How can Activists get better at harnessing Narratives for social change?

November 29, 2018 1 By Duncan Green

Working in a global organization like Oxfam means spending a lot of time on conference calls, with colleagues scattered across the globe. They can be frustrating – dodgy connections, people fading in and out, speaking too fast, or forgetting to put their phones on mute (especially if they are nipping in to the restroom – yes it happens….). People concerned about climate change rightly say we need to cut down on our air miles, but there’s a cost – a webinar is nowhere near as good as a face to face meeting with real people.

But despite the clunkiness, they can still be thought-provoking. Recently, I dialled in to a webinar where Oxfam teams in Peru, Uganda, South Africa and Niger were swapping notes on how to think and work around narratives, in particular the kinds of narratives being used to close down civic space in countries around the world.

The argument is this: Narratives are being used to close civic space by delegitimising civic actors and activism (think ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘foreign stooges’). Our hypothesis is that they can also open it. To do that we need to

  • Understand the deeper dynamics underlying those narratives
  • Bring new and old civil society, young people, academics, investigative journalists and other allies together to collectively understand what we are up against
  • Reflect on how to renew and strengthen connections to broader society
  • Begin to weave and test more inclusive & compelling narratives
  • Strengthen a new grouping to stand behind those new narratives

Lots of really interesting and inspiring work is already under way. In Oxfam, the most advanced seems to be our Peru team, which has worked face to face and online with young people’s collectives to develop new narratives that interweave topical issues, facts and data with humour and pop culture references, all with a Peruvian flavour. More (in Spanish) on the funky actua.pe website.

From the actua.pe website

I suspect people get a bit fed up with me in these conversations because I am a ‘what abouter’. People set out what they are doing, which is pretty impressive (eg rigorously collecting and comparing the main anti-civic space narratives in a given country) and then I say ‘fine, but what about …..’ That’s handy in opening up conversations like this, but you need to get rid of me for the subsequent conversation, when you start narrowing it down to what you actually want to do.

So here are my top ‘what abouts’:

Messenger v Message: the conversation was about narratives as A Thing, with their own nature and identity. But a narrative needs narrators – if you’re trying to influence people, it’s often more important whose mouth something comes out of, than what the words actually say, as the great recent Violence Against Women example from Moldova showed. Once we establish the target audience for a narrative, (eg whether it’s decision makers, or some sector of the public), shouldn’t our first question be ‘who do they respect/fear/find persuasive and can we get any of those people or institutions to speak up?’

Defence v Offense: which is more effective – trying to counter/neutralize negative narratives (‘Those troublesome CSOs are all corrupt and/or political and/or agents of foreign powers’) or coming up with entirely separate narratives to replace them (‘CSOs built your schools; Gandhi was an activist’)

How rigorous can we get? The topic lends itself to hand waving – vague assertions of what narratives are and how to change them. What would a rigorous approach look like – should we be using market researchers to test different proposed narratives on the target audience (rather than just guessing or asking our allies)? How do we know whether our narrative-shifting is being successful or not?

are the old ones the best ones?

New narratives v old: we seem to be devoting a lot of effort to working with allies to come up with new narratives. But what about old ones? The activists in El Salvador’s 1970s revolutionary movement used the Biblical story of The Exodus when discussing peasant evictions – they got it immediately because the story was so deeply rooted in their Catholic identity (Alex Evans captured the value of religious narratives brilliantly in The Myth Gap).

Or should we try and follow one of the 7 basic plots for nearly all stories (since you asked, overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth), because they are the ones that have been shown to have resonated over the centuries?

Among my LSE students, who largely come from local elites all over the world, I’ve realized that global pop culture is a rich source of shared narratives – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix, Hunger Games, even Mad Max (if you’re talking Climate Change dystopias) all provide instant resonance and recognition.

By comparison, I worry that our perfectly sensible, evidence based narratives like ‘tax justice’ and ‘rights based approaches’ sound dry and remote. Do they are just widening the gap between organized civil society and the rest of us? Plugging in to memes, humour, pop culture and local historic/cultural icons can help embed these ideas, but maybe we should start further back and stick to more basic narratives of right and wrong, fairness and justice, without all the policy recommendations?

Best line of the webinar? ‘I’m sorry, but English is my 6th language’ (from a woman who had just expressed herself in English with the utmost clarity). Love it.

And here’s what a conference call would be like in real life