Abstract How is it possible to motivate publics to do something about social problems when there is no agreement about what is and what is not moral, about who does and who does not deserve help, about what is justice and what is tyranny? I explore the importance of narratives in public moral arguments and argue that narrative productions of moral and emotional meanings are a central characteristic of the social processes of power and politics within our globalized, heterogeneous, morally fragmented, rapidly changing, and mass-mediated world. narrative, morality, emotion, social problems, persuasion, politics Events around the world in the past year have led me to think about Ernest Watson Burgess, the first President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP). In the first article of the first issue of the Society’s new journal, Social Problems, Burgess (1953) defined the Society’s primary goals as promoting sound, theoretically informed, interdisciplinary research that would be useful in the “wise formulation of policy” (p. 2). I wonder how he envisioned the contents and form of such research. Burgess was born in 1886. The world of his childhood and youth was without electricity, telephones, or cars. The world when he was the SSSP President in 1953 was before civil rights, globalization, or computers. His world was not ours. So, I ask: How, and in what ways, can this society and its members realize the original vision of SSSP to promote scholarship that is both sound and useful for achieving the goal of social justice? I begin with a simple assertion: Regardless of its other characteristics, scholarship that matters will be sensitive to social and political contexts. Consider some of the characteristics of our current age: Brexit signaled the end of an era promoting the value of a united Europe, the 2016 U.S. election signaled the beginning of an age where the values of capitalism, nationalism, nativism, and individualism are openly and boldly embraced; an era of mounting inequalities, rapid change, and moral fragmentation. This mass-mediated world is one of too much information produced by progressively fragmented sources. As differences between fact and opinion, real and fake lose clarity, truth becomes relativized and we are told we live in a “post-fact” world. Increasing disbelief in “truth” is accompanied by increasing beliefs in the importance of emotion: We often worry more about how we feel than about how we think; we often feel the emotions of distrust, anger, and fear and direct our reactions to institutions and their representatives, to social change, to strangers living among us. How do we think about the social objects called “social problems” within such a globalized, heterogeneous, fragmented, rapidly changing, contentious, mass-mediated world? Among legions of unknown others experiencing pain and suffering, who do we worry about and who do we ignore? How is it possible to motivate publics to do something about conditions creating suffering when there is no agreement about what is—and what is not—moral, about who does—and who does not—deserve help, about what is justice and what is tyranny? There is one general answer to such complex questions: Narrative, a technical term for what we call “story” in our daily lives. Narratives—stories—take place in scenes, they contain characters and events that are linked into plots. Stories circulate endlessly on all stages in public and private lives. While some are told as fiction, the most socially consequential are told as fact; while some are about particular people in particular situations, many others are about types of people in types of situations such as “coal miners without jobs,” “Syrian refugees,” or “college students with too much debt” (for general descriptions of the narrative form see Bruner 2010; Holstein and Gubrium 2000; Kreiswirth 2000; Loseke 2007). Stories are everywhere around us because they contextualize events and characters and this creates meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, because they can appeal to emotion in a world where feeling can be evaluated as more important than thinking, because plots and characters can speak to questions about morality that are so central to human existence (for the importance and processes of meaning-making, see Alexander 2003; MacIntyre 1984; Madsen et al. 2002; see Hitlin and Vaisey 2013 and Keen 2015 for conceptualizing morality in social science research). Morality is my specific interest because “social problem” is a moral evaluation that something is wrong and must be fixed. Within this, my concern is with how the narrative form is a vehicle for meaning-making in public moral arguments. Such arguments are public in that they are made to general audiences; such arguments are moral because they are about who is valued and who is despised, about the rights and obligations of citizenship (Fisher 1984; Jasper 1992). Morality is about how we feel as much as about how we think; it is about contextualized subjective evaluations. As such, public moral argument is a topic that cannot easily be addressed through a naturalist philosophy traditionally directing social science endeavors because the epistemologies and methodologies associated with this philosophy value logic over emotion, facts over values, objective description over subjective meaning, specificity over contextualization (Moses and Knutsen 2012). While the statistics, charts, graphs, and arguments resulting from such ways of knowing are excellent tools to help us think about the world and to understand how the world is, they cannot help us decide how to feel about the world; nor can they tell us how the world should be. Understanding how public moral argument works in the social problems process requires thinking and feeling about morality and this is what the narrative paradigm does. Located within a constructionist epistemological framework, narrative does not distinguish fact from value, objectivity from subjectivity, logic from emotion; narrative truth is that which reflects the world as