Military history

Chapter 26

Frames, Paradigms, Discourses, and Narratives

I’m no prophet. My job is making windows where there were once walls.

—Attributed to Michel Foucault

The ideas of the counterculture, carried forward by the educated middle classes, had profound influences not only on social choices but also on the conduct of politics and business, and on intellectual life in general. These ideas did not prompt a leftward shift in American politics—far from it, as we shall see in the next chapter—but they did have a major impact on the way that big ideas were discussed. The major insight, which was not at all new, was that as mental constructs are needed to make sense of the world, we can never have more than a particular take on reality. Nor was it new to argue that those who could shape the constructs of others could thereby influence their attitudes and behavior. This was the whole point of Lippmann’s theory of public opinion and Bernay’s approach to the “engineering of consent.” Lippmann and Bernays claimed this could be benign, if undertaken by enlightened people in the name of sound public policy. The effects of the state manipulation of the media by Nazi and Communist totalitarianism, demonstrating just how insidious propaganda could be, undermined any optimism on this score.

The liberal response to totalitarianism was to argue that whatever the natural limits to human comprehension, the best course was to open up minds to a range of possibilities and share experiences and experiments. Rather than the imposition of a single view, however well intentioned and researched, the best hope for humankind lay in diversity and plurality, a marketplace of ideas. Liberal democracy could be guaranteed by a free, diverse, and argumentative media, combined with the highest standards in the search for truth. This put the onus on the media—and even more so, the academy—to seek to the extent possible objectivity in their reporting and analysis. The exemplary philosopher of the tolerant, open society was Karl Popper, who grew up in Austria but moved to London to escape the Nazis. He asserted the need for a rigorous empiricism in all scientific endeavors, putting every proposition to the test of falsifiability, gaining comfort from the wealth of accumulated and tested human knowledge upon which the flawed constructs of individuals were founded.1

The challenge posed by the New Left was to argue that the apparent plurality and diversity of Western liberal democracies was an illusion. Propositions that deserved challenge were taken for granted, while other perspectives and claims were marginalized. This was standard fare for Marxists and had been at the heart of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which gained increasing attention during the 1950s. Debates on the left were also influenced by the legatees of the Frankfurt School, such as Herbert Marcuse. Émigré theorists, gathered at the New School of Social Research in New York, explained how knowledge was developed and maintained through social interactions, and introduced the concept of the “social construction of reality.”2 Of increasing importance were French theorists, this time not so much the existentialists but the poststructuralists and postmodernists.

The field research and experimental observations of mainstream social science might avoid the higher reaches of European theory but regularly confirmed the limits of cognition and the importance of interpretative constructs. The political issue was whether the interpretative constructs could be deliberately manipulated from outside. Research suggested that this was done regularly, not necessarily as part of some organized elite conspiracy but in the way that the issues were moved on and off the political agenda, and how these issues were posed in the first place, setting the terms for subsequent debate.

William James had addressed this question as early as 1869. Instead of asking whether what we know is real, James had asked, “Under what circumstances do we think things are real?” Building on James, the sociologist Erving Goffman explained, “We frame reality in order to negotiate it, manage it, comprehend it, and choose appropriate repertories of cognition and action.” Goffman considered how individuals struggled to make sense of the world around them and their experiences and so needed interpretative schemas or primary frameworks to classify the knowledge.3 When there were a number of possible ways of viewing an issue, framing meant that one particular way appeared to be the most natural. This was achieved by highlighting certain features of a situation, stressing likely causes and possible effects, and suggesting the values and norms in play.

The Whole World Is Watching

The media was bound to play a major role in creating and sustaining the background consensus, especially now that TV had supplanted newspapers and the radio as the main source of information about political affairs. The possibility that media might play a less than benign role had been considered in the 1940s by Robert Merton, attuned to the question of the social influences on knowledge from the 1930s. Although he had been skeptical about Lasswell’s claims about the effects of propaganda and concerned about how little was known about the “propagandee,” he was also alarmed as a Jew by the rise of the Nazis. When he joined Columbia University in 1941, he began an intensive collaboration with Paul Lazarsfeld, who had some psychological training and now ran the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia. Merton believed strongly that empirical research had to be combined with theory, and this is what he brought to the partnership.4

Their early research noted the limited effects of mass communications compared to friends and family. They tended to reinforce more than convert. In a joint piece published in 1948 they addressed the question of media impact on “social action,” by which they meant progressive causes such as improved race relations or sympathy for the labor unions. They noted the concerns of high-minded critics that after all the efforts reformers had put into releasing people from wage slavery and constant toil, the masses now spent their extra leisure immersed in media products marked by triviality and superficiality.

