Best Defense

From the Dept. of Policy Relevance: A solid method for studying narrative

In "The Logic of Violence in Civil War," Stathis Kalyvas wrote of attacks on rich residents in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

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By Sam Ratner
Best Defense office of narrative analysis

In The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Stathis Kalyvas wrote of attacks on rich residents in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. The attackers, service workers encouraged to action by messages of class struggle, “often handpicked their individual victims based on the additional criterion of personal dislike: not all bourgeois were alike.” The anecdote underscored Kalyvas’s assertion, borne out in decades of research on the production of violence, that decisions about who is killed and who is spared in insurgencies rarely come down to the sole influence of what Kalyvas called the conflict’s “master narrative.” Instead, they are the result of complex interactions between master narratives and local narratives, with the local frequently taking precedence.

This inability to decisively influence questions of life and death in war poses a conundrum for theorists who see master narrative–what many call “strategic narrative” — as a cornerstone of modern strategy. If strategic narrative doesn’t overpower micro-level narratives, then how does it influence audiences in war?

The empirical study of narrative in war is in its infancy, but King’s College PhD student Thomas Colley offers scholars a way forward to answering this question in a recent paper. To understand how to craft effective strategic narratives, Colley argues, we must move beyond simply conducting approval polling for various strategic narratives. Instead, we should focus on the process by which individuals synthesize strategic and local narratives to create their own. Put another way, the key question in the Republican Barcelona example was not what percentage of concierges believed themselves to be members of a rising proletariat, but how the message of revolutionary class consciousness interacted with an individual concierge’s experience of the rude tenant in his building who tipped him poorly.

Since Colley studies British narratives of U.K. military history, not Catalonian narratives of class vengeance, he examines the process of narrative synthesis by conducting interviews with British civilians about their perception of their country’s martial past. His methods, though, offer a way to study narrative synthesis in any conflict. Colley defines narrative as “a connected sequence of events, selected and evaluated as meaningful for a particular audience.” To construct a narrative, therefore, people must make choices about which events they include, exclude, emphasize, or downplay as they narrate. As Colley demonstrates with his interviews, a subject’s choices provide a framework to understand how their attitude about a conflict relates to the materials they use to construct their narratives. Working backwards, this framework can provide insight into how strategic narratives interact with local and personal narratives to produce what Colley calls “understandings of war.”

Colley has just scratched the surface of what we can learn about strategic narrative, but his paper represents a methodological step forward in studying narrative in conflict. Hopefully, scholars will expand the scope of this work to include interviews with other stakeholders in other conflicts, and use that research to do the necessary theoretical work to help us understand the mechanisms by which strategic narrative functions. As narrative becomes more and more central to our strategic conversation, it deserves this kind of rigorous scholarly investigation.

Sam Ratner is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets at @samratner.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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