cognitively, emotionally, and morally experienced (see, for example Gubrium and Holstein 2009; Hoffmaster 2014; Holstein and Gubrium 2012; Loseke 2012). I will begin with narrative and individual subjectivity because how we evaluate the believability and importance of public moral arguments depend on our “self story,” which is how we understand ourselves and our relationships with others. STORIES OF THE SELF Our era of rapid change, meaninglessness, and fragmentation makes it difficult to create and maintain a sense of a unified, continuous self (Holstein and Gubrium 2000; MacIntyre 1984; McAdams 1996). Crafting self stories is the most common—and perhaps most important—route to such meaning-making, which is critical for psychological well-being (Gergen 1994, McAdams 1996; Polkinghorne 1991). Stories create coherence, link our past with our present and our present with our anticipated future. As so crisply stated by Kenneth Gergen (1994), storying our lives allows us to understand our biographical particulars as more than simply “one damn thing after another” (p. 187). Narrative has received attention from social observers interested in a variety of social problems because crafting adequate self stories is especially important in times of trouble, such as for people experiencing chronic and serious illness (Charmaz 2002; Frank 1995), those healing from abuse (Harvey et al. 2000; Kazyak 2011), or who are socially devalued (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014; Plummer 1995). Understanding how narratives are a resource for people experiencing troubles is an important project because subjective well-being requires adequate self-stories. Yet such a focus narrows interest in narrative to questions of social psychology, which, in turn, leads to ignoring how narratives are social—and therefore political—in their contents, their uses, and their consequences (Atkinson and Delamont 2006; Clough 2000; Gubrium and Holstein 2002). First and most simply, self-stories are social because primary resources for authoring our own stories are other stories circulating throughout social life in media, books, songs, speeches, advertisements, and so on. In a process that is contingent, complex, and ongoing, we scan our environment for stories that possibly are relevant. We piece together our own stories by rejecting some, and by modifying fragments from others in ways that make sense of our biographical particulars (see Loseke 2007 for a review). This must be because, to be evaluated as believable, self-stories must “at least partially reflect the kinds of stories that prevail in … culture” (McAdams 1996:301). Yet what stories “prevail in culture?” Even if attention is limited to the United States in this particular era, moral fragmentation means that wildly competing stories simultaneously circulate; media fragmentation means that stories often circulate only within specific population segments. Despite this fragmentation, one story most certainly does “prevail” in the United States. This is the story of the American Dream. THE AMERICAN DREAM STORY I need say little about the American Dream story that has been called “the purest, boldest expression of who we are as a people” (Samuel 2012:4), and “among the most powerful secular myths in this country … and just as essential to liberal democracy as the constitution and Bill of Rights” (Rowland and Jones 2007:428). While not everyone agrees with its moral visions, the American Dream story is understood by almost everyone in the United States, and by a great many people living elsewhere (Cullen 2003). Incorporating the cultural codes of democracy and equality, the story is the promise that the boundaries between social classes are permeable, that mobility is prevalent, and that all Americans, regardless of race or economic origins, have equal opportunities to succeed. Incorporating the cultural codes of individualism and capitalism, the story’s moral is that success (measured in terms of money, morality, and social standing) is achieved through doing the hard work necessary to take advantage of opportunities. Hence, the plot of the American Dream story is that opportunity is available, taking advantage of opportunity requires hard work, hard work will lead to success. Woven over this is the cultural code of family that defines responsibility for those unable to do this labor: Parents care for children, able-bodied family members care for the elderly, ill, and disabled. Most typically, sociologists critique this plot linking individual effort to success by arguing that it disguises how the United States is organized around capitalism, sexism, racism, classism, individualism, ageism, ableism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. Within this critique, social structures, social processes, and social forces all but ensure failure for anyone other than those who have the good luck to be born rich, white, and male (Hochschild 2001; Magnuson 2008; Mandisodza, Jost, and Unzueta 2006). The countless empirical supports for such critiques are formed through a naturalist philosophy that assumes that truth is factual, that facts can be measured, and that facts are more important than values or feelings. In contrast, as viewed through the narrative paradigm, the story of the American Dream endures because it is evaluated by enough people enough of the time as experientially, emotionally, and morally true. When that happens, this story (as with any story) can be integrated into a self-story. THE AMERICAN DREAM STORY AND THE 2016 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION While I have been exploring relationships between narratives and social problems for quite some time, the 2016 presidential election focused my attention on public moral arguments. In particular, I became interested in questions about the “American working class,” the people who pollsters said were responsible for election results. I knew that working class was a demographic group often defined in terms of what it is not: Working-class people are neither poor nor are they