- Thomas Merton
Stories, Narratives, and Storytelling
People are storytellers -- they tell narratives about their experiences and the meanings that these experiences have for their lives. All cultures and societies also possess their own stories or narratives about their past and their present, and sometimes about their view of the future. These narratives include stories of greatness and heroism, or stories of periods characterized by victimhood and suffering. In this module, we will explore different aspects of storytelling and narratives and look at their connection to conflicts, reconciliation, and peacebuilding.
According to Webster's dictionary, a narrative is "a discourse, or an example of it, designed to connect a succession of happenings." Adding the definition offered by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, we learn that a narrative is "a story or description of actual or fictional events; or the act, technique or process of narrating." Taken together, then, a story or a narrative combines either real or imagined events that connect in such a way to provide a chain of events that are recounted to others. Over the last 20 years, there has been an upsurge in the study of narratives in the social sciences in general, and in the study of conflicts and peacebuilding in particular. This relatively recent emphasis on the narrative and its focal position in human lives has been termed "the narrative turn."
Features of Stories
The psychologist and narrative scholar Dan McAdams notes that people expect a story to have a number of features. All stories or narratives have a setting, which is usually made clear early on. While not all stories develop their settings, some evoke vivid associations of particular times or places. When the setting is ambiguous, the listener or reader of the story may feel confused or disoriented. The second element is characters -- the players in the action. As the story proceeds, we learn certain basic information about the characters in the story -- what they look like, how old they are, their dreams and wishes, etc. Thirdly, we expect a story to have at least one plot -- actions which have consequences and reactions to these consequences by and for the characters. A story may contain one episode or may have a sequence of episodes that includes the basic elements noted above. In a story, an initiating event leads to an attempt on the part of a character. The consequence gives rise to a reaction. Episodes follow one another, building on one another as the story takes form. Within this basic story structure, there are numerous variations and conventions which can enhance a story's tension. As tension builds across episodes, we desire an eventual resolution of the problem faced by one or more of the characters. This relief occurs in the climax, or turning point in the story, followed by the denouement.
One kind of story is a myth -- a story that gains wide acceptance and is often deemed sacred for its ability to communicate a fundamental truth about life. Such a story may be incorporated into different levels: the individual, group, family, organization, society, and/or culture. Myths contain archetypal symbols that help make us conscious of and curious about our origins and destiny and they capture a society's basic psychological, sociological, cosmological, and metaphysical truths. In short, myths reflect the most important concerns of a people, and they help preserve the culture's integrity.
The use of myths in nationalistic-based conflicts has been explored by the political scientist and analyst van Evera. This scholar has noted that when nationalist movements embrace self-glorifying or other-denigrating myths about its own or others' conduct and character, then their nationalism becomes more dangerous and may more easily lead to violent conflict.
Narratives/stories are produced in order to be recounted to others. McAdams notes a few basic aspects of storytelling -- the oral or written sharing of our stories with others. A culture's "stories create a shared history, linking people in time and event as actors, tellers, and audience." Stories are not merely chronicles of what happened; they are more about meanings. As people talk about the past in a subjective and embellished way, the past is continually reconstructed. This history is judged to be true or false, not solely with respect to its adherence to empirical fact, but with respect to narrative criteria such as believability and coherence.
Jerome Bruner has argued that one of the ways in which people understand their world is through the "narrative mode" of thought, which is concerned with human wants, needs, and goals. The narrative mode deals with the dynamics of human intentions; when in this mode, we seek to explain events by looking at how human actors (including ourselves) strive to do things over time. As we comprehend these actions, we see what obstacles were encountered and which intentions were realized or frustrated.
People are drawn to stories for a number of reasons: they can entertain us, help us organize our thoughts, fill us with emotion, keep us in suspense, or instruct us in how to live and act. They also often present dilemmas concerning what is moral and immoral behavior. At times, stories can also heal us when we feel "broken" or ill, moving us toward new psychological understandings of self and our social world. This is the case, for example, when mental health professionals employ narrative therapy in their work with their clients in order to help them to reframe their life story in a more holistic and integrative way than it was in the past.