They summed up the media’s political impact in terms of enforcing social norms, by exposing deviations from these norms in private lives; by acting as a narcotic, encouraging public apathy and leaving people with only a secondary exposure to political reality; and lastly by encouraging conformism. Because they provided “little basis for a critical appraisal the commercially sponsored mass media indirectly but effectively restrain the cogent development of a genuinely critical output.” Any minor tokens of progressive attitudes would be dropped from TV or radio shows if they went against the economic interests of the owners. “He who pays the piper generally calls the tune.” Were there circumstances in which the media could shape public attitudes in a more progressive direction? This could happen, but it would require that the media itself was not divided and that preexisting views could be channeled in the preferred direction (instead of attempting to change basic values). Even then it would be necessary for any movement to be supplemented by face-to-face contact.5

By the early 1970s, it had become established that there was a relationship between the importance attributed to issues by a mass audience and the processes of agenda-setting, referring to how some issues gained prominence while others were barely noticed, resulting from the coverage given to an issue and where it was placed—on a page or in a news bulletin.6 It was a truism in that if there was nothing in the media about a “topic or event, then in most cases it simply will not exist in our personal agenda or in our life space.”7 Some issues reflected the agenda of the media outlets; in many cases, it was the government that was best placed to set the agenda.

The media therefore could encourage people to think about certain issues to the exclusion of others, but could people be told what to think? In moving from radical activism to professional sociology, Todd Gitlin reflected on the divergence between what he considered to be the character and course of SDS and the way it had come to be portrayed. As we have seen, it had been a general assumption that one way to get sympathy for a cause was to be beaten by the police while demonstrating on behalf of that cause. In Chicago, as the police were wading into the activists, they chanted back, “The whole world is watching,” as if this should serve as a warning that their attackers would be subjected to international condemnation. Yet, unlike the civil rights activists of earlier in the decade, the political effects were at best ambiguous. In many media outlets, it was the demonstrators rather than police who were condemned.

Gitlin sought to demonstrate that the media did not so much hold up a mirror to reality as shape what people assumed to be reality. “I was still in the grip of a noble, rationalist, post-Sixties prejudice,” he later recalled, “that started with a distaste for bad ideas and proceeded to a sort of retrospective optimism to the effect that if the ideas and images had been different, a thoughtful population would have warmed to the movement instead of turning a cold shoulder, and the movement would therefore have created a healthier political climate for the years, even decades to come.”8 His book The Whole World Is Watching acknowledged the importance of the media in reporting the movement’s demonstrations, for without a report they might as well not have happened, but that created a dependence on how they were interpreted.

Gitlin was aware of Gramscian analyses of hegemony, as shaping popular acceptance of the established order, by uniting persuasion from above with consent from below. By tracing the history of the movement and how it had been reported, he was in some respects updating Gramsci in the light of the modern mass media. He drew on Goffman’s notions of frames in explaining how the media made choices about what to report and how. “Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion.” They were a way of organizing discourse, and there had to be some way. It was impossible completely to report the world that exists.

Many things exist. At each moment the world is rife with events. Even within a given event there is infinity of noticeable details. Frames are principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters.9

What concerned him was how the media had undermined SDS by at times ignoring, trivializing, marginalizing, and disparaging it, as well as by highlighting differences among its members and focusing on its more disruptive behavior rather than addressing the issues being raised. This led him to ruminate on the circumstances in which radicals could make space to challenge hegemony. When elites were unsure of the situations, they could not define them to suit their interests. The key factor might not be the unity of the radicals but the unity of the establishment. Also relevant were the responses of ordinary people, with their own values and norms, which they saw being challenged by the protests. The issue went beyond establishment views or media methodology.

Thomas Kuhn

The idea that there were loose systems of ideas which could be politically influential despite their limited empirical basis was captured by Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of the “conventional wisdom.” This term had been around for some time to refer to commonplace ideas, but Galbraith used it in 1958 for “those ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” What was held to be truth, he suggested, was often a reflection of convenience, self-esteem, and familiarity as much as relevance. At the simplest level, the conventional wisdom could be seen in the rarity with which the businessman was denigrated as an economic force before the chamber of commerce. But it was found even at the “highest levels of social science scholarship.” Minor heresies, he noted, may be much cherished, but the vigor of debate surrounding these heresies “makes it possible to exclude as irrelevant, and without seeming to be unscientific or parochial, any challenge to the framework itself.” Galbraith accepted that the conventional wisdom had value as a check against a facile flow of intellectual novelties which could deny any possibility of stability and continuity. The danger lay in avoiding “accommodation to circumstances until change is dramatically forced upon it.” The enemy of the conventional wisdom, according to Galbraith, was obsolescence, not “ideas but the march of events.”10