professionals or managers. I knew that while the public image associates their work with factories, far larger numbers work in hospitals, nursing homes, daycare centers, schools, restaurants, stores, and offices. I also knew the stories I had read about the working class invariably focused on problems associated with losses: The loss of jobs from technological change and globalization, the loss of buying power because wages have not kept up with inflation, the loss of homes and wealth from the crash of 2008, the loss of community as disappearing factories lead to disappearing towns. Yet this did not seem to answer the immediate questions: How could working-class people support a candidate who offered only sensationalized visions of problems but no policy solutions? How could they vote for a candidate in a political party never aligned with their material interests? What were they thinking? Not surprisingly, as an academic I looked to books to answer my questions (Cramer 2016; Gest 2016; Hochschild 2016; LaMont 2000; Sherman 2009; Silva 2013; Vance 2016). The books were quite different in the characteristics of samples, orienting questions, and theoretical frameworks. Yet despite many differences, and despite the fact that I was not looking for it, the American Dream story was an omnipresent organizing device for working-class self-stories. The data in these books—what people said about their lives—led me to five insights. First, people in the American working class are far more explicitly concerned with morality than are those who are better situated economically. Common working-class notions of what is important, of how the world should be set up, of how people should act are centered around preserving a moral universe. It is morality—not money, power, or social status—that is central to working-class people’s world view and therefore to their self-stories. Second, primary understandings of morality associated with adults in the working class are those contained in the American Dream story—which they often reference explicitly. In use, this story is a moral universe, a template for how the world should be: People should work and persevere through times of trouble, they should take care of their family members. If they do this, they should be financially successful and accorded high social and moral worth. In turn, this moral stance is a model for behavior. With predictable gendered variations, these people work, often one temporary job after another, sometimes two or three jobs simultaneously. Further, the story is a yardstick to evaluate morality. Working-class people evaluate themselves as highly virtuous because of their relentless efforts to care for themselves and their family members. Finally, the story is a model for social hierarchy: Working-class people define themselves as socially and morally superior to those they evaluate as immoral because they rely on welfare rather than obey the prime directive of individual responsibility through labor. My second insight was that the American Dream is far more than a story circulating throughout social life. It is a moral universe, a model for behavior, and a yardstick to locate self and others within social and moral hierarchies. My third insight is predictable given that stories and moralities are about emotions: The American working class is characterized by ways of feeling as much as by ways of thinking. The depth and strength of emotion is a constant theme. While there is much pride in taking care of self and family, the predominant emotions are negative. There is frustration: Despite relentless labor, workers find that low pay, job insecurity, and a lack of a social safety net conspire against them. There is disappointment: Dreams of going to school, of achieving a better life, of giving their children the best possible start in life remain just dreams. There is fear and anxiety about the precarious present and unknown future, nostalgia for a past remembered as better, confusion and bewilderment about a world that seems unknowable and uncontrollable. And there is anger. The American Dream story is taken as a contract. Working-class people do what they should do and, while they are confident about their own morality, they achieve neither financial success nor social prestige. While anger is directed at people believed to be relying on welfare because they are too lazy to work, a great deal of anger is directed at an abstraction called “government.” Government policies such as affirmative action and programs to help immigrants are evaluated as simply not fair: They take away opportunities that already are too limited, they give these opportunities to people rather than requiring the individual effort expected of those in the working class. Taxes are a powerful symbol of this unfairness because they pay for these programs as well as for services, such as abortion, judged as immoral. When the story of the American Dream is understood as a contract, its breaking encourages anger directed at government and at those perceived as getting “something for nothing.” Which takes me to my fourth insight about the American working class: While confident that they live their lives the way Americans should, working-class people believe they are socially devalued—and sometimes even despised—by members of what they call an “elite”—managers, professionals, journalists, Hollywood stars, social workers, and social scientists—people whose opinions seem to count more than others. People in the working class believe these elites assume a lack of financial success indicates failure, and that a lack of formal education indicates stupidity. They believe these others do not respect the work they do, laugh at their tastes, demean their moral values, and dismiss them as “hicks,” “backward,” “stupid bigots,” or a “basket of deplorables.” This leads to my fifth insight, which ties all of this together: In 2016, more working-class people than expected cast their votes for a candidate without governing experience, without policy visions, and with a long and documented history of