Narrative Communities

10 Dec 2000 02:12

It's a bad name, and I apologize. What I have in mind are groups of people who self-consciously regard themselves as members of a community defined by believing a particular story, often enough a story which incorporates the founding, role and future of the community of believers. (Typically, the story is such that one would have to be irrational or perverse or both to believe it and to not at least want to belong to the community; the community is a rational reaction to the story.)

The obvious examples are religious congregations, but it's not too hard to find groups which, while they are communities of religious believers, are not communities of believers in any particular religious narrative; many traditional polytheisms, and branches of modern Hinduism, are of this sort. On the other hand, there are quite secular groups which are definitely narrative communities, for instance coteries of believers in the same conspiracy theory or account of UFO visitations.

Also, I mean "narrative" pretty strictly, i.e. pertaining to a story. Both Confucians and Muslims are communities of believers, but while there's nothing at all inconsistent about rejecting all accounts of Confucius's life while remaining a Confucian (odd, but not inconsistent), there is no sense to claiming to be a Muslim while at the same time denying that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the Messenger of the one true God, first receiving His revelation in a cave outside Mecca early in the seventh century A.D. (One might pretend to be a Muslim, even pretend for good reasons --- it seems that many of the philosophers of the Muslim world engaged in such pretense --- but that's different.)

So: what are the common characteristics of such narratives (beyond the fundamental one of inducing membership)? What constraints does membership-inducement put on the form and content of the narrative? How do such narratives propagate in societies? How (to speak sensu memetico) do they encourage their own transmittal, and inhibit variants (if they do)? What are the most common themes of such stories? The most effective? How do these correlate with social structure? How do narrative communities differ from those based on other ideologies? How abstract can the stories get?

Common forms: Millenarianism; conspiracy; the corruption of the nation; the re-awakening of the nation; the progress of the revolution; fall and redemption.

See also: Hannah Arendt; Conspiracy Theories; Cults, Enthusiasts; Joan Didion; Historical Materialism; History, Historiography, Uses of the Past; Memes; Millenarianism; Myths; Narratives; Nationalism; Prophecy; Revolutions and Revolutionaries; Sociology; Semiotics; Thought and Society