Galbraith gave the conventional wisdom a negative connotation. A more neutral term, which also caught on more, was “paradigm.” Thomas Kuhn described the dynamic that might be created by the combination of elite uncertainty and the march of events, while reinforcing the view that structures of power were dependent on embedded structures of thought, in one of the most influential books of the 1960s. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions addressed an area often held up as being separate from politics, propelled forward by the experimental method and the accumulation of evidence. Instead of scientific endeavor representing the progressive revelation of objective reality, Kuhn argued that it was actually a series of paradigm shifts. A “paradigm” was a set of ideas that could become so embedded within a scientific community that dislodging them became as much a political as an empirical challenge. When the scientific community worked within a prevailing paradigm this was “normal science.” Its core precepts would be taught to students and research encouraged and celebrated which followed its framework and validated its conclusions. Eventually, challenges would appear as observations threw up apparently inexplicable anomalies. The cumulative impact of these anomalies would eventually become overwhelming. This Kuhn described as a “scientific revolution,” when everything scientists thought they knew would be reassessed, all the prior assumptions and information reappraised, often against fierce resistance from the old guard. Eventually the new paradigm would usurp the old. The classic example of this was the Copernican Revolution, which overturned the prior assumption that planets revolved around the earth by showing how they were actually in orbit around the sun.

Kuhn’s message was that beliefs, even in an area committed to reason and experimentation, could be influenced by factors that were at their root non-rational. This was an intensely political account, involving a confrontation between radicals and defenders of an old order that could no longer be accommodated within the established institutions of governance. Just as approved political strategies no longer sufficed at revolutionary times, so with approved scientific methods and reasoning. What made the difference at critical moments were factors extraneous to the scientific method, such as force of personality or the scientific equivalents of the revolutionary mob and coercive pressure. A new paradigm would acquire a form of collective consent, there would be a consequential circulation of elites, and normal science would continue until the process began again with the accumulation of more anomalies.11 As revolutions went, this was more Pareto than Marx.

Kuhn himself stressed the underlying conservatism of his view when discovering to his horror during the student rebellions of the 1960s that he was being cast as a revolutionary for having identified paradigms as instruments of intellectual oppression. “Thank you for telling us about paradigms,” the students were saying, “now that we know what they are we can get along without them.” At this point he felt “badly misunderstood,” disliking “what most people were getting out of the book.”12 He was not saying that paradigms were invariably harmful and misleading. They made sense of material that would otherwise appear inchoate and confusing. Scientific inquiry would be impossible without “at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism.”13 Nor was he arguing that it was only scientific politics that would allow a paradigm to become entrenched or supplanted. Crises in normal science would develop because of the continuing search for new discoveries and impatience with research designed to do no more than reaffirm what was already supposed. Kuhn did however insist that the “decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.”14

There were many criticisms of Kuhn, not least that his history represented an oversimplification. While there had clearly been occasions when the processes he described had been present, theories also changed significantly during periods of “normal science” and even adherents of old paradigms could get excited by new breakthroughs. It was also suggested that his focus was too internal to the scientific profession, with insufficient attention paid to the broader social context in which scientists operated and the developing impact of professionalism and bureaucratization. Kuhn polished and developed his ideas after the book’s publication, notably in a 1970 revision. Thereafter, the radicalism of his message was diminished as his intellectual energies became focused on the more abstruse aspects of the philosophy of science.

By this time, however, whatever meaning he wished to assign to his ideas, his terminology was already well on its way to being co-opted by people working in a range of other disciplines. In 1987, Kuhn’s work was reported to be the twentieth-century book most frequently cited from 1976 to 1983 in the arts and the humanities.15 A “paradigm shift” became a cliché, used in circumstances far removed from a full-blown scientific revolution. His model, at least in a simplified version, appeared as a gift to relativists, suggesting that what mattered with any coherent set of views, including social philosophies, was not their relationship to any discernible reality but the political power behind them. An influential example of this was Sheldon Wolin’s use of Kuhn to challenge the claimed objectivity of the “behavior- ist” tendency in political sciences, which claimed to be following the same methodological path as the physical sciences. “Up to a certain point,” Wolin observed, “what matters is not which the truer paradigm is but which is to be enforced.”16

