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Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop (2018)

Chapter: 3 The Science of Narrative Communication

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Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
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3

The Science of Narrative Communication

The second session of the workshop was designed to provide an opportunity to explore the potential advantages of the study of narrative for national security. Three panelists made presentations about relevant research and pointed to methods for drawing meaning from narrative analysis, which set the stage for an open discussion among participants.

NARRATIVE PROCESSING AND SENSEMAKING

Michael Dahlstrom, Iowa State University, drew on his work in the study of science communication to explore the role of narrative in how people come to understand and act on science information. He noted that there are three distinct concepts of what narrative can be, and that distinguishing among them helps to clarify discussions about narrative influence.

The first concept of narrative, Dahlstrom explained, is a form of information processing, which is one of two contrasting pathways through which information is processed: narrative and scientific. Because humans are natural storytellers, he elaborated, many scholars assert that humans process information predominantly through narrative pathways, which he characterized as a natural, efficient, and easy means of information processing. In contrast, he continued, scientific processing is more challenging and thus takes effort, requiring analytical thinking skills to process facts and evidence. Dahsltrom cited controversy over the safety of vaccines as an example of how these two pathways compete. Vaccine proponents, he explained, often rely on scientific evidence to communicate the message that vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent disease, whereas members

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

of the antivaccine movement often share stories about dangerous side effects experienced by vaccinated children, which are processed as natural narratives.

A second concept of narrative, Dahlstrom continued, are sensemaking narratives, also referred to as internal narrative frameworks. These are individualized stories of cause-and-effect relationships that emerge in the mind from direct and/or mediated experience and are often the product of processing information through the narrative pathway, he explained. These sensemaking narratives accumulate over time and create a foundation used to make sense of the world. Dahlstrom added that sensemaking narratives also guide what information people seek out and how, and affect how they interpret newly received information.

Dahlstrom then turned to the third concept of narrative—external narrative messages—which includes stories people receive from outside sources, as well as stories they share with others. Not all messages are narratives, he noted. The amount of narrativity (the characteristics that make up a narrative) contained in a message varies, he said, and he explained that studies on narrative persuasion (the persuasiveness of stories) and narrative transportation (immersion into a narrative) have found that external messages with more narrativity are often more persuasive and engaging.1 However, he added, because narrative messages are intrinsically persuasive, even those containing inaccurate scientific information can still influence others. And while it may be assumed that inaccuracies can be corrected by providing more scientific evidence, he observed, communication researchers have learned that this is rarely successful because the existing sensemaking narratives will influence how that evidence is interpreted. For elaboration of this idea, Dahlstrom pointed to research on cultural cognition by Dan Kahan suggesting that even individuals with accurate knowledge about scientific issues can become polarized.2 When this polarization occurs, he explained, any additional facts received will be interpreted based on existing frameworks and used to support existing sensemaking narratives.

In closing, Dahlstrom stated that narrative pathways, sensemaking narratives, and external narrative messages work together to create a “symbolic reality” for individuals or for groups that share certain characteristics or life experiences. He suggested that research into how this symbolic reality moves and shifts in relation to the international landscape could be use-

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1 Dahlstrom, M.F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 13614–13620.

2 For more information on Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project, see http://www.culturalcognition.net/kahan [April 2018].

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

ful for making analytical predictions because, he said, people do not make decisions based on reality—they make decisions based on the narratives that create their symbolic reality.

NARRATIVE, CULTURE, AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

Pauline Cheong, Arizona State University, drew on her work on the nexus of culture and communication technologies to consider why the study of narrative is important. Humans are “narrative beings,” she observed, and “we make sense of our role in large part through the stories we know are truth and share.” She added that narratives are important because they help shape people’s ideas and interpretation of events.

