I guess I’ve been writing about stories in different ways, largely in the field of Critical Sexualities Studies, since the mid 1970s: and I have also felt personally the importance of storytelling in my life. Stories of my ‘coming out’ experiences when I was young. Stories that of my illness experiences when I had transplant surgery. And stories that have been central to my entire research career. I see understanding stories, narratives and documents of life that people produce to be very central tools of social research. But one focus is often somewhat missing. And that is the broad political, social and historical role that narrative has played throughout human time. Most writings focus on texts, but this new book is a serious attempt to put the texts in their deep social context. It is an attempt to build a sociology of stories.
My central claim is that we live in a narrative reality where stories shape power and power shapes story. There is a perpetual dialogue between power and storytelling. More: we could say that good stories can help shape a human life for the better; but if they are bad they can also help a life fail. I am suggesting that the stories we tell really matter. Both in life and politics. As many have said before, we have to be careful of the tales we tell, for tales may come true. There can be narrative self-fulfilling prophecies: our stories have consequences. We can see this right now with the rise of Trump, Brexit, the environmental crisis, the populist movements and on and on. Just listen to the stories that are now being told. Where on earth will they take us?
Human beings have, of course, always lived with stories: it is one thing that defines our humanity. And it may be that right now we are entering one of those moments of significant change: of narrative crisis. In my book Narrative Power, I discuss a number of potential tensions that are shaping our narrative realities today. For example, I discuss narrative inequality in a time of well documented increasing inequalities and exclusion. Many voices, most of our seven and a half billion voices, are not heard much in the world. Dominant voices, as always, shape the key stories of our time. Yet there are a range of responses to this and I look at how both social media and social movements are bringing new stories to the fore.
Another issue is the Techno Crisis, both of digitalism and artificial intelligence. These may well bring huge benefits to us: but they also bring great dangers. We are literally entering a world of new forms of risky storytelling which we don’t understand, and which often bring dehumanising problems: abuse, surveillance, corruption, narcissistic individualism. The book raises the question of how power is shaping new forms of digitalism and the new forms of storytelling they bring with them. We are only just on the cusp of trying to understand the risks they bring.
And then we have the crisis of the narrative and performative state. States are bound up deeply with the telling of democratic, authoritarian or cosmopolitan stories. Partly through the new digitalism, partly through the new populist movements and partly through the fragility and complexity of states worldwide as they enter a new phase of neoliberal disorder, new narratives are being forged.
More than this there is always a problem of narrative truth. The recent concern with ‘fake news’ is hardly new. What is needed is a grounded and rounded approach to the complicated matters of truth and wisdom. The one thing truth never can be is simple! It is always a dialogic struggle of many elements. It has to be really worked for, never simply given. Scientific truth may be the key but there are also always matters of aesthetics, ethics, pragmatics – and indeed politics – that need taking into account too.
These are clearly really very big questions for a very short book. The book is an exercise in framing dilemmas through suggestive examples. It is a provocation to take new paths forwards. So it is in part a book of social theory, in part a book on method, in part a book on politics, and in part a book on the sociology of stories.
It is a book on social theory in that it trying to chart out the political relations of narratives: of how stories shape power and power shapes stories. But it is also very much a book on methodology. I don’t mean here the kind of checklist methodology that you can find on research courses. I have never been keen on this and I do not want to add to the fetishization of methodology. But I do think documents and narratives are the bread-and-butter of doing most forms of research. And thinking about how they are socially shaped is crucial.