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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

The pattern of narrative construction can be discerned at work now in the advertising industry. In previous times advertising was a mass movement which meant it targeted large segments of the population and addressed them through the mass media of television, radio, and the press. Whilst this was not a process free of narrative construction, and was indeed deeply impregnated in this way, it was the narrative construction of collective identities and collective desires that could be reached through the mass media. These were not grand narratives, but they are certainly large narratives aimed at significant sections of the population. This collective narrative advertising is beginning to break down in the face of the rise of the small narrative and the individualised society. The evidence is everywhere. To give one piece of evidence: in the last year advertising revenues are down 3.5percent for the national press, 4.5 percent for commercial radio, and 3.3 percent for the main commercial television stations (ITV1). These are very significant reductions over a one-year period and indicate the beginnings of a sharp decline of mass narrative advertising. In its place, according to the National Consumer Council, is a wholly different pattern of advertising. In contrast to the figures above advertising on the Internet rose 70 percent last year. This is a seismic shift in the size and aspiration of advertising. A spokesman for the National Consumer Council said:

The point about the Internet is that people can be told individually tailored stories which fit their own prejudices and predilections. The advertiser can access all this niche information and can tailor individual and personalised narratives for each individual taste. This is likely to be much more successful than the hit and miss mass advertising of the past. (Interview on BBC News, 23 March 2006)

We can see then how the “age of small narratives,” of life narratives, has been expressed in emerging patterns of art, of politics, of business. In this sense the problematics of studying people’s lives are part of a wider context of social relations, proprieties and provisions. Lasch, for instance, has scrutinised the historical trajectory of private lives in Haven in a Heartless World (Lasch, 1977). In his history of modern society he discerns two distinct phases. In the first phase he argues that the division of labor which accompanied the development of individual capitalism deprived ordinary people of control over their work, making that work alienating and unfulfilling. In the second phase Lasch argues that liberalism promoted a view that, while work might be alienated under capital, all could be restored in the private domain. “It was agreed that people would be freed to pursue happiness and virtue in their private lives in whatever manner they chose.” The work place was this severed form; the home and the family became the “haven in the heartless world” (Menaud, 1991). No sooner was this equation established, Lasch argues, than liberalism reneged.

Private life was opening up to the “helping” professions: doctors, teachers, psychologist, child guidance experts, juvenile court officers, and the like. The private domain was immediately made prey to these quasi-official “forces of organized virtue” and “the hope that private transactions could make up for the collapse of communal traditions and civic order” was smothered by the helping professions. (Lasch, 1977, p.168)
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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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