From a way of describing explicit, formal scientific theories that could be unsettled by contrary evidence, paradigms started to allow bundles of prejudices and preconceptions that were implicit, informal, and often confused, contradictory and in flux, to be treated as if they were embedded, internally coherent, tight and controlled, and in key respects impervious to facts. The tendency to categorize systems of belief as strong paradigms and then fit individuals and groups into them often failed to do justice to the extent to which individuals and groups were likely to deviate from a paradigm in particular aspects, interpret paradigms in culturally specific ways, tailor them to their political circumstances, or draw from them quite divergent inferences on how to act. If what counted for truth could be the result of political manipulation as much as scientific endeavor, then possibilities were opened up for a range of topics to become politicized.

Consider, for example, the curious case of intelligent design. In 1996, a Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, based in California, set itself the objective of replacing “materialism and its destructive cultural legacies with a positive scientific alternative.” By 1999 a strategy had been developed. This was known as The Wedge Project.17 The metaphor was materialistic science as “a giant tree,” the trunk of which could nonetheless be split by a small wedge applied at its weakest points. The “thin edge of the wedge” was represented by a number of books challenging evolutionary theory, beginning in 1991 with Phillip Johnson’s Darwinism On Trial. The alternative to evolutionary theory was intelligent design. This challenged Darwinism by insisting that the world could not be explained by the randomness of evolution but must have required a coherent design, although it stopped short of saying that the God of the scriptures was the intelligent designer. The proponents used Kuhn’s theory to argue that evolutionary biology was no more than a dominant paradigm upheld by a scientific elite willfully dismissive of contrary views, denying them publication in peer-reviewed journals. Social pressure discouraged inquisitive young scientists from exploring subversive notions.18

The wedge was to be broadened by promoting intelligent design as “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The next phase would involve “publicity and opinion-making.” This work would be widely communicated into schools and the media, with a particular emphasis on mobilizing Christian opinion behind this cause. The big challenge would come with the third phase of “cultural confrontation and renewal,” with direct challenges in academic conferences, a determined push—backed by law if possible—into the schools. The challenge would then be directed at the social sciences and humanities. The long-term aim was not only to make intelligent design “the dominant perspective in science” but to extend into “ethics, politics, theology, and philosophy in the humanities, and to see its influence in the fine arts.”

The proponents were aware of the importance of framing. Johnson urged: “Get the Bible and the Book of Genesis out of the debate because you do not want to raise the so-called Bible—science dichotomy.” The need was to get heard in the secular academy and unify religious dissenters. One practical reason to avoid creationism was that court rulings prohibited its teaching as science. The arena for the battle was school textbooks, and the key demand was that intelligent design be taught in schools. This involved getting proponents to sit on school boards. As the movement faced difficulty in getting their views accepted as suitable for textbooks, the demand had to be watered down to evolution being taught as a contested and controversial theory whose rightness should not be taken for granted, especially when other compelling theories were available as alternatives. In the end, the December 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case decided against intelligent design on the grounds that it was insufficiently distinctive from creationism to deserve a place on the science curriculum.19

The case demonstrates the difficulty with the “paradigm” paradigm. Neither evolution nor intelligent design referred to fully coherent worldviews. Among evolutionary biologists there were substantial differences but no sense of crisis: evolution was accepted as a powerful theory that kept on pointing researchers in fruitful directions. In Kuhn’s terms, within the dominant matrix there were still a number of exemplary paradigms under challenge. Nor did intelligent design base its case on anomalous experimental evidence. Its own paradigm did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. As a design the world is not always intelligent, with many obvious imperfections and curiosities. There was not even a single creationist theory. Much depended on how literally the scriptures were followed. The Bible, for example, referred to the “four corners of the earth,” so extreme literalists could claim that the earth really was flat. Others still argued with Galileo that the sun was at the center of the solar system. More common was Young Earth Creationism, following the Bible sufficiently literally to assert that the earth was six to ten thousand years old, was created in six days, that subsequent death and decay were the fault of Adam and Eve’s original sin, and that Noah’s Flood could provide a key to much of the world’s geology. By contrast, Old Earth Creationists believed God created the earth but accepted that it was really ancient. Other versions suggested that the biblical sequence of creation worked so long as it was accepted that each biblical “day” really referred to extremely long periods. Others argued that the record of fossils could be accepted, but that the emergence of new organisms reflected deliberate acts of God rather than the accidents of evolution.20 While creationists would be Christians (or Muslims), there were plenty of Christians (and Muslims) who had no problem with evolutionary theory. The material world might be explained by DNA as created by God, leading to a natural evolutionary course, which would still leave the spiritual world and the human soul to be addressed by religion.

