Narrative as a way of creating meaning

I finding myself trapped in a circle of definitions at the moment. I want to talk about the nature of digital storytelling, the pedagogical ideas behind its use in eductaion and its possible role in organisational change.

I don’t think I can do any of that without considering “narrative”. Looking back at previous posts, it’s a word I use a lot without really defining it. So, I’m starting to do a series of tagged posts about it, of which this is the first.

I find myself a bit at sea here. I trained as a geographer, a discipline not noted for its approach to literary criticism or psychology but I’m starting to read about narrative along two different paths:

  • The psychological reasons why we find narrative so compelling socially, and
  • How you create an engaging narrative.

To be able to advise on why people should consider Digital Storytelling as an approach, I need to be clear about both of these, as a practitioner and a researcher.

I’ll start dealing with the first of these issues here.

Garcia and Rossiter (2010) say of storytelling that it is…

“…seen as perhaps the oldest means for communicating ideas, sharing meaning and developing community.” (2010, p1092)

…and continue by citing Bruner (1991) who says that narrative “is one of the cultural products utilized by the mind to construct its sense of reality.” (2010, p1092)

As a parent of young children I’m accutely aware of how powerful stories are. When we moved our family from Derbyshire to Newcastle in 2010 part of the getting our kids prepared for the move involved reading a book called “Moving House” which told the story of a family going through a similar experience to us. We certainly hoped that following the events of the fictional characters would help our children make sense of the unprecedented changes we were going through andhelp them to anticipate the eventual outcome.

This is a practical example and it’s nothing new. Fairy tales are ages old and the themes within them help children make sense of the world around them, especially if there’s a specific moral attached to them. Modern films like Toy Story (which are on constant rotation in the DVD player at our house), as well as being about a group of characters and their experiences, are about understanding friendship, jealousy, conflict, resolution, loss and so on. Empathising with the characters in a way helps us to rehearse these ideas in our own lives.

You can relate this idea to ancient myths and parables. These are ancient stories that have lasted as part of our culture, you could argue, because they have something meaningful to say. The story of Narcissus and his metamorphosis into a flower might tell us something about vanity, and has been such an enduring idea that its become part of the English language.

Also important to this is the role of interpretation. Garcia and Rossiter point out that we choose our stories (2010, p1093). They are not simply a way of sharing facts but a selection and ordering of facts that creates meaning.

Stories are therefore subjective readings of experience. Occasionally, narratives and objective reality can seem quite far apart.

There’s an interesting blog post by Chris Mooney about how science seems to be failing to engage large parts of the population, especially in relation to climate change. Why is it that the science seems to be clear about climate change, yet so many people disbelieve the science, or at least don’t engage with it?

Mooney’s post isn’t about narrative. He relates it to a study of personality types that seem to differ between the “average scientist” and the general American population. To paraphrase, according to this study (Weiler at al, 2011), most scientists have preferences for dealing with information that focuses on theories, “needing to know why” etc. In other words, thinking in the abstract.

The general American public, on the other hand have an average personality type that has a preference for dealing with information that focuses on experience and that uses “…personal situations, stories and examples to communicate.”

The argument is that the scientists are trying to communicate in the abstract, objective langauge of science. To communicate more effectively, they should be relating these data to personal experiences and creating a layer of meaning.

In forthcoming posts on this theme I’m going to look at how narrative relates to memory and the motivations for creating stories


Bruner J (1991) The narrative construction of reality, Critical Inquiry, 18:1, pp 1-21

Garcia, P. & Rossiter, M. (2010) Digital Storytelling as Narrative Pedagogy. In D. Gibson & B. Dodge (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010(pp. 1091-1097). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Mooney, C (2011) Could Personality Differences Help Explain the Reality Gap on Climate Change?, in Science Progress (blog), available at (Last accessed on 31st January 2012, 20:23)

Weiler , C S, Keller, J & Olex C (2011) Personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication, Climate Change, available online at (last accessed 31st January 2012, 20:18)