Feb. 2018 update: Please note that this article was written nearly a decade ago when I was a Rhetoric student in university. I no longer blog about these topics, but if you’re interested in learning about productivity, time management, and small business, then you might like some of my more recent blog posts!
Communication theorist Walter Fisher created the Narrative Paradigm in direct contrast to the Rational World Paradigm. The Rational World Paradigm, rooted in the sciences, states that humans are essentially rational beings and goes on to explain the reasoning behind this assumption; the Narrative Paradigm presents the alternative humanistic view which takes a step further and states that humans are essentially storytellers. In Fisher’s own words, the Narrative Paradigm refers “to a theory of symbolic actions—words and/or deeds—that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them” (Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument, 273). From this definition, we can understand the Narrative Paradigm to be applied to real-world situations.
The basic premise is that everything we do is and can be laid out as a story. Fisher would argue that we cannot, in fact, do anything without it attaining some kind of narrative structure. The main points involved in the Narrative Paradigm are the following:
1. Humans are essentially storytellers.
2. Decisions that humans make are based off of “good reasons” rather than proofs.
3. What we do and how we think is swayed by history, biography, culture, and character.
4. Our rationality is determined by our sense of narrative probability (the coherency of the narrative) and narrative fidelity (whether the story rings true with what we already know to be true).
5. We are continually choosing the stories that we keep company with, and these stories are constantly changing.
As you can see from the above points, narratives are a selective reality. We choose what we want to believe, which is influenced by external factors. Journalism and the media are perhaps one of the best examples of the Narrative Paradigm as a selective reality. Journalists gather information, hopefully from a wide variety of differing perspectives, and present their research to the public so that we may form our own opinions on the matter. However, no matter how hard the journalist tried to remain as an objective voice and to present all of the facts, undoubtedly in the end something will be left out or someone will not have their position heard. Moreover, if what we read in the newspaper reinforces our preexisting notions, we will have our own select viewpoints and we will choose what parts of the story we want to believe (because it “rings true” with what we already know: this is narrative fidelity, as mentioned above) and what parts we wish to ignore.
Using narrative is also highly descriptive. It brings people together. Communicating in the narrative enables us to share our understandings of how the world works and allows us to identify with one another, particular if we are party to similar beliefs. In this way, the Narrative Paradigm demonstrates that our attitudes can be directed by narratives and can move us to sympathy. Fisher recognizes that to some degree we have a desire for drama. Combined with our quickness to pass judgment when we can identify with a story, the Narrative Paradigm is an incredibly effective form of rhetoric as both a communicative technique and a persuasive tool. It helps us to create meaning and connect with others. We can use it to consider moral constructs and increase our knowledge of any situation.