Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling

Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling In Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Sujatha Fernandes delves into narratives produced by four organizations “as a tool of philanthropy, statecraft, and advocacy” (2). Comparing blogged narratives that invited readers’ comments, testimonies produced for policymakers, and oral histories elicited by a socialist state, Fernandes proposes that organizations engage in a “political economy of storytelling” (10), where they prompt and deploy people’s stories toward building support for particular causes. Fernandes contends that when organizations pursue instrumental goals, such as securing legislation or funding, they blunt the mobilizing, transformational potential of storytelling. Suppressing different perspectives and excising structural conditions, curated stories portray storytellers as upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, and self-reliant. While these stories entice listeners to identify with these storytellers, omissions and erasure of alternate viewpoints reinforce rather than disrupt the status quo and its associated inequities. To build her claims, Fernandes compares four sets of stories and the organizational practices that generated these stories. She portrays three of these storytelling processes as creating neoliberal selves deserving of state protection or intervention. In the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, partially funded by the US State Department, the blogged accounts of women recounted gender oppression, drawing sympathetic commentary from readers. Fernandes contends that these stories elided questions about war violence and diverted readers’ attention from addressing inequities in their own countries. The second case focuses on a coalition of organizations’ efforts to ensure legal protections for exploited workers under the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York. Fernandes argues that stories replicated colonist relations of the master/employer and slave/employee, obscuring the neoliberalism’s dependency upon a “racialized and gendered division of labor” (70). Coupled with the constraints of foundation backing, this movement’s strategy generated few substantive improvements for domestic workers, leading demoralized participants to question their involvement. The third case follows undocumented students in the DREAMers movement. Using a two-minute-long storytelling format adapted from the Obama election campaign, young immigrants depicted themselves before the media and Congressional hearings as deserving, nonthreatening, assimilated, hardworking contributors to US society. However, rather than distinguishing between deserving versus undeserving immigrants, some storytellers challenged this trope with alternative storylines and formats, including poetry and art, recasting their stories as part of a larger immigrant experience. These three cases are juxtaposed with the intriguing fourth case of Misión Cultura, a governmental effort in which trained workers collected thousands of autobiographies of everyday Venezuelans. This storytelling project intended to cultivate a national identity from the ground up, with the incongruous aims of empowering the formerly disenfranchised and enhancing tourism. Comparing three of six available stories, this chapter shows how a nonlinear storytelling format revealed complex interdependencies of people, groups, and organizations populating storytellers’ lives. Fernandes deems the nonlinear format as more expressive and fostering deeper transformation among storytellers and listeners. By interspersing the organizational conditions producing these narratives and the close readings of stories’ form and content, the book ambitiously investigates the thorny issue of how to coordinate collective action. While the book adeptly reveals the pitfalls of adopting a narrative approach, the selection of sites raises questions, including about possible counterfactuals. Why were these sites selected and how are they, particularly Misión Cultura, comparable? Moreover, the book cursorily outlines the constraints besetting organizations, hinting at the relationships among organizational conditions and challenges without fully excavating the pulls of resource dependencies, professionalization, and co-optation. A more systematic presentation, such as a typology of relationships between organizing conditions and stories produced, could have built upon the partially problematized distinction between two dimensions: the instrumental (oriented toward achieving specific goals) and expressive (oriented toward expressing the self). This typology could have leveraged findings from organizational studies and social movements, both of which have extensive literatures on storytelling. Organizational researchers already have documented how organizations shape certain storylines over others (cf. Boje 2008); for example, in Biggart’s (1989) study of organizations like Amway, where at revival-like conventions, sellers shared testimonials about how multilevel marketing fueled their rise from rags to riches. Similarly, Gans’s (1979) classic account of the newsroom revealed how the media’s reliance upon a few hooks flattens complex stories into conventional tropes. Social movement research has depicted how people advance claims under social movement frames selected for their potential resonance with intended audiences (cf. Snow et al. 1986). Setting aside the neoliberal construction of the entrepreneurial self, could this book still have produced the same critique of organizations methodically ironing out the contextualizing wrinkles of people’s stories? Under what conditions can we expect organizations, particularly resource-seeking nonprofit organizations, to mobilize transformative action rather than conceding to co-optation? Given such unanswered questions, readers may not feel sufficiently convinced by whether this study’s design and analysis support the book’s foregrounded claims about neoliberalism versus the backgrounded processes of organizing. Indeed, it’s not until the concluding chapter that the book most strongly articulates the puzzling contradiction of how producing decontextualized soundbites for media campaigns and legislation still allows for the development of a class consciousness. At the end of chapter 1, Fernandes describes sharing her results for feedback from activists, but she does not reveal storytellers’ reactions to her analysis and whether these informed the book, if at all. Readers might infer that the author still holds out hope for storytelling’s mobilizing potential, given this book’s semi-optimistic contention that storytellers could disrupt neoliberalism’s alienating practices. Nonetheless, readers will anticipate epilogues of continued struggles for change: Misión Cultura’s stories are rendered poignant by Venezuela’s life-threatening food shortages, while DREAMers’ continued fears of deportation underscore uncertain futures. References Biggart , Nicole Woolsey . 1989 . Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Boje , David M. 2008 . Storytelling Organizations . Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage . Gans , Herbert J. 1979 . Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time . New York : Pantheon Books . Snow , David A. , E. Burke Rochford Jr. , Steven K. Worden , and Robert D. Benford . 1986 . “ Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation .” American Sociological Review 51 : 464 – 81 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Social Forces Oxford University Press

Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling

Social Forces , Volume Advance Article (4) – Apr 19, 2018

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Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0037-7732
eISSN
1534-7605
D.O.I.
10.1093/sf/soy033
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Abstract

In Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Sujatha Fernandes delves into narratives produced by four organizations “as a tool of philanthropy, statecraft, and advocacy” (2). Comparing blogged narratives that invited readers’ comments, testimonies produced for policymakers, and oral histories elicited by a socialist state, Fernandes proposes that organizations engage in a “political economy of storytelling” (10), where they prompt and deploy people’s stories toward building support for particular causes. Fernandes contends that when organizations pursue instrumental goals, such as securing legislation or funding, they blunt the mobilizing, transformational potential of storytelling. Suppressing different perspectives and excising structural conditions, curated stories portray storytellers as upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, and self-reliant. While these stories entice listeners to identify with these storytellers, omissions and erasure of alternate viewpoints reinforce rather than disrupt the status quo and its associated inequities. To build her claims, Fernandes compares four sets of stories and the organizational practices that generated these stories. She portrays three of these storytelling processes as creating neoliberal selves deserving of state protection or intervention. In the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, partially funded by the US State Department, the blogged accounts of women recounted gender oppression, drawing sympathetic commentary from readers. Fernandes contends that these stories elided questions about war violence and diverted readers’ attention from addressing inequities in their own countries. The second case focuses on a coalition of organizations’ efforts to ensure legal protections for exploited workers under the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York. Fernandes argues that stories replicated colonist relations of the master/employer and slave/employee, obscuring the neoliberalism’s dependency upon a “racialized and gendered division of labor” (70). Coupled with the constraints of foundation backing, this movement’s strategy generated few substantive improvements for domestic workers, leading demoralized participants to question their involvement. The third case follows undocumented students in the DREAMers movement. Using a two-minute-long storytelling format adapted from the Obama election campaign, young immigrants depicted themselves before the media and Congressional hearings as deserving, nonthreatening, assimilated, hardworking contributors to US society. However, rather than distinguishing between deserving versus undeserving immigrants, some storytellers challenged this trope with alternative storylines and formats, including poetry and art, recasting their stories as part of a larger immigrant experience. These three cases are juxtaposed with the intriguing fourth case of Misión Cultura, a governmental effort in which trained workers collected thousands of autobiographies of everyday Venezuelans. This storytelling project intended to cultivate a national identity from the ground up, with the incongruous aims of empowering the formerly disenfranchised and enhancing tourism. Comparing three of six available stories, this chapter shows how a nonlinear storytelling format revealed complex interdependencies of people, groups, and organizations populating storytellers’ lives. Fernandes deems the nonlinear format as more expressive and fostering deeper transformation among storytellers and listeners. By interspersing the organizational conditions producing these narratives and the close readings of stories’ form and content, the book ambitiously investigates the thorny issue of how to coordinate collective action. While the book adeptly reveals the pitfalls of adopting a narrative approach, the selection of sites raises questions, including about possible counterfactuals. Why were these sites selected and how are they, particularly Misión Cultura, comparable? Moreover, the book cursorily outlines the constraints besetting organizations, hinting at the relationships among organizational conditions and challenges without fully excavating the pulls of resource dependencies, professionalization, and co-optation. A more systematic presentation, such as a typology of relationships between organizing conditions and stories produced, could have built upon the partially problematized distinction between two dimensions: the instrumental (oriented toward achieving specific goals) and expressive (oriented toward expressing the self). This typology could have leveraged findings from organizational studies and social movements, both of which have extensive literatures on storytelling. Organizational researchers already have documented how organizations shape certain storylines over others (cf. Boje 2008); for example, in Biggart’s (1989) study of organizations like Amway, where at revival-like conventions, sellers shared testimonials about how multilevel marketing fueled their rise from rags to riches. Similarly, Gans’s (1979) classic account of the newsroom revealed how the media’s reliance upon a few hooks flattens complex stories into conventional tropes. Social movement research has depicted how people advance claims under social movement frames selected for their potential resonance with intended audiences (cf. Snow et al. 1986). Setting aside the neoliberal construction of the entrepreneurial self, could this book still have produced the same critique of organizations methodically ironing out the contextualizing wrinkles of people’s stories? Under what conditions can we expect organizations, particularly resource-seeking nonprofit organizations, to mobilize transformative action rather than conceding to co-optation? Given such unanswered questions, readers may not feel sufficiently convinced by whether this study’s design and analysis support the book’s foregrounded claims about neoliberalism versus the backgrounded processes of organizing. Indeed, it’s not until the concluding chapter that the book most strongly articulates the puzzling contradiction of how producing decontextualized soundbites for media campaigns and legislation still allows for the development of a class consciousness. At the end of chapter 1, Fernandes describes sharing her results for feedback from activists, but she does not reveal storytellers’ reactions to her analysis and whether these informed the book, if at all. Readers might infer that the author still holds out hope for storytelling’s mobilizing potential, given this book’s semi-optimistic contention that storytellers could disrupt neoliberalism’s alienating practices. Nonetheless, readers will anticipate epilogues of continued struggles for change: Misión Cultura’s stories are rendered poignant by Venezuela’s life-threatening food shortages, while DREAMers’ continued fears of deportation underscore uncertain futures. References Biggart , Nicole Woolsey . 1989 . Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America . Chicago : University of Chicago Press . Boje , David M. 2008 . Storytelling Organizations . Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage . Gans , Herbert J. 1979 . Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time . New York : Pantheon Books . Snow , David A. , E. Burke Rochford Jr. , Steven K. Worden , and Robert D. Benford . 1986 . “ Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation .” American Sociological Review 51 : 464 – 81 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Social ForcesOxford University Press

Published: Apr 19, 2018

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