Narratives and arguments at Leicester IPA conference

Tomáš Dvořák & Simon Smith

Institute of Sociological Studies, Charles University in Prague

On July 7th 2017 a panel “Narrativizing institutional crises” took place at the Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) conference in Leicester, UK. The panel was organized with a specific goal. It was to focus on narratives of crisis, accounts and descriptions of disorder, failures and dysfunctions of public policies, organizations and even institutions.  Our hunch was that narrative accounts of crisis can, and often actually do, influence and shape the development of organizational fields and institutions. By viewing narratives of crisis as discursive/rhetorical tools for defining and disputing the legitimacy of institutional arrangements we aimed to tackle the issue of interrelations between narrativization and institutional change.

The panel was chaired by Simon Smith with Francis Chateauraynaud participating as discussant. The presentations of Kateřina Merklová & Tomáš Dvořák, Anna Durnová and James Beresford  sparked an intriguing discussion, which we have extended at subsequent reunions of our research team in Prague, Narrativisation of crisis and institutions in party politics and public policy (Simon Smith, Jiří Kabele, Karel Čada, Tomáš Dvořák a Kateřina Merklová).

Narratives of crisis involve scenarios about a restoration of order. In other words they involve or proclaim a sequence of deinstitutionalisation followed by reinstitutionalisation – either as a way of making sense of crisis situations or as a rhetorical device to persuade actors to commit themselves to a narrative schema of institutional/organizational change. This implies that narratives can have argumentative functions (or that arguments can be formulated narratively), but at the same time we believe it’s important to recognise certain analytical and methodological distinctions between narrativization and argumentation.

Indeed, following Chateauraynaud’s main remark, arguments and narratives are sometimes thought of as opposites. Studies based on semantic tools (like Prospéro) have shown that argumentative logics and narrative structures rest on contrasting uses of linguistic markers. Nevertheless, these two major modes of expression are often intertwined. Narratives involve a sequence of events (a plot) that usually include problem (world disruption), problem definition, resolution and sanction (reward). On the other hand, the aim of an argument is not to tell a story but rather provide reasons to support a certain claim that can be the subject of rational discussion and deliberation – the claim is equipped for its own potential refutation.

Generic conventions and audience expectations – institutional conditions of production – to some extent dictate the balance of arguing and narrating that goes on in any given text. Yet many texts, and certainly most larger corpuses, will contain both argumentatively strong moments and narratively strong moments. The questions are about synergy versus exclusivity, the articulations and the contrasts or incompatibilities between the two discursive practices as speech-based sense-making instruments or as rhetorical forms. When there is strong narrative, does that mean there is not much argumentation and vice versa? And if there are ways in which argumentation and narrativization combine in processes of institutional change, at what level or stage of analysis does this become apparent to the observer?

We took away from the panel, and from our subsequent deliberations, six ways in which argumentation and narrativization interact and overlap.

First, as Francis Chateauraynaud pointed out in Leicester, the overlap lies in the fact that in both argumentation and narrativization there are two interrelated problems for actors. What story (or facts) from the past do we choose to take into account and what kind of future do we propose, anticipate and put on the table? Essentially, both relate past to the future in a certain way. While this is clear in the case of narratives, for argumentation it is rather counter-intuitive. However, even in the case of argumentation we get not only a selection of facts/evidence from the past but also claims pointing to the future course of events. Telling a story as well as providing reasons for a claim are activities that deal with the relationships between past, present and future.

Secondly, Simon Smith has been working with a perspective advocated by François Cooren in his rendition of the Greimasian approach to narrativization. According to this view argumentation includes persuasion strategies with respect to the recipient’s system of belief. Rhetorical techniques involve argumentative schemas that present new ideas (as minor premises) and associate or dissociate them with established principles or systems of beliefs (as major premises). Argumentation is essentially a transformation that creates commitments to or dissension from ideas/knowledge, just as narrativization creates commitments to or dissension from projects/programmes of action. But while both discursive practices make normative links between past, present and future (what Cooren calls ideal pathways), commitment is perhaps more binding when it amounts to self-insertion in a narrative schema. This may explain why the presence of strong narratives makes actors relatively immune to counter-arguments.

Anna Durnová, thirdly, is interested in images of science ‘under siege’, a discursive figure or script mobilised repeatedly in the debates around the preparation of the ‘March for Science’ in April 2017. Although she does not work directly with the concept of narrativization, the positioning struggles she documents (the positioning of science with respect to politics which was the central issue for the demonstrators, but also the positioning of different potential groups of science supporters with respect to one another or the positioning of science defenders with respect to other civil rights movements) show how intertextuality, among other factors, defines a script’s performativity. In other words it’s often the intersections or incompatibilities between different groups’ ‘narrative programmes’ that determines their capacity to act in a plural social action space. And according to her analysis those struggles are played out as emotional orchestrations of identity that work with binary oppositions, an idea that bridges to the associating-dissociating moves we find in argumentation.

Fourthly, claiming and storytelling are often linked to actors’ attempts to memorialise a recent occurrence – to try to incorporate it into the future historical memory. James Beresford has been using interviews with legal practitioners and policy-makers to explore the intertextuality of memory work, a practice that resists clear categorisation as either argumentative or narrative, but which clearly involves discursive contestation. For him, the construction of collective memory is as much about a politics of reception as a politics of enunciation. What makes some events/accounts more amenable than others to recording, citing, retrieving, recollecting? What makes an event nameable and what, vice versa, lends a name a ‘memory’? Beresford argues that it’s not just a matter of certain things being or not being said, but of certain things being or not being listened to – being or not being accorded the authority to fit into the (official/dominant) historical record of events.

Fifthly, developing an idea from Tomáš Dvořák and and Kateřina Merklová’s paper on the of argumentation strategies of populist Czech political parties, arguments are not ahistorical and independent structures but rest on (master) narratives which are, however, most often implicit or accessible only as narrative fragments. With reference to the Toulmin argumentation scheme, arguments rest on legitimations – backings – which are often in fact narratives or narrative fragments. The strength of arguments stems from the underlying narrative that provides the legitimation of inferences made in the arguments. The persuasiveness does not only stem from the ‘logical’ clarity of particular arguments, but rather from the link to the underlying narrative.

Finally, Jiří Kabele argues that narrativization, from a pragmatic perspective, can be analogically mapped on to the Toulmin model of argumentation. Plots of narratives, just like arguments, make leaps from series of events to claims (empathy, qualia) with the use of storyarcs and genres that rely on and are authorized by other narratives or ‘master-stories’ that provide relevant backing. In his current work, he treats argumentation as a complement to the plot-composition of narrativization that, by giving good authority and legitimating claims about world stability/mobility, transforms story-telling into world-making agency.

Taking stock of the relation between argumentation and narrativization the main challenge we face is to achieve simultaneously two goals: to hold argumentation and narrativization as two analytically distinct categories but at the same time analyze the interconnection between the two and use these insights in our empirical research dealing with discourse in the fields of politics and public policy.


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