Narrative: A Personal Theory of Power

Creation, interpretation, manipulation and communication of narrative as foundational to all forms of power.

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” —Winston Churchill

During the Afghan intra-mujahedeen wars of the mid-1990s, various ethnic and ideological groups allied and subsequently defected from alliances multiple times, but these cleavages occurred not across typical belief-based lines of demarcation. Often, Afghan communists would join with radical Islamists and then later split and form a new coalition with moderate secularists. Though many dynamics were at play in this conflict, the group leaders expertly manipulated narratives (stories we tell ourselves and others about events) to appease their members and legitimize their changing alliances. Group leaders constantly altered the stories about why and how they fought in order to maintain the support of followers, while still making needed alliances with strange ideological bedfellows.

Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni. (BBC News)

Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni. (BBC News)

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently began walking back decades of apologetic World War II narrative that legitimized the Japanese military as a solely defensive force. He visited the Yasukuni shine that honors war dead, including many accused by the Chinese government of having committed war crimes. Slowly but purposefully shifting the narrative of Japan’s historic role as a regional military power continually garners him more support for expanding the mission of Japanese forces.

Narratives are ubiquitous at the individual, state and international levels. Whether acknowledged, unacknowledged or ignored, these stories provide the backbone for almost all aspects of life: consent for governance, currency, nationalism, rule of law, ontology, etc. Narratives necessarily carry power since those who craft, interpret, translate, manipulate and communicate these stories are able to shape the understanding, ideology and motivations of a population: Vladimir Putin portrays himself as the benevolent savior of repressed Crimean Russians; Hugo Chavez garnered massive support by taking up the cause of the repressed underprivileged masses; Narendra Modi excites an Indian nation by consistently portraying himself as a bulwark against corruption. Those who can effectively craft, manipulate and communicate narratives garner a great deal of power. Three things are required: aggregation, analysis, and access.

Aggregation: A Propensity for Consent

At any level above the individual, narratives are useless without the formation of some group (cohesive or not) that will listen and act based on the stories they accept. Francois Jullien outlines well how peoples as varied as the East (China specifically) and West accept meaning from their situation and aggregate into groups based on how they view the world. These aggregations may be ideological, economic, national, ethnic, educational, class-based (among a great many others) but they share some form of common understandings or interests.

Roger Smith lists three main types of narratives as politicaleconomic and ethically constitutive and provides a method for analyzing the strength of the aggregation these narratives provide by looking at their “claim to allegiance” and “range of issues.” “American” might contain a strong claim to allegiance while being a member of the Rotary results in significantly less. Being a Russian citizen might incur narrative adherence across a very broad range of issues while association with organic foods incurs a more narrow focus.

Certainly, these group associations do not exist in a vacuum and are impure, subject to significant variation and other influences. The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan may have shared a common enemy, but to simply label the group or its members with a common identity would be to fall into the trap of reductionism. Nevertheless, an aggregate group of some form is necessary for the propagation of a narrative.

Analysis: Knowing the Systems at Play

IAD Framework (Ostrum 1992) used to conduct systems analysis

Narratives carry no influence upon a group if those communicating the story do not properly understand the interests, variables, actors and causal relationships at play in the open systems that make up the environment. When the UN attempted to force a narrative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s transition from war to stability in the mid-2000s, the top-down solution of national elections to create legitimacy utterly failed to generate lasting peace. The dominant conflict systems at play were far more locally sourced and any viable narrative needed to address these local problems of land disputes, tribal grievances and resource allocation. In US politics, the Tea Party, though passionately committed to specific policy perspectives, has failed to generate lasting support for its narratives. Without an appreciation of involved systems, narratives likely fail.

Access: Medium and a Voice

An aggregate group may exist, a leader may possess piercing understanding of the involved variables, but without a forum for communication, a narrative cannot take root. A multitude of local rebel leaders exist in the current Syrian civil war yet none of these have generated a support base beyond their individual constituency. There are simply too many voices clamoring to generate support for the rebel cause (though there are many highly diverse ideologies within these factions). Dietrich Bonheoffer passionately organized an internal resistance against Hitler in the second World War, yet his narrative of the evil in the Third Reich could not reach much of the German population because of the expected interception by government agents. Effective narrative requires access to generate real power.


Narratives certainly do not have a monopoly on power and the ideas presented here complement much of what has already been written about this topic. That said, the ability to craft, manipulate and communicate a narrative at the local, regional, national or international level provides a highly effective form of power. Leaders who can wield all three aspects of narrative: aggregation, understanding and access possess a great tool for influencing groups. Narrative is present in almost every other theory of power discussed in this project, and understanding its use is vital in understanding the nature of power.

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Header Image: Revolutionary War-era flag rich with narrative. (Wikipedia Commons)