Cheong went on to identify storytelling as a crucial part of cultural reproduction—the continuation of a culture across generations—but suggested that its nature is changing in response to the development of new digital technologies. Storytellers, she said, are finding new ways of voicing and composing stories as digital technologies continue to evolve. As a communications researcher, she studies how narratives are formed and spread across online platforms using such theories as that of “convergence culture,” which posits that the convergence of old and new media facilitates transmedia storytelling (telling stories across multiple platforms using digital technologies) to audiences that have become accustomed to seeking and connecting information as it flows across media platforms.3

Although research on transmedia storytelling has traditionally focused on stories designed for entertainment, such as novels and movies, Cheong is interested in how the study of narrative and transmedia storytelling could be applied to understanding such complex and strategic issues as national security, religious authority, and community. This type of research, she continued, is essential to intelligence analysis because narratives, which help shape ideology and the interpretation of events, have a strong relationship to knowledge and power. She suggested that such analysis is especially important for understanding hegemonic struggles, where the meaning of truth becomes a key feature in the symbolic battle for hearts and minds. Changing media conditions, she said, allow nonstate actors to communicate their practices and tactics of resistance at a reasonably low cost, thereby disrupting the strategic communications of nation states and in turn subverting state ideology and national branding. She suggested that research should focus on how the changing multidimensional nature of strategic communications influences the perceptions and credibility of political and religious leaders in struggles for authority and power.

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3 For more information about Henry Jenkins’ theory of convergence culture, see http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2006/06/welcome_to_convergence_culture.html [April 2018].

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

In Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamic Extremism, and the Struggle for Influence,4 Cheong and her colleagues suggest that “narrative offers a means of uniting culturally-provided templates,” which include histories, rumors, and other story forms. Thus, she explained, truth becomes less about facts and evidence and more about narrative fidelity (how well a story resonates with listeners as a result of their experiences and beliefs). For example, she noted, media platforms can be used by nonstate actors to portray terrorists as either heroes or outlaws.

Depending on the cultural context, Cheong continued, open-source narratives such as these have the power to facilitate middle-ground resistance among civilians. It is possible for researchers to trace the formation and evolution of these narratives, she stated, by looking at how they are received and shared online. Thus, she suggested, research on open-source and online narratives could supplement actionable intelligence and give governing leaders the ability to counter false messages, shape perceptions, and mobilize against threats.

COMMUNICATING AND SENSEMAKING THROUGH COMPRESSED NARRATIVES

Humans are unique in their ability to think across causation, agency, time, and space, observed Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University, in explaining why understanding narratives is a vitally important kind of analysis. It is with narrative ability, he continued, that humans can think about and plan for the possibility of future events, such as international state stability. To make vast and complex narratives more digestible, he explained, they can be compressed and stored in the brain for future use, and when a person encounters new data or facts, these compressed narratives can then be used to aid in the sensemaking process. The process continues, he said, as newly formed compressions are then stored in the brain or blended with other narratives.

To clarify how narrative compressions are formed, Turner shared a promotional video for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.5 The video, which begins with images of footsteps from the past that transform into images of transportation and trade opportunities, is a compression of narratives visualizing the importance of trade in China’s past and future.

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4 Bernardi, D.L., Cheong, P.H., Lundry, C., and Ruston, S.W. (2012). Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

5 For more information on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, see http://english.gov.cn/beltAndRoad [April 2018].

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

Turner identified several research questions that could advance the field of narrative:

  • What patterns of compression are normal?
  • What kinds of patterns of compression work?
  • Which patterns of compression are cross-cultural?
  • Which patters of compression are culture-specific?
  • What are the mental operations for making compressions into a narrative?
  • What are the mental operations for decompressing narratives to connect with other narratives?

DISCUSSION

The open discussion following the presentations previously summarized began with thoughts from each of the panelists about how to define narrative. Noting that the words “story” and “narrative” appear to be used interchangeably, moderator Matsumoto also asked the panelists to clarify differences between the two terms.

Dahlstrom’s view was that there could be several ways to define the term “narrative.” At the most basic level, he stated, a narrative occurs when something happens to a character of some kind (not necessarily a human being), and some sort of change occurs. Beyond that, he said, there is “a huge range of what narratives turn into.” He explained that narratives based on personal experience are used for “internal sensemaking” and may be used only by the individual, whereas narratives that are shared with others in some way have a purpose. In general, he continued, for a storyteller to consider a narrative to be worthy of telling, it must conflict with one of the storyteller’s normative expectations of reality: if there is no reason to tell the story, it will seem pointless to the hearer. Thus, he observed, knowing which normative expectation was broken can offer insights into a person’s expectations and perceptions about the world.