So even within a self-conscious paradigm that had its own label there were a number of distinctive and contradictory viewpoints. The same was true among evolutionary biologists, although at least they had the scientific method to manage and even resolve disputes. While, as Kuhn observed, the scientific community had its gatekeepers and dogmatists, it could also be pluralistic and theories of evolution have, for want of a better term, evolved. Because intelligent design eschewed the methodology of “naturalist” science, there was no basis for it to cause a paradigm shift. Its only hope was to develop a sufficiently strong and vocal constituency to get its paradigm put onto the curriculum and if possible have evolution taken off. This was not at all the sort of struggle Kuhn had in mind, because it was between two very distinct communities rather than within one.

Michel Foucault

Another thinker whose ideas developed over the 1960s and thereafter shaped the way questions of ideology and power were addressed was the French social philosopher Michel Foucault. A thinker for whom the interplay between the personal and the philosophical was unusually intense, his engagement with the history of both psychiatry and sexuality reflected his difficulties with his homosexuality and depression. After an early dalliance with the French Communist Party, he appeared to distance himself from Marxism only to return as an enthusiastic proponent of the “spirit of ’68,” encouraging student occupations and leftist scholarship. In turn, he enthused about and then became disillusioned with Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. He died from an AIDS-related illness in 1984, aged 57, halfway through writing a six-volume work on sexuality. As with many important thinkers, there were significant shifts in his work over the course of his life, and he refused to accept any label, although he came to be regularly identified as a leading postmodernist. Interpretations of what Foucault really meant can reach special levels of paradox as arguably, by his own account, he never “really meant” anything at all. His abstract writings, though not his histories, were dense and hard to follow, so any attempt to present his ideas in a simplified form (or indeed any form) posed a challenge. Yet his approach shaped much contemporary social thought, including the study of strategy and, in some respects, its practice.

There were obvious comparisons with Kuhn. Both men drew attention to the extent to which claims about truth were contingent and dependent upon structures of power. Where Kuhn had his paradigms, Foucault had “epistemes.” He described these as the “apparatus” which made possible “the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.”21 At least in his earlier thought, epistemes were at any time unique, dominant, and exclusive, unable to coexist with others. There was “always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge.”22 Kuhn always assumed a greater plurality in the social sciences and broader culture in which distinctive schools challenged each others’ foundations. Unlike the natural sciences they did not share the same problemsolving approach. In addition, his paradigms were quite conscious and deliberate frameworks for scientific research. Foucault’s epistemes could be and often were unconscious, setting the terms for thought and action in ways that could be invisible to those affected. While Kuhn acknowledged the importance of empirical observation and that there might be more or less objective tests against which competing paradigms might be judged, Foucault admitted of no such possibility. There was a constant battle for truth, not in order to discover some absolute but to establish the boundaries on action.

This was because all forms of thought were inextricably linked to questions of power. He described a historical sequence of power systems. In feudal society, power was about sovereignty, with general mechanisms of domination but little attention to detail. The great invention of the next period with the coming of bourgeois society was the mechanisms that made possible “disciplinary domination” with forms of surveillance and incarceration that controlled the activity of individuals, whether in prisons, schools, mental hospitals, or factories. Thus what interested him about the development of the mass armies spawned by the French Revolution were the practices they employed for turning a multitude of individuals into employable armies. In this way Foucault could show that the conceptualization of bodies was a reflection of new forms of power.

By the late eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made: out of a formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit; in short, one has “got rid of the peasant” and given him “the air of the soldier.”

This was the basis for the disciplinary power which migrated into civil society where comparable forms of control were instituted.

This control did not require violence, as it taught forms of behavior that constituted a form of self-discipline.23 In this way, power and knowledge became one and the same, and Foucault referred to them together as “power/ knowledge.” Such power was not something owned or wielded, but an essential feature in all spheres of life, including the notionally most personal and intimate. It was diffuse rather than concentrated, discursive as much as coercive, unstable rather than fixed. There was no real “truth,” so it could neither be repressed nor excluded. Considerations of truth were really about power, about who was served by what, and the forms of domination and resistance to which it gave rise.

