Narrativity

A narrative is a cohesive organisation of past facts into a chain of events that are causally linked to each other. Among many other designations, humans have been labelled homo narrans or storytelling human.39 Stories help us think, understand, and communicate, but also affect behaviour and exert power. Narratives help us make sense of the past and present and predict the future. The human brain is evolutionarily hard-wired to organise the world around it into narratives to better understand and react to threats and reduce risks before they materialise. Our brain receives gigantic amounts of data through sensory organs every second, but it has the capacity to process only a tiny fraction of this data. Organising data into stories is an effective way to cope with the complexity and an efficient use of the limited capacity of the human brain. Studies show that when storytelling is used, information is better communicated, better stored in the memory, and more quickly retrieved compared to non-narrated descriptive modes.40 Research has shown that people read narrative text twice as fast as non-narrative text.41 Narratives consistently outperform non-narrated facts, and descriptions and stories incite people to act more quickly than do statistics and numbers.42 Further, narratives have extraordinary persuasive power. Once information is bundled together into narratives, people tend to pay less attention to the individual ingredients that went into them, and thus the weight of counter-arguments is reduced. Narratives also change behaviour. Once they gain currency, narratives can result in cascading spirals of collective action and cause major economic, social, and political trends. According to Robert Shiller, an economist and Nobel laureate, the Great Financial Depression in 2007–2009 was very much a result of a turn from a narrative of houses as incomparably profitable investments to one focusing on the housing price bubble.43

There are certain narrative structures that resonate well with most people. Aristotle explained this structure in three acts: initial settings, disruptions, and return to stability or a new equilibrium. Propp believed each story has certain basic elements: a hero, a villain who disrupts the ordinary condition and suppresses the hero, a victim (such as a princess), and a false hero. Other literary theorists have offered similar structures.44 However, most evidence-based discourses are fundamentally narrative-evasive: it is hard or impossible to express them as narratives or stories.45 Even simple scientific models require complex mathematics and non-intuitive reasoning. Evidence-based history often does not match our perennial myths and narrative structures. Extremists’ and conspiracists’ theories do not need to contend with this obstacle. They assume the “decisive role of human agency, intentionality and collusion in social and historical causality”,46 which are significant elements of a cohesive narrative. Their rhetoric is often full of tales about secret individuals and organisations whose actions match those of the “classic morality tale about the battle between Good and Evil.”47 Many conspiracy theories fit within the archetypal fable of “overcoming the monster” in which a handful of rebels fight the powerful evil cabal that is ruining society.48 Similarly, narrativity is an instrumental factor behind the extraordinary potency of violent extremist messaging. Indeed, master narratives of Islamist extremism

possess an internal coherence for their intended audiences that connects them to grand, deeply culturally embedded, views of history—to master narratives—that Muslim audiences, in broad terms, readily understand, identify with, or feel little need to question. As an exercise in transhistorical pattern recognition, those narratives, and their connection to master narratives, contain powerful persuasive messages that not only resonate or “ring true,” but also compel a certain level of ideological identification, behavior, and actions.49


[39] Walter R. Fisher, “The narrative paradigm: An elaboration”, Communications Monographs 52.4 (1985): 347–367.

[40] A.C. Graesser, B. Olde, and B. Klettke, “How does the mind construct and represent stories?” In M.C. Green, J.J. Strange, and T.C. Brock (eds.), Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (New York: Psychology Press, 2002), 229–262.

[41] Victoria A. Shaffer, Elizabeth S. Focella, Andrew Hathaway, Laura D. Scherer, and Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, “On the usefulness of narratives: An interdisciplinary review and theoretical model”, Annals of Behavioral Medicine 52.5 (2018): 429–442.

[42] Paul Slovic, “If I look at the mass I will never act: Psychic numbing and genocide”, in Sabine Roeser (ed.), Emotions and Risky Technologies, The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology 5 (Springer, 2010), 37–59.

[43] Robert J. Shiller, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events (Princeton University Press, 2020).

[44] Brian Alleyne, Narrative Networks: Storied Approaches in a Digital Age (SAGE, 2014).

[45] Philip John Moore Sturgess, Narrativity: Theory and Practice (Clarendon Press, Oxford and New York, 1992).

[46] Jovan Byford, Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (Springer, 2011), p. 71.

[47] Jovan Byford, Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (Springer, 2011), p. 71.

[48] Philip Seargeant, The Art of Political Storytelling: Why Stories Win Votes in Post-truth Politics (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020).

[49] See Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, p. 13. Many of these violent extremist narratives in the Middle East resonates with conspiracy theories abundant wherein. Matthew Gray, Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World: Sources and Politics (Routledge, 2010).

Executive Summary

Foreword

Introduction

Analysis

Conclusion