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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

We see here the changing canvas for narrative construction and the dramatic change in scope and aspiration and we can see this reflected in our social and political life. The change can be seen in the political adviser on network TV who recently put it this way: “No it’s not that we see the need to change the policy in response to public opposition... no not at all... Our conclusion is that we need to change the story we tell about the policy.”

This is a perfect redefinition of the new genre of “narrative politics.” New in one sense, but in fact dating back some way in time—most significantly to the public relations guru, Edward Bernays. Bernays believed we could manipulate people’s unconscious desires and by appealing to them you could sell anything—from soap powder to political policies. It was a matter of crafting the right kind of story. Hence: “You didn’t vote for a political party out of duty, or because you believed it had the best policies to advance the common good; you did so because of a secret feeling that it offered you the most likely opportunity to promote your self” (Adams, 2002, p. 5). As Christopher Cauldwell has noted as a result of the triumph of narrative politics: “Politics has gone from largely being about capital and labour to being largely about identity and sovereignty” (Cauldwell, 2005). Politicians appear to understand this need for narrative fine-tuning as they hone their policies. The narrative matters more than the substance, as this quote form the late lamented Charles Kennedy makes clear: “Whilst we had good and quite popular policies [pause] we have got to find and fashion a narrative” (as quoted in Branigan, 2005, p. 8).

Nothing illustrates the shift from old hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital towards something we might call “narrative capital” better than the case of David Cameron, the new leader of the Tory party in Britain (see Goodson, 2005). In previous generations his Old Etonian and Oxford connections would have provided an authoritative narrative through which to promote his political ambitions. The cultural and symbolic capital of such an education would then have come with an implicit and very powerful storyline. These places traditionally produced those who govern us whilst the symbolic and social capital is still largely intact. Cameron has predictably worried about constructing an acceptable life narrative.

The dilemma is outlined in this interview with Martin Bentham (2005), undertaken before he became leader:

But as Cameron insists, it is not just his preference for racy television programmes that calls into question the stereotyped image that others have placed upon him. He cites his liking for the “gloomy left-wing” music of bands such as the Smiths, Radiohead, and Snow Patrol, which brings ribbing from his friends, as a further example of his divergence from the traditional Tory image, and also, perhaps rather rashly for a newly appointed shadow Education Secretary, admits to regularly misbehaving “in all sorts of ways’ while at school.”
Most importantly, however, he says that what keeps him connected very firmly in ordinary life is the job of representing his constituents in Witney, Oxfordshire, and life at home with his wife, Samantha, and their two children, three-year-old Ivan, who suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and Nancy, who is aged 14 months.
“Am I too posh to push?” he quips, before determinedly explaining why he rejects the criticism of his background. “In the sort of politics I believe in it shouldn’t matter what you’ve had in the past, it’s what you are going to contribute in the future, and I think that should be true of everybody, from all parts of society, all colours and ages and races, and I hope that goes for Old Etonians too.” (p.10)
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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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