unethical and immoral behavior. How can that be? I suggest that in addition to asking “what were they thinking,” we should ask: “What were they feeling?” In 2016, many people in the United States who had been experiencing downward mobility despite “living by the rules” as defined in the American Dream story were frustrated and angry at government and resentful toward others who had achieved the financial and social success that seems impossible within the working-class world. So, it is not surprising: They were drawn to a particular kind of public moral argument, a story that portrayed them as heroes rather than as fools; a story that praised their values and reflected their experiential, emotional, and moral truths; a story that promised hope. And they were drawn to a storyteller, a person presenting himself as so independent, honest, and straightforward that he could be trusted to do what he promised: Throw a wrench into a government that did so much harm and so little good that its elimination would be progress. As an added bonus, this storyteller was as disrespectful toward elites as elites are toward the working class. If elected, the storyteller would be a constant annoyance to them. What great table-turning fun this would be! In multiple ways, the story of the American Dream is implicated in influencing voter preferences. While stories, of course, do not determine voters’ preferences for politicians or platforms, they most clearly do influence moral evaluations and moral evaluations most certainly do influence behavior. Mountains of evidence—from laboratory experiments, surveys, and interviews—going back over 50 years show that meanings, feelings, and moralities as conveyed through the story form always have influenced preferences of all types, including those for policies and politicians (For reviews: Lakoff 1996, 2008; Marcus 2000; Nunberg 2004; Westin 2007). While the details of the 2016 American election are specific to that particular election, the inextricable relationships between stories and persuasion are not new and are not limited to particular people, times, or places. The importance of stories for all types of arguments seems trans-historical, transcultural, and trans-situational. Stories are central to the social processes of power and politics because stories—not statistics, not appeals to logic—can speak simultaneously to thinking and to feeling, because only stories can grapple with questions of morality. NARRATIVES, POWER, AND POLITICS Social movements offer a good example of relationships between narratives, power, and politics. Stories are key to community mobilization, whether this is mobilizing student protest in the United States in the 1960s (Polletta 2006) or modern day mobilizations in Russia, Georgia, or Ukraine (Carnaghan 2016). Activists learn that particular kinds of audiences require particular kinds of stories, be those supporting abortion rights in Argentina (Borland 2014), promoting domestic violence legislation in the United States (Lehrner and Allen 2008), or managing censorship of Arab Spring protests in China (Du 2016). Because social problem advocacy is a type of public moral argument, stories are central to the success of social movements of any type. War offers another example of how stories are implicated in the social processes of power and politics. While historians and political scientists tend to focus on understanding the causes of war, another question is too little examined: How do leaders in democracies persuade citizens to support war? Since communication must establish the “cultural foundations” for conflict (Smith 2005), considerable evidence illustrates that presidents and prime ministers deploy a “war rhetoric” that both justifies the practicality of war while encouraging emotional reactions supporting war such as national pride and patriotism, fear of the enemy, and sympathy for in-group war casualties (Bostdorff 2003; Coles 2002; Murphy 2003). What also is known—although too little examined—is how such war rhetoric typically is delivered in the form of stories. The “justifying war” story is a narrative genre, a fill-in-the-blank template capable of justifying any war. In the narrative form of melodrama, the justifying war story features the stock characters of pure victims, evil villains, and saintly heroes. A simple vocabulary of psychological absolutes and rhetorical excess evokes a sense of emotional urgency as events are configured into a plot that is an intense emotional and ethical drama based on the struggle of good and evil (Brooks 1976; Singer 2001). Consider the internationally televised speech American President George W. Bush gave on the evening of September 11, 2001. As measured by traditional standards, this was not a good speech: It did not contain memorable rhetoric, it did not construct the logic of waging a war; its imagery was so simple it was childish (Bostdorff 2003; Murphy 2003). Yet this very bad 600-word speech was a very good story justifying a war on terrorism as morally necessary. Every presidential speech after this can be read as filling in the details of the original plotline delivered on September 11. What changed over time was that the story became increasingly melodramatic: The terrorist character became progressively more evil and less human; the American character was transformed from a victim to an ever-more-saintly superhero; the threat to the United States became a threat to all civilization. It was a compelling story: Its powerful melodramatic and simplistic imagery made it perfect for media, which has never tired of relaying it at every possible moment; by appealing far more to emotion than to cognition the story drew widespread support from the heterogeneous American audience (Loseke 2009). Narratives—such as the justifying war story—have social uses and they have social consequences. In the language of semiotics, the “story of September 11” was an ideal “floating signifier,” a kernel of an idea that can be—and has been—attached to a wide range of people, events, and