Roundtable discussion: Narrative power & research

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Erika Perez-Leon, Director of Communications at On Think Tanks.]

What’s the  role of research, researchers and think tanks in contributing to narrative change? This session, organised by Oxfam and On Think Tanks, discussed key themes from the ‘Narrative Power and Collective Action’ publication (part 1 and part 2), and the role of think tanks in shaping or reinforcing narratives.

Speakers: Krizna Gomez (co-author of Be the Narrative) and Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)
Hosts: Caroline Cassidy (On Think Tanks) and Isabel Crabtree-Condor (Oxfam)

Key takeaways

Caroline Cassidy from On Think Tanks framed the session on the back of the publication, which features voices from across a range of sectors on what narrative change means to them, what can be done, and how we can take the conversation forward. Caroline then raised the question for the discussion: how can think tanks and research institutes get better at embedding this (narrative work), particularly at a time when we are facing really tough challenges in terms of social change and looking for positive outcomes. What is the role of research, researchers and think tanks in contributing to narrative change?

Isabel Crabtree-Condor from Oxfam shared that in her experience working on narratives she’s learned that narratives are not only in the purview of experts: we are all a part of it and are doing it daily through our work already. So, how can we do that more consciously? How can the knowledge that you have (as thinktankers) contribute to storytelling at scale on big issues or big ideas/ideals.

Contributing towards and amplifying new, inclusive, narratives is also one of the ways that we can collectively support positive change in society.

Isabel conducted all the interviews in the Narrative Power and Collective Change publication, and she found that the prevailing message from all those conversations is that narratives are a form of power. And narratives are so powerful because they act as activators: shortcuts, hidden code for our brain. We’re hard-wired for stories and the larger narratives that they feed into. 

Narratives are powerful and dynamic, and they often lurk beneath the surface like deep ocean currents. This means they are a bit outside our sphere of influence, individually and collectively. The positive news, however, is that just as narratives are about power, power is also not static. This means that narratives can be reinforced, reshaped or challenged.

Enrique Mendizabal from On Think Tanks connected all this to think tanks, framing his reflections around three main ideas:

  1. Narratives are important for think tanks because they can affect the context in which they work. They can affect them and what they can do.
  2. Narrative development, change or protection of narratives is a strategy that think tanks can pursue.
  3. Narratives have important consequences on many people, often on very vulnerable people.

Think tanks often present themselves as being neutral. However, this is not true: nobody is neutral, especially when dealing with issues of public interest. This concept of neutrality might hold true when you look at their publications individually. But when you look at their arguments over a long period of time- arguments that individual researchers or organisations communicate, develop and share- you start to see these narratives emerging. These are filled with concepts around emotions, politics, ethics, interests, morals, beliefs, etc. And these are clearly not neutral.

Narratives have important real-life consequences. They can affect allocation of resources, they can mobilise people to protest, they can embolden and power repression, and many other behaviours at personal, organisational or institutional level. Think tanks working at national and regional level need to be conscious of the responsibility in how they use narratives. 

Krizna Gomez from Be The Narrative reflected on her experience as a human rights lawyer working in a think and do tank.

In the world of social change and activists, there is not a lot of appreciation for the interaction between the world of evidence and research and analytical work, with the work of narrative building. This is a missed opportunity. Narrative work should be approached in a multi-disciplinary way.

The work that think tanks do can really contribute to narrative change:

  1. Where there is an overwhelming phenomenon that is being experienced by social change activists, think tanks can provide the analytical framework by which to construct narratives.
  2. Providing evidence: there is a lot of talk about evidence-based social change communications. This is not really obvious to a lot of activists who operate on assumptions vs the study of audiences, testing of strategies, etc. There is no evidence before, during or to test narratives.
  3. Providing activists skills to gather that evidence themselves.

Aidan Muller from Cast from Clay contributed to the discussion from their experience working with different audiences and the perception of the public on experts. They see that a lot of countries are no longer valuing the input of evidence or policy experts and expertise.

When such a big part of the population is no longer engaged with evidence-based policy we need to be asking questions of ourselves and how we let it get to this point.

Narratives are not neutral- they have a direction of travel. If we want to change narratives everyone has to point in the right direction, and eventually the direction of travel will change. 

Thomas Coombes from Hope Based Comms contributed to the discussion from his experience working in human rights.

We have to accept that we are never neutral in what we produce. Knowledge is power and the people who produce knowledge create power because their perspective becomes what is truth. Narratives can be so powerful that the sense of what’s common sense can be used to dismiss bold ideas for change.

Considering this, think tanks need to be honest and open about the values they’re trying to promote when they do their work, rather than claiming to be neutral arbiters of truth. Progressive values like kindness, empathy, compassion, and shared humanity are things that right now feel kind of naïve and soft. It feels hard to put them into the political space on the same platform as security or economic growth. But neuroscience and anthropology have shown that this is how humans operate. Think tanks can bring together these values to have more policy thinking based on the reality of how human beings operate.

 Laura Hankin from Rodeemos el Diálogo shared her perspective as a researcher, offering more questions to think about, and considering that one valuable element of research and researchers is their role as a critical friend asking those critical questions around ethics.

Narratives are about framing how we see the world, and we can’t be doing from looking solely from the outside: we need to put it as a conversation between everyone.

Narratives involve emotions and come from feelings. Changing narratives is about how we tap into emotions and feelings, not only to change them but also to recognise and value them- not dismissing narratives but recognising where they come from.

From the chatbox 


Change is all about narrative, by Caroline Cassidy

Just Labs, Be the Narrative

Changing Our Narrative about Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power

Measuring Narrative Change

Four Baskets: Necessary capacities for narrative change, by the Narrative Initiative

Twitter chat: Narrative Power and Collective Action

On public engagement, by Enrique Mendizabal

Instead of shrinking space, let’s talk about humanity’s shared future, by Thomas Coombes

Framing the Economy: How to win the case for a better system…

Questions and comments:

Narratives are…

  •  Narratives are the stories we believe to be true, and are often shy of challenging.
  • How we make ideas stick, how we can effectively transmit expertise and ideas to the wider public domain.
  • The stories and ideas we tell ourselves and others about how the world is or how it should be.
  • Stories that help make sense of, understand, and connect different aspects of an issue?
  • The most powerful narratives are rooted in values.
  • Narratives and stories make institutions more human, give them reasons to exist and see their work, and engage and connect with their publics. And everyone loves stories…part of human nature to understand the world.
  • Narratives are big, overarching stories through which we make sense of the world.
  • Stories that help us make sense of world around us and our community. They produce change by building ‘we’, ‘them’ and the rest.
  • A way of framing how we see the world and interact with others.
  • Important for all the reasons above, and because if we don’t establish our own compelling narratives, others will!
  • The frameworks which help us understand the world.
  • Important to convey complex information into simple language/method for all types of stakeholders to understand and make decisions. As a communicator, I attempt to use this tool often.