Telling one's story, through oral or written means, has been shown to be a key experience in people's lives, especially those who have undergone severe social trauma. This has been the case for many of the thousands of Holocaust survivors who have given their testimonies in institutions around the world such as Yale University, the Survivors of the Holocaust Visual History Foundation project, and Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum and memorial in Israel. While the storytelling of their traumatic past does not always have a healing effect for the survivors, it opens up channels of thoughts, feelings, and communication that have often been closed for years. Having the opportunity to recount one's traumatic past to an empathic listener, especially when one can integrate the traumas into present-day life, can often lead to the telling of deeply personal stories that may have been previously "forgotten" or "denied."
Storytelling has also been used by Palestinians to recount the suffering that they have incurred since they were dispossessed of their land over the years. These stories often include experiences of deportation/escape, life in the camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and dreams of returning to their former homes.
Storytelling in Conflict Situations
The recounting of personal stories in situations, which aim to reduce inter-group conflicts and to enhance peacebuilding and reconciliation between adversaries, has been used within the last decade in a number of contexts around the world. Perhaps the most famous context is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in South Africa in 1995 in order to start healing some of the deep wounds of the Apartheid years. The main vehicle of the TRC for this purpose was public storytelling: "...The objectives of the Commission shall be to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflicts...of the past by...establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights which were committed during the period... including... the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations...the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective...and ...making known the fate or whereabouts of victims and by restoring the human and civil dignity of such victims by granting them an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations of which they are the victims..."
Storytelling and narratives have been used since the 1990s to reduce conflicts and work toward reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, blacks and whites in South Africa, Palestinians and Israelis, and between descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators. Two examples of institutions/groups in which I am involved that use stories and storytelling for these purposes are PRIME -- the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East and the TRT -- To Reflect and Trust.
PRIME is a jointly run Palestinian-Israeli research non-governmental organization (NGO) that undertakes cooperative social research that studies issues that have great importance for both peoples. Research projects are designed to explore crucial psycho-social and educational aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to use the findings for peacebuilding work. Two of PRIME's current projects involve narratives and storytelling, albeit in very different ways.
The objectives of PRIME's Oral History Refugee Project are two-fold -- one short-term and one long-term. A joint Palestinian-Israeli team is currently collecting life history interviews from Jewish-Israelis who once were either refugees from the Holocaust or from their North African and Asian homelands, in which they were persecuted. The Jewish-Israelis who are being interviewed moved from the refugee status to citizen status in Israel, establishing settlements in places that were once Arab villages/land. The Palestinian biographers have been refugees since the events of 1948 (statehood, and the War of Independence for Israel, "the catastrophe" -- Al Naqba for the Palestinians) and currently live in refugee camps in the West Bank, some of which came from areas where the Jewish-Israeli biographers have lived for the past 50 years. All of the interviews are being videotaped and will be readied for entry into computers so that researchers, educators, and students will be able to view the interviews in their entirety.
The long-term objective is to learn from these encounters in order to design and run educational activities for young people and peacebuilding encounters between the refugees and/or their descendants. In these activities, the Palestinians will visit places where their homes once were and the Israelis will visit refugee camps where the Palestinians now live. Perhaps more importantly, the encounters are planned to allow the participants to share their life stories with one another and together look for ways to work toward decreased hatred and violence between the two peoples and increased understanding of the other. We see this project as having the potential to be an important step in peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. It is our hope that the collection and telling of personal narratives will serve as a regional truth and reconciliation process that will run parallel to the formal peace process. Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians tend to be unaware of many aspects of their joint history and of the suffering of the other. The narrated, computerized testimonies will make it possible for children, educators, researchers, and the public at large to use these stories for peacebuilding purposes.
The second project, Writing the Shared History, involves Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli high school teachers who are jointly preparing a textbook, in both Hebrew and Arabic, that will present the narratives of both sides on a number of key social-political-historical events (e.g. the 1948 war, the first Intifada, etc.). Each side's narratives are being translated into the other's language, with blank pages left for the students to write down their thoughts, feelings, and understandings of the texts. The textbooks will be used in conjunction with class discussions and activities that will aim toward a reduction in animosity and hatred of the other.
