener. But it was the sociologist Ametai Etzioni who first impressed me in the 1970s with his suggestion that we behaved the way we did for basically three different types of motives – “remunerative”, “coercive” and “normative” – namely that it was made worth our while; that we were forced to; or that we thought it right. He then went on to suggest (in his 1975 “Social Problems”) that our explanations for social problems could be grouped into equivalent political stances - “individualistic”, “hierarchical” or “consensual”.

During the 1980s, when I was doing my (part-time) Masters in Policy Analysis, I registered the potential of “Frame Analysis” (originating from Erving Goffman in 1974) which showed how different “stories” were used to make sense of complex social events – but had no occasion to use it myself. Little did I realize that it was becoming a central part of post-modernism’s encouragement of diverse realities…  

For me, the typologies surfaced again in political scientists Chris Hood’s The Art of the State (2000) which used Mary Douglas’ grid-group theory to offer a brilliant analysis of 4 basic “world views” and their strengths and weaknesses in particular contexts. Substantial chunks of a similar sort of book "Responses to Governance - governing corporations and societies in the world" ed by John Dixon (2003) can be read on google books.
Michael Thompson is an anthropologist who has used Mary Douglas’ cultural theory to make The case for clumsiness (2004) which, again, sets out the various stories which sustain the different positions people take on various key policy issues – such as the ecological disaster staring us in the face. There is a good interview with the author here

Three short reports give an excellent summary of all this literature; and how it finds practical expression in government policies – Keith Grint’s Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions (2008); Common Cause (2010); and Finding Frames (2010)

Three years ago I enthused about a book called Why We Disagree About Climate Change which uses seven different lenses (or perspectives) to make sense of climate change: science, economics, religion, psychology, media, development, and governance. His argument is basically that –

We understand science and scientific knowledge in different ways
We value things differently
We believe different things about ourselves, the universe and our place in the universe
We fear different things
We receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change – and interpret them differently
We understand “development” differently
We seek to govern in different ways (eg top-down “green governmentality”; market environmentalism; or “civic environmentalism”)

But few authors have had the courage to apply this approach to the global economic crisis. Most writers are stuck in their own particular “quadrant” (to use the language of grid-group writing) and fail to do justice to the range of other ways of seeing the crisis.

Misrule of Experts? The Financial Crisis as Elite Debacle M Moran et al (2011) is a rare essay which tries to plot the different types of explanation of the crisis - eg as “accident”, “conspiracy” or “calculative failure” and then frames the crisis differently as an “elite political debacle”

As I like such lists,  I should try to draw one for the crisis and try to fit the existing literature into the various categories! My starter would look like this –
- Stuff happens
- Things go up
- Things go down

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