In contrast, Cheong explained that she focuses not on stories themselves but on how narratives are embedded in a particular context, which “provides the backdrop for understanding and interpreting the meanings or multiple layers of meaning” they contain. She and her colleagues have defined narrative as a “system of interrelated stories that share common elements and a rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by structuring ordinance, expectations, and understandings.”6 She pointed out that the 30-second

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6 Bernardi, D.L., Cheong, P.H., Lundry, C., and Ruston, S.W. (2012). Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

trailer about China presented by Turner illustrates the need for multilayered understanding of a narrative’s context because the narrative could be interpreted in many ways, and discerning which interpretation may be accurate would require understanding the purposes for which it was developed.

Medina noted that she is often intrigued by the statements made in online comment sections, such as those found on YouTube. She wondered whether Cheong considered these to be relevant when collecting online data. Cheong agreed that online comments present a promising research opportunity. Although researchers often consider them to be trivial, she continued, they are a part of the narrative and thus a valuable source of data.

Referring to the “system of interrelated stories” included in Cheong’s definition of narrative, Medina asked whether she agreed that nation societies differ in their ability to project and control narrative. Cheong identified this behavior as “nation branding,” and explained that these are stories nations tell about their origins and development as a way to promote their country and strengthen soft power. She agreed with Medina’s assessment that some countries are better than others at nation branding, citing South Korea as having become particularly savvy in this regard. In recent years, she continued, South Koreans have begun to shape their national brand with compelling narratives dispersed via entertainment platforms and popular culture.

Turner added that narratives can also be crafted to appeal to certain audiences. For example, he said, the promotional video he used to demonstrate compressed narratives was prepared for English-speaking audiences, and the message would likely have been crafted differently if it had been meant to appeal to another culture. Dahlstrom pointed out that mass media also play a role in the decline of shared narratives. He explained that people are beginning to use the Internet as a way of connecting with others who share views that may differ from a culture’s shared narratives. He suggested that research opportunities exist in learning when and how ideas separate and what interventions might be developed to counter groups that may spread harmful messages.

One participant pointed out that by using the structure of cause and effect, narrative targets emotions. Cheong agreed and suggested that emotion is important for narrative. However, she added, only recently have communication researchers begun to recognize the significance of emotive language and consider which methods might be used to analyze it.

Another participant noted that although narrative helps people make sense of the reality in which they exist, it is not reality. He wondered, then, whether by stepping into the narrative domain to help others make sense of the world, researchers and analysts are at risk of going off track. He suggested that this may be even more of a concern when working with big data. Another obstacle, Medina added, is that the Intelligence Community

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

also has a narrative that it uses to make sense of reality and other narratives. Cheong suggested that the tools discussed in the first workshop panel (see Chapter 2), such as coding data and identifying sentence structure, might help with addressing this issue. However, she cautioned, because these tools are based on rational discourse, they may not capture emotive language and disruptive storytelling.

One participant asked how to communicate understandable narratives related to complex scientific subjects for audiences that may include people who do not understand the data. Dahlstrom suggested that the answer depends on the goal: if the goal is to develop analytical thinking, narrative processing methods will not be effective, whereas if the goal is to increase understanding, it will be wise to concentrate on creating a narrative that expresses the information. He added that the person communicating this message must also decide whether the goal of the narrative is to persuade listeners or to provide information in a way that allows them to form their own opinion.

Another participant noted that many people are susceptible to believing false narratives and asked the panelists whether they could suggest methods that might inoculate the public against such narratives. Dahlstrom acknowledged that, while he does not know the answer to this question, he does know that adding more facts to a situation will not solve the problem. However, he added, crafting a competing narrative may backfire and instead cause the audience to become skeptical, which in turn will likely make the false narrative more appealing. He suggested that technological advances may help identify when mental narratives are forming and when they may be shifting away from the scientific message. He argued that such insights might make it easier to identify where opposing beliefs connect and how they could be merged.

Medina questioned whether narratives can be studied in real time. Turner explained that big data science tries to do this by collecting information consistently across media platforms. He added that huge repositories of data allow researchers to track events as they occur and spread throughout other countries and cultures.

Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×

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Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
Page 15
Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
Page 17
Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
Page 18
Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
Page 19
Suggested Citation:"3 The Science of Narrative Communication." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Understanding Narratives for National Security: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25119.
×
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Beginning in October 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine organized a set of workshops designed to gather information for the Decadal Survey of Social and Behavioral Sciences for Applications to National Security. The sixth workshop focused on understanding narratives for national security purposes, and this publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from this workshop.

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