The idea for the joint textbook of historical narratives grew out of the knowledge that in periods of intractable conflicts, nations tend to teach their children their own narratives (often through the vehicle of textbooks) as the only correct one, while completely ignoring their enemy's narratives. If they do include the enemy narrative, it is always presented as being wrong and unjustifiable. These textbooks, which also include [nation-legitimized knowledge, convince children that there is a necessity to continue to dehumanize the enemy, and this leads to the development of negative attitudes and values toward the other. This state of affairs is very clear in the Palestinian-Israeli situation and has been studied in the joint research of Palestinian and Israeli history textbooks undertaken by Firer (an Israeli) & Adwan (a Palestinian).
As in the Oral History Refugee Project, it is our hope that the experience gained from Writing the Shared History will help in the future when both Palestinians and Israelis are ready to return to dialogue, as opposed to violent means, as the main vehicle of intergroup interaction.
The second framework in which I am involved that uses storytelling as its main mode of work is the TRT -- To Reflect and Trust. The TRT is an international organization that began in 1992 as an encounter group between descendants of Nazi perpetrators and of Jewish Holocaust survivors. These individuals met together in a self-supporting atmosphere to tell one another their life stories in an attempt to better work through (that is, learn to live with) their pasts, in particular their parents' experiences during WWII. In 1998, the TRT invited former/present enemies from Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel, and South Africa to join their work. Publications, documentary movies, and several year-round projects have resulted from the decade of work of the TRT.
The TRT meets once a year, each time in the country of one of the conflict groups, for a week-long seminar. Group members are comprised of practitioners, educators, researchers, artists, and community workers. In these encounters, the members of the group, who facilitate themselves, sit together in small groups and tell one another their life histories, within the context of their conflict. While telling one's story is a major aspect of the TRT meetings, empathically listening to the story of the "enemy" comprises the main, and extremely difficult, work of the members. The TRT refrains from entering into political dialogues, which have been shown to hinder dialogue, rather than encourage it. Learning to contain the stories of the other, to hear their pain and to legitimize their narrative, while not negating your own pain and story, is the main work and "product" of the TRT process.
The TRT process appears to be a mode of group work that resonates with peoples from many different areas of conflict. It has been shown to be successful in that it has duplicated itself, albeit with modifications relevant for each group, in different contexts and settings. Perhaps the best-known offspring of the TRT is Towards Healing and Understanding, an organization established in Northern Ireland that has run a number of residentials (overnight conferences) and seminars.
Summary and Conclusions
Stories, narratives, and storytelling are central aspects of all cultures. They play key roles both in the escalation and potentially the de-escalation of intergroup conflicts. In order for the storytelling to be effective, it must engage the self and other, and provide a narrative that is both cognitively and emotionally compelling. While denigrating myths of the other and self-aggrandizing myths of self can refuel the winds of hate, the open and honest recounting of one's life story, and the willingness to be an empathic listener for the other, even if this other has caused your group suffering and pain in the past, can open the door for peacebuilding and coexistence.
 Webster's Third International Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1966), 1503.
 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (1966) 873.
 McAdams, D.P., Josselson, R. & Lieblich, A., eds. Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition (American Psychological Association, 2001).
 McAdams, D.P. The Stories We Live By (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993).
 ibid, 25-26.
 McAdams, 1993.
 Levi-Strauss, C. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Vol. 1) (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
 Van Evera, S. "Hypotheses on nationalism and war." International Security 18, no. 4 (1994): 5-39.
 McAdams, 1993.
 Ibid, 28.
 Yehezkel, A. La'arog et Sipor Hachaim (Keter: Jerusalem, 1955), (in Hebrew).
 Bruner, J. Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
 For example, White, M. Narrative Therapy [on-line]. Available from http://www.massey.ac.nz/~alock/virtual/white.htm. Accessed November 6, 2002.
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 Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Available at http://www.doj.gov.za/trc. Accessed January 29, 2003.
 No. 34 of 1995: promotion of national unity and reconciliation act, 1995. [on-line] Available at http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/legal/act9534.htm. Accessed January 29, 2003.
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 Bar-On, D., ed. Bridging the Gap: Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Political and Collective Hostilities. [on-line] (Hamburg : Korber-Stiftung, 2000). Available at http://www.psych.unimelb.edu.au/icrc/publications/reviews/review1.html.
 Bar-On, D. & Kassem, F. Storytelling as a way to work-through intractable conflicts: The German-Jewish experience and its relevance to the Palestinian -- Israeli context (2002).
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Use the following to cite this article:
Chaitin, Julia. "Narratives and Storytelling." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/narratives>.