Storytelling and Culture Part 1 (Theory)

So I have been writing stories lately, much more than I have been writing in this blog. As I wrote, it got me thinking about the act of storytelling. How much do the stories we read and hear shape our worldviews? So I went in search of some scholarly work on the subject. I came across “Narrating the Self” by Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps. This article presents a lot to think about, and I want to highlight some of the points.

The abstract begins by stating; “Across cultures, narrative emerges early in communicative development and is a fundamental means of making sense of experience. Narrative and self are inseparable in that narrative is simultaneous born out of experience and gives shape to experience. Narrative actively provides tellers with an opportunity to impose order on otherwise disconnected events, and to create continuity between past, present and imagined worlds.”

Just starting out, the authors have hit on a few important points, that are strengthened throughout the article. Stories are a method in which we make sense of the world. Because, let’s face it, the world and the universe are very, very complicated places. If you look at the scientific narrative (the story of the cosmos according to science), you find that we are very small specks on a very small world, in a universe of such immensity we can hardly comprehend it! Heck, if you follow are of the indeterministic bend, it is a miracle we exist at all!

Stories bring this down to a local level, and help to shape our own understanding of our place in the universe. Also, as the authors point out, stories are a two way street. Stories come from experience, and at the same time they mold and shape that experience, often to coincide with our worldview. We sometimes fit our own experience into a greater “cultural narrative” that is the very lens through which we understand the world, and our place in it. Another important point is that stories transcend time and space, allowing us to connect the objective with the subjective, the past with the present, and the mind with the world outside ourselves.

To delve a little deeper into this idea, the author’s later in the article state that; “… we define our selves through our past, present, future, and imagined involvements with people and things; our selves extend into these worlds, and they into us. One of the most important functions of narrative is to situate particular (personal) events against a larger horizon of what we passions, virtues, philosophies, actions and relationships.”

I have hit on some of these ideas in past blogs. How heritage and past, real, imagined or somewhere in between, really help to shape our identities, how we view ourselves and how others view us. Every individual human has a personal story, the experiences that are unique to their life. These experiences are related by narrative, by stories. The storyteller is making sense of their place in the world, at the same time they are shaping their understanding of the world beyond themselves. Also, they are connecting themselves to a larger narrative, a worldview, a life philosophy. A large, overarching story that condenses and makes coherent the vast, complex universe. It is the metaphoric equivalent of a “You are here” sign. We connect our personal narratives with a grander narrative, a cultural story, that is a communal product of our community and society. As an example, think what it means to be American. Think about all the stories, the history, and the legends you have heard that attempt to define what being American is all about. White picket fence, home ownership, wife and kids, all part of the cultural narrative. The product of thousands of interconnected personal narratives.

The authors discuss the ideas I have just mentioned by saying; “As narrators, we evaluate specific events in terms of communal norms, expectations and potentialities; communal ideas of what is rational and moral; communal senses of the appropriate and the esthetic. In this way, we affiliate with other members of society both living and dead. We come to understand, reaffirm, and revise a philosophy of life.”

Stories; shaping worlds and connecting lives and events. Stories come in writing, orally, music, movies and television. We hear stories on the news, and from the mouths of our friends and family. In many ways, we engage in stories every moment of every day, shaping our selves, our lives and those around us. We connect ourselves to the past, and bridge it with the present and the future.

Now, I’m off to shape some narratives.


About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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