By Ruth Taylor
When I talk about how I arrived at the work of cultural values and narrative strategy, I often refer to the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. For those unfamiliar with Whac-A-Mole, it is basically a game of quick reflexes and persistence, whereby a player is expected to “whack” plastic, cartoonish looking moles with a soft mallet, as they pop up at random from a cabinet. The quicker you hit the moles, the more points you score. (It’s obviously a horrible game, with some pretty disastrous narrative implications for human interaction with the more-than-human world, but I digress).
As a campaigner and activist, I increasingly came to feel as though I was partaking in an utterly exhausting and seemingly never-ending game of mole-whacking. Regardless of how effective a campaign strategy was, how much public awareness it raised or what political attention it garnered, there was always another issue just around the corner. There was always another metaphorical mole ready to spring up.
My youthful optimism and energy began to wane as I weighed up the immense challenges being felt across the world on the one hand, and the often short-term, issue-specific actions being pursued by the majority of NGOs and movements on the other. To me, it began to seem that the former so drastically outweighed the latter as to be a completely inadequate response.
Two connected questions began to take root that have come to shape my work and the way I understand change. What are the underlying cultural causes for the ongoing instantiations of different social and environmental injustices? And how can people be supported and encouraged to understand, think and feel differently about the world in which they live, so as to create the cultural conditions necessary for change at the scale required? Or in other words, what causes the moles to keep popping up and how can we tamper with that mechanism, so that we aren’t just focused on successfully hitting moles, but stopping them appearing altogether?
To begin trying to (firstly articulate!) and then secondly explore this question, I did what I do when faced with nearly any challenge. I read. Lots. By discovering the work of organisations and thinkers such as Ella Saltmarshe, Public Interest Research Centre, FrameWorks Institute and Common Cause Foundation, I began to recognise that there is a whole, far deeper, level of work that the majority of the time campaigning organisations are not getting close to. This level is understood slightly differently depending on who you’re talking to. Some organisations focus on values, others, mental models, and, others still, narratives. They are all intricately connected and much can be gained by giving consideration to them all.
Whatever you want to call work at this level it gets at the notion that there are deeply embedded ideas and beliefs which inform how we each, as human beings, interact with one another and the world around us. This interaction is not achieved by simply ‘having all the facts’ and making a ‘rational’ decision, as the fathers of Enlightenment thinking would have us believe. Instead it’s a far more messy process; one we are rarely even conscious of. It is at this level where the rules of the game are established; where power is rooted and from where it is sustained. And it is at this level that durable, systemic change takes root. (That is not to say that work at this level does not need to be done alongside other, more obvious campaigning practices, such as mobilisation and advocacy. Narrative work is not a panacea. Instead it is an additional, and rarely used, arrow to add to our bow).
The practice of narrative change has built momentum here in the UK over the past few years, but the ideas which have led to its development have long been in circulation. Narrative change has its roots in an assorted mix of disciplines — cognitive linguists, social psychology, behavioural science, anthropology, organising etc. It’s what makes the work so rich, versatile and expansive. Frustratingly, it’s also what makes it hard to define, without an established body of literature to refer to.
To try and get to the heart of what narratives are, different organisations have crafted different analogies to help us grasp their complexity. The folks at the Narrative Initiative use the imagery of waves, whilst Erin Potts, Liz Manne and Jeff Chang speak of constellations in the night sky. My personal favourite comes from Michael Braithwaite during her time at the New Media Advocacy Project (NMAP), where she described narrative as being like a tree.
“NMAP thinks of narrative change as an ecosystem consisting of stories, narratives, and deep narratives. To understand how these elements work together, NMAP uses the metaphor of a tree. Deep narratives — often invisible, unconscious existential concepts — are like the roots of the tree, supplying the tree with emotional nourishment it needs to grow. Filled with that resonance, narratives are like the trunk of the tree, infusing the leaves in the crown with the nutrients from the roots. Those narratives give life to stories — the individual leaves in the crown. As those stories flourish and multiply, the crown of the tree expands, the narrative grows stronger, and the roots of the tree grow deeper. One story doesn’t make a narrative, but a single narrative can give birth to a single story or 10,000 stories — the more stories, the stronger the narrative and the more difficult it is to change that narrative”.