places: Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, ISIS; Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen; London, Boston, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Barcelona. All now are understood within both government institutions and popular culture as particular instances of one story (Connor 2012; Zalman and Clarke 2009). Although it would be absurd to blame a story for what has happened around the world in the past 16 years, it likewise seems foolish to ignore how wars must be made meaningful if citizens are to support them. Because meaning is conferred through narrative, narrative is central to creating and maintaining the possibility of war (Smith 2005). CONCLUSIONS While there are many ways in which narratives are important throughout the social problem process, here I focused on relationships between narrative and the politics of meaning. I hope my examples encourage conceptualizing stories as more than “interesting side shows” in political contests, and as consequential far beyond their work in creating and maintaining a sense of self necessary for individual subjective well-being. I will close with two thoughts. First, this is both very old and very new. The philosophical foundation for my argument is old: Aristotle claimed that persuasion depended upon both emotional and moral distinctions; despite efforts of Enlightenment thinkers to demean emotion and elevate logic, emotion always has been central to the democratic process (Jasper 1992; Marcus 2000, 2002). What is relatively new is that constructionist epistemologies and methodologies have challenged the previous hegemony of naturalist frameworks throughout the social sciences (Moses and Knutsen 2012). In consequence, it now is more legitimate to theoretically and empirically explore questions about meanings and feelings (Denzin and Lincoln 2000; Ewick and Silbey 1995). What is distinctly new are characteristics of story authorship, circulation, and evaluation. In the not-so-distant past, the most widely circulating stories tended to be authored by experts of various types and by institutional representatives. In stark contrast, modern technologies give everyone the power to author stories, authors can be anonymous or deliberately misrepresent their social and political positions. Also in the not-so-distant past, stories could achieve widespread circulation only through traditional media that was relatively confined (network television, radio, newspapers, magazines), and relatively slow, while the routes to mass circulation now are lightning fast, constantly changing, and connected in ways that are unknowable. When these characteristics of story authorship and circulation are combined they produce yet another instance of the meaninglessness that characterizes our current era because it is not possible to know where stories came from, or how, by whom, and in what ways they have been modified in countless tellings and re-tellings. Yet this often does not matter because of other characteristics of our time: A population that is socially, economically, and morally fragmented; an anti-science, anti-fact climate; a distrust of institutions and authorities; a politics all but indistinguishable from popular culture. These combine to relativize truth and encourage emotion consciousness. In consequence, increasingly large segments of story audiences do not care where stories came from, how they were put together, whose purposes they serve, or their relationship to truths as existing outside the self. In the wise words of a well-known philosopher of our era, Stephen Colbert, all that remains is “truthiness:” If something feels true, then it is true. My first point is that the characteristics of our particular historical time make public moral arguments through narrative particularly pervasive and particularly persuasive. When unmoored from concern with matters of “fact” and “truth” beyond those of individual experience, this is dangerous. Simply stated, we cannot afford to be ignorant about the work of stories in the processes of power and politics. My second closing comment returns to my initial question: How, and in what ways, can scholarship be a tool to achieve social justice? I speculate that if Ernest Watson Burgess, the first President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, were still alive, he would not be impressed with my ponderings about narrative, meaning, feeling, and morality. Burgess believed that sociology should be a scientific endeavor and, for him, “scientific” was synonymous with rigorous methodology, rigorous methodology was synonymous with achieving the goal of “predicting social phenomena.”1 That was his project, a project that fit into his world. Our visions, our questions, our methods must fit our world, not his. In order to theoretically understand our world as it is today, we must take on questions about the social and political productions of meanings and moralities. This requires examining how stories work and the work stories do on all stages of social life. In order to be effective agents of change, we must craft and promote new stories that are based on facts rather than “alternative” facts, that speak to hearts as well as to minds; that will serve to unite rather than divide. Stories advancing social justice will promote cooperation rather than confrontation, compassion rather than competition, empathy rather than apathy, commonalities rather than differences. In multiple ways and on all stages of social life, stories can be tools to fight injustice and to achieve justice. Footnotes 1 See www.asanet.org/about-asa/asa-story/asa-history/past-asa-officers/past-asa-presidents/ernest-w-burgess (retrieved October 5, 2017). REFERENCES Alexander Jeffrey C. 2003. The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Atkinson Paul, Sara Delamont. 2006. “Rescuing Narrative from Qualitative Research.” Narrative Inquiry 16: 164- 72. 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Social Problems – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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