His approach to power therefore underplayed physical constraint and queried the durability of apparent consent. It was through discourse that the thought of others was shaped so that actions followed a particular view of the world. “Regimes of truth” set standards for what was true and false and the procedures by which they might be discerned. These became embedded in everyday discourses, ensuring that certain matters were taken for granted while others were given prominence. In this way, views of reality could take hold, reinforcing structures of power without it being realized, resulting in accommodating forms of behavior being adopted without the necessity of enforcement. For Foucault, strategy was inextricably linked with power. While he discussed strategy in a mainstream sense, referring to “winning choices” in overt struggles, his concept was much broader. Strategy was “the totality of the means put into operation to implement power effectively or to maintain it.”

Foucault’s influence on the humanities came to be profound, its value still a matter for intense debate. His influence on thinking about strategy was also significant. First, his view of the ubiquity of power potentially turned all social relationships into arenas of struggle, touching the micro-level of social existence as well as the macro-level of the state. Second, he conveyed a sense of the continuity of struggle without end. There was confrontation, an apparent victory, and a stable period, but then it could all open up again. There was thus an ever-present possibility of resistance and so reversion. A victory might allow “stable mechanisms” to “replace the free play of antagonistic reactions,” but it would only be truly embedded when the other was reduced to impotence. There could then be “domination,” a “strategic situation more or less taken for granted and consolidated by means of a long-term confrontation between adversaries.” But even periods of apparent stability, sustained by the dominance of a particular discourse, could turn to struggle, following the opening up of the discourse.

In effect, between a relationship of power and a strategy of struggle there is a reciprocal appeal, a perpetual linking and a perpetual reversal. At every moment the relationship of power may become a confrontation between two adversaries. Equally, the relationship between adversaries in society may, at every moment, give place to the putting into operation of mechanisms of power.24

In an inversion of Clausewitz, he presented politics as a continuation of war.25 War was a “permanent social relationship, the ineradicable basis of all relations and institutions of power.” Social relations were thus orders of battle in which there was “no such thing as a neutral subject” and in which “we are all inevitably someone’s adversary.” Taking sides meant it was “possible to interpret the truth, to denounce the illusions and errors that are being used—by your adversaries—to make you believe we are living in a world in which order and peace have been restored.” Therefore as much as the discourses of power were diffused throughout society, so too could be resistance, with forms of evasion, subversion, and contestation. In this respect, claims about knowledge were weapons in a struggle over truth. He wrote of “knowledges” (in the plural) in conflict “because they are in the possession of enemies, and because they have intrinsic power-effects.”26

Analyses of discourses, by exploring what appeared settled and noncontentious, could reveal their contingency and relationship to structures of power. This could have a liberating effect, offering the subjugated a way out. This was not a particularly new thought and was one of the themes of the intellectual currents circulating around the New Left. There was the same notion of a form of unspoken warfare throughout society that had yet to manifest itself but might break out once the victims understood their situation. What was different with Foucault was that rather than focus on questions of class struggle and revolutionary politics, which he seemed to find passé,he focused instead on the “specific struggles against particularized power” of “women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients and homosexuals.”27 When lecturing in 1976, while the spirit of ’68 was still fresh, he was impressed by the “dispersed and discontinuous offensives” within Western societies during the previous decade. The “increasingly autonomous, decentralized, and anarchistic character of contemporary forms of political struggle” suited his method. He referred to the “antipsychiatry movement” which had “helped in opening up the space of the asylum for social and political critique.” At this time he was becoming involved in a movement giving voice to prisoners. His project was about the “desubjugation and liberation of disqualified peoples and their knowledges.” One of Foucault’s lasting impacts lay in the recognition that the plight of individuals at the margins of society, often in institutions where they had been placed for their own safety and that of society, were part of power relationships which could and should not be beyond challenge.

Foucault’s theories made it possible to undermine established power structures without mounting physical challenges, but instead analyzing the “specificity of mechanisms of power . . . locate the connections and extensions . . . build little by little a strategic knowledge.”28 It could be argued, at least on the evidence of Foucaldian scholarship, that the language by which discourses were analyzed could obscure as much as illuminate, and be of little practical help to subjugated groups.29 Moreover, while this was a way into understanding power relationships, it raised its own difficulties by bypassing questions of agency and structure, the intent of individuals, and the role of force. So much was loaded on his concept of power, and indeed of strategy, that these concepts risked losing any precise meaning. When everything, whether a written communication or a pattern of behavior, could be considered as strategy, then nothing was worth considering because the term was losing its meaning. Playing down coercive power might be sensible for subjugated groups. Seeking a liberating discourse should be safer. But in the end, force could still be an arbiter of struggles.