Whichever analogy speaks to you, they all attempt to get at the idea that there are different components to narrative, which are intricately connected; some are visible and others are far deeper and more entrenched.
Much of my work today focuses on the layer of narrative sometimes referred to as deep narrative. Deep narratives are firmly embedded in our cultures, due to consistent repetition and reinforcement over time. They sit beneath more issue-specific types of narratives and thus often span multiple social and environmental causes at once. To my eyes, more needs to be done at this level, so as to successfully begin to shift some of the deeply embedded cultural stories that define who people are, who does (or should) have power, and what our collective futures could look like.
As the work of narrative change continues to evolve in the UK, there are two key practices that I hope to see become more widely recognised by social and environmental change makers. The first is designing our work in recognition of the cultural footprint that it will leave.
As campaigners and organisers, communicators, lobbyists and funders, much of our attention is placed on the immediate outcomes which we set out to achieve. However, like any intervention, there can be, and often are, secondary effects which are no less important to understand and take into account. In the world of medicine, ‘iatrogenic effects’ are adverse consequences which are inadvertently caused by a medical procedure. In the world of campaigning, despite successful efforts to bring about particular, short-term wins, damage can be done in terms of reinforcing the cultural values and deep narratives on which injustice rests.
At the Common Cause Foundation, where I work part-time, we like to envision this as the work of tending to the soil. We imagine a campaign effort as a single seed. When well-thought through, using the latest best practice on how to effectively engage the public, these campaigning seeds can be practically perfect. However, regardless of how brilliantly your campaign is designed, how perfect that individual seed is, when thrown onto untended soil, the seed struggles to take root. In the world of campaigning the danger can be that we spend so long selecting and crafting our seed, choosing the right sequence of words and visuals to engage the right people at the right time, we completely forget about the soil, that is the wider culture in which our campaign is going to land, or we see it as ‘not our work’ to worry about.
Everything we do has an effect on the culture, on the soil. It is a conscious decision we need to make as to how we design work that tends the soil, creating the cultural conditions necessary for our campaigning efforts to flourish. This involves asking deeper questions of our work, such as ‘what values does my work promote and foreground?’ and ‘what deep narratives about the world, and our role as human beings, does it reinforce or amplify?”.
The second practice I hope to see develop, alongside recognising our cultural influence and working in service of tending the soil, is one of building collective influence. We know that deep narratives often span numerous social and environmental challenges, meaning that to shift one deep narrative can have benefits for not one, but a whole plethora of causes.
Thinking back to NMAP’s analogy of narrative as being like a tree, deep narratives are the roots, finding expression in thousands of individual stories, but also imbuing these individual stories with deeper meaning. From this understanding comes the realisation that one organisation acting alone is never going to be able to amass the influence needed to durably shift a deep narrative. It is vital that organisations, regardless of the specific cause they are focused on, come together to identify harmful, dominant deep narratives and craft alternatives, importantly being led by those voices currently not deemed ‘valuable’ by the prevailing cultural framework.
When we consider the scale of the challenges we face as a human family, and those we have inflicted on the planet we call home, this work, which has for too long been deemed too challenging, unmeasurable or falling outside of any individual organisation’s charitable objectives, suddenly becomes very urgent. My earnest desire for organisations and movements working towards a better future for people and planet is to stop only trying to come up with new and inventive ways to ‘whack’ the mole more effectively, but to instead also come together and recognise the potential in laying the groundwork for creating a new game altogether.
Ruth Taylor splits her time between the Common Cause Foundation and as a freelance narrative strategist, supporting organisations to explore how they can apply narrative thinking to their work. She is the author of Transforming Narrative Waters and writes the fortnightly newsletter, In Other Words, which collates the latest thinking and writing in narrative and culture change practice. You can connect with her on twitter @ruth_staylor.