March 19, 2012

The Definition of Strategic Narrative: an Evolving Concept in International Affairs

In an earlier post, I outlined ways in which the term strategic narrative is used in current practice,  in public relations—as an element of marketing—and in the academic field of international relations.  This post returns to the evolution of the term as an applied concept in foreign affairs.

According to International Relations professor Alister Miskimmon (who I asked by email), the first published use of the term “strategic narrative”  was by Lawrence Freedman, a professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.  In 2006, Freedman wrote a paper called The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.   Many of the insights in Freedman’s work stem from the Western experience of war in the post-9/11 years, and the discovery—the hard way, through experience—that the era of large scale land warfare may be decisively over. In its place, the future promises smaller wars, waged by insurgents as well as governments, in which human factors such as behavior, culture and communication play meaningful roles.

In this context, Freedman identifies “strategic narratives” as a kind of secret weapon of networked combatants fighting irregular wars.  In Freedman’s view, a story that connects people emotionally to an identity and a mission “helps dispersed groups to cohere and guides its strategy.  Individuals know the sort of action expected of them and the message to be conveyed.”

Thus, in Freedman’s definition, narrative is a function of strategy in the most traditional sense related to the science of war.  In that vein, he argues that:

The idea of narrative … opens up another possibility of military operations.  Instead of being geared to eliminating the assets of the enemy, they might need to be focused on undermining those narratives on which that enemy bases its appeal and which animates and guides its activists.

In making his case, Freedman is drawing in significant part on the earlier work of military theorists John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. In their 2001 RAND study, Networks and Netwars, they made the case that narrative serve an ideological function in networks–whether drug cartels, terrorist groups, or social activists with human rights agendas: “The right story can …help keep people connected in a network whose looseness makes it difficult to prevent defection.”

Projects such as the Consortium for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University, led by professors Steve Corman and Bud Goodall, pushed the premise further, with new studies and books on the specific contours of Islamist extremist narratives.

My own work on the same issues arose from a different direction, as a function of my professional training in literary theory and Middle Eastern studies, rather than in military affairs.  In 2005, while working as a military subcontractor, I wrote a paper called “A Narrative Theory Approach to U.S. Strategic Communication,” based on my observations of American failures to communicate well with foreign publics.  At the end of the year, I presented the paper to defense officials at a U.S. Defense Department forum sponsored by the Highlands Group.

A Narrative Theory Approach focused on the global communications environment through which the narratives of terrorist or other groups flow.  It observed that states, groups, cultures and individuals–all of us, in other words– live in a dynamic spatial and temporal environment through which stories constantly flow, branch and intersect to become new stories.

I argued that in order to maintain a strategic advantage in such an environment, is not enough to listen to the stories of our adversaries, we must also understand how the meaning of those stories is reconstituted among different audiences, to include ourselves.  The narratives of even the bitterest of enemies are mutually constructed.

This is something we can learn from narratology, a branch of literary and critical theory, as I explained in the paper:

Narratology identified a story’s meaning as an always socially constructed event. To say that a story is socially constructed is to say its meaning is neither wholly the creation of its teller, nor merely a reflection of self-evident meaning in the world. Stories are dynamic products whose meaning changes as they move from tellers to listeners and back again. They create the world as much as they reflect it.

Moreover, stories move not only through living narrators but through different formal structures—from, for example, a report to a newspaper article, to a website, to a reader, who may tell the story to someone else, who may take elements of the story and reframe them on a radio program, whose listeners may pick up elements of the new story, and so on. This is a simplified version of how stories flow through space and over time.

These narrative flows constantly branch and intersect. What the stories mean to those who tell them and those who listen is a dynamic process related to their context and the other stories intersecting them.

Kathy Hansen of A Storied Career recently asked me why I believe we need to view narrative from a holistic vantage.  In my view, it is simply not possible to shift the direction of an unproductive story unless we examine the multiple strands that contribute to its continuing existence.

Narratives flow, intersect and branch, like subways, through time and space. From a holistic vantage, we can see that we are also on the narrative map.

Both we and our enemies have a place on the larger narrative landscape.  Paradoxically, we play a part in sustaining our enemies’ stories (and they, in ours). Based on that observation, I made the case that:

The U.S. must understand the mutual and interlocking construction of stories considered to be “theirs” and stories considered to be “ours”, if it wishes to splice and control more effectively these stories as they flow through the one world where we all live and communicate. To achieve such effectiveness, the U.S. should clarify at the most basic level the concrete ways that the West and the Middle East frame and experience values. This will be accomplished less in speeches referencing “freedom” and “tolerance,” than in focus groups and through rigorous analysis of the specific circumstances and meaning of these broad values in different cultures. In other words, the war of stories cannot be won by counterposing one story with one that we Americans feel to be better. Rather, we must understand the narrative flows in other cultures and the points of vulnerability in those flows.

My own definition of strategic narrative, as I intended it in that 2005 work, related to the communications practice of the state in strategic affairs.

International Relations scholars, including Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, Andreas Antoniades and Laura Roselle, among others, have been working for several years to outline a new sub-area in International Relations theory dedicated to how states seek to author “narratives” in international space to achieve desired outcomes. Their work, and that of others, will be the topic of future posts on the evolving definition of strategic narrative.


9 thoughts on “The Definition of Strategic Narrative: an Evolving Concept in International Affairs

  1. hi
    how can i find your article” “A Narrative Theory Approach to U.S. Strategic Communication,”.

    may i have a reprent of that?


  2. I see you are referenced in a number of professional military education papers; may I request a a copy of your article, “A Narrative Theory Approach to U.S. Strategic Communication”

  3. A most interesting application of narrative theory. My own work studies conversations between state narratives on history and place expressed through historic sites and national parks in Canada’s north and northern Indigneous narratives of place identity and connection. Look ofrward toi reading your paper.

  4. Hello,
    I am very interested in using your article in my dissertation. Would you also be willing to send me a pdf? If you are amenable, I would also like to talk to you about how your ideas were received after your 2005 presentation. Thanks!

    1. Sherri,
      Thank you for your note. I have just emailed you a copy of the note with notation about getting back in touch to set up a time to speak. Good luck with the dissertation research!


  5. Amy,I am interested in gaining a better understanding about the role (fact or fiction)of narrative in coalition building and how that narrative succeeds, changes or indeed fails subject to the changing fortune and dynamics of political will and military operations. I would of course be interested to read your paper but equally perhaps to see if during your research you’ve come across anything that has commented on this area. It is early days for me, still framing my research question, and of course seeing what is already out there and where the gaps in research exist.

  6. Dear Amy,

    I found very interesting this entry! I am a graduate student starting research on this topic. Would be possible to get a copy of your article?

    Thanks very much!!!!

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