The word which came to describe the essential instrument in the battles over ideas was not discourse but narrative. During the 1990s, this became a requirement for any political project: explaining why a political movement or party deserved to be taken seriously and conveying its core messages. This was based on another set of ideas that could be traced back to the radical intellectual ferment in France of the late 1960s that saw the concept move from being literary and elaborate to elemental and at the heart of all social interaction. It gained traction from reflecting evident aspects of human behavior as well as the better understanding of the workings of the brain.

Until the late 1960s, narrative was still largely to be found in literary theory, referring to works distinguished by a character telling of an event (rather than a stream of consciousness or some interaction between personalities).30 It moved into wider theory under the influence of the French post-structuralists. They rejected the idea of meaning as a reflection of the intention of an author but instead insisted that texts could support a range of meanings, depending on the circumstances in which they were read. With every reading there could be a new meaning. A key figure in this group, with whom Foucault was linked, was the literary theorist Roland Barthes. He pushed the idea of the narrative to the fore, moving it away from purely literary texts into all forms of communication. There were, he wrote in 1968, “countless forms of narrative,” including “articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving, gestures, and an ordered mixture of all those substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, drama . . . comedy, pantomime, paintings . . . stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation.” It was to be found “at all times, in all places, in all societies.” There had “never been anywhere, any people without narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories, and very often those stories are enjoyed by men of different and even opposite cultural backgrounds: narrative remains largely unconcerned with good or bad literature. Like life itself, it is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural.”

Not only were there an “infinite number of narratives,” they could be considered from many vantage points, including history, psychology, sociology, ethnology, and aesthetics. Barthes believed it possible to identify common structures through deductive theory.31 The next year another member of this group, Tzvetan Todorov, introduced “narratology,” which involved distinguishing the component parts of a narrative and considering the relationships between them. What was narrated was the story, a sequence of events with characters, held together by a plot line that gave it structure and explained causation—why the events occurred when they did. Discourse described the presentation of the story, what determined its eventual appearance to an audience.

By the late 1970s, there was talk of a “narrative turn” in social theory. A recollection of a conference at the University of Chicago in 1979 spoke of an “aura of intellectual excitement and discovery, the common feeling that the study of narrative, like the study of other significant human creations, has taken a quantum leap in the modern era.” It was “no longer the province of literary specialists or folklorists borrowing their terms from psychology and linguistics but has now become a positive source of insight for all the branches of human and natural science.”32 It was later reported how during the 1980s the social sciences became caught up in a “wave of theorizing about narratives,” inspired by the belief that analyzing the stories people told would provide vital insights into how they lived their lives.33

Narratives were often described as being interchangeable with stories, and stories could be extremely simple. The argument that anything could count as a story reflected their importance in basic human communication. Mark Turner argued that life would be chaotic without simple stories turning pieces of information into a coherent pattern. Even babies developed links between containers, liquid flows, mouths, and taste in a story that eventually became entitled “drinking.” With only partial information, these simple stories facilitated imagining the next step or what happened before. Narrative imagining, argued Turner, was fundamental both to our ability to explain and our ability to predict.34 William Calvin suggested a close relationship between our ability to plan and our construction of narratives. “To some extent, we do this by talking silently to ourselves, making narratives out of what might happen next and then applying syntax-like rules of combination to rate a scenario as unlikely, possible or likely.”35

Here was a concept that could explain how meaning was given to lives and relationships and how the world was understood. It fit in with theories of cognition and accounts of culture. The narrative turn therefore captured the uncertain confidence about what was actually known, the fascination with the variety of interpretations that could be attached to the same event, and the awareness of the choices made when constructing identity. It highlighted the importance of human imagination and empathy while challenging the idea of a perfect knowledge of an external reality.

Soon the academic interest in narrative found its way into the public domain. Psychologists used narratives as forms of therapy, lawyers employed them in their efforts to move juries, and claimants needed them when seeking redress. Over time, the self-conscious use of narratives extended to all types of political actors. Initially the major interest appears to have been among radical groups and others who were seeking to compensate for a lack of material resources. It was another way the weak could take on the strong: less muscle but better stories. A battle of narratives was to be preferred to a real battle. Eventually any political project, from whatever part of the spectrum, demanded its very own narrative.

The narratives could have a number of functions: means by which support could be mobilized and directed, solidarity sustained and dissidents kept in line, strategies formulated and disseminated. Their role, not always particularly deliberate, could be detected in the movements coming out of the counterculture, such as those demanding rights for women and gays and other marginalized groups. Their use gained credence from Foucauldian type analysis, using stories of victimhood, humiliation, and resistance to let people in similar situations gain strength from being part of a wider movement, linking their private frustrations with a public cause.

They would challenge stories firmly embedded in the culture, casting doubt on their veracity and fairness. As early as the 1950s, for example, Native Americans began to object to the classic westerns, which pitched brave cowboys against savage Indians. Italian Americans complained about their image being dominated by mobster movies. The civil rights movement depended on the contrast between the comfortable presentations of the American dream and the black experience. The black singer Paul Robeson deliberately changed the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” from “I gets weary and sick of trying, I’m tired of living and scared of dying” to “I keep trying instead of crying, I must keep fighting or else I’m dying.”36 In this case there was an established sense of oppression, and the question was whether much could be done about it. Many of the movements of the late 1960s began with far less clarity about whether personal feelings of frustration could be translated into political action. Here autobiographical stories could help otherwise disparate individuals find common cause through their shared experiences. In 1972 in the first issue of Ms., a magazine for the women’s movement, an article by Jane O’Reilly described the immediate understanding a group of women had to another’s story. This was the “click,” a moment of recognition, “that parenthesis of truth around a little thing that completes the puzzle of reality in women’s minds—the moment that brings a gleam our eyes and means the revolution has begun.” Soon “click” had become a “feminist term of art,” a way of referring to a shared understanding of the deeper meaning of an apparently banal comment.37

Narratives describing social situations from the perspectives of those who in the past might have been belittled or marginalized found their way into more established literary forms, such as novels, movies, and even situation comedies. Black and gay characters were shown in positive lights, women were expected to be more assertive, and male assertiveness and insensitivity was often derided. Especially on TV, the story-telling might be controlled, with the progressive themes sanitized so as to render the new characters safe and unthreatening. There was no single, approved narrative of what it meant to be a “liberated” woman or a gay man operating among “straights.” It was easier to confront white prejudice when the victims epitomized goodness, for example, a figure such as Sidney Poitier as the idealistic physician in the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It took some time before the full complexity of black experience and its encounters with white society could be portrayed. Change of this sort was only barely politically directed or controlled, although political leaders were obliged to give their views on where it all might be leading. So the process was nothing so simple as one paradigm or narrative being changed for another. The diversity of the contributions and their cumulative effects altered the terms of the debate, but this was not the result of any deliberate strategy.

According to David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, who were at the fore in exploring the new forms of politics made possible in the information age, stories could express “a sense of identity and belonging” and communicate “a sense of cause, purpose, and mission.” This would help a dispersed group cohere and guide their strategy. They knew the sort of action expected of them and the message to be conveyed.38 Within a movement, inspirational stories might be told to enthuse activists, exemplary ones to reinforce approved norms, and cautionary tales to warn of the danger of rash moves or deviations from the agreed line. In developing support, stories could be told to illustrate the core message and to undermine the claims of opponents. This also meant that internal arguments about strategy could take the form of debates over narratives. Those nervous about strategic departures might offer warnings based on reminiscences about how campaigns were waged in the past and how well they fared.

The greatest challenges came with attempts to influence those who were not natural supporters. As the concept moved into the political mainstream, there was talk of grand narratives as setting the basic terms in which a political group would wish to be identified, its aims and values, and its relationship to the issues of the day. Once this narrative was set, then individual episodes might be “spun” by specialist communicators known as “spin doctors,” who understood the media and made it their business to influence the daily news agenda and frame events.39 Convincing the public that the economy was really doing well when the latest data suggested the opposite, or that the murky past of a candidate for high office was irrelevant, required a keen sense of media methods and schedules, including how to time news announcements and brief key journalists. Such narratives were not necessarily analytical and, when not grounded in evidence or experience, could rely on appeals to emotion or suspect metaphors and dubious historical analogies. A successful narrative would link certain events while disentangling others, distinguish good news from bid tidings, and explain who was winning and losing.

The impact of these ideas, whether framing paradigms or discourses—or propaganda, consciousness, hegemony, belief-systems, images, constructs, and mind-sets for that matter—was to encourage the view that a struggle for power was at root a struggle to shape widely accepted views of the world. In the past, a similar understanding had led socialists to prepare for long campaigns of political education, conducted by means of pamphlets and lectures. This was now a media age and the opportunities to shape and disseminate opinions and presentations of the truth were now many and various. The techniques pioneered by Bernays, with his intuitive grasp of the importance of framing, now promised an even greater impact. The struggle over images and ideas did not become one between radicals and resisters but between mainstream political activists, with the beneficiaries in the first instance turning out to be the Right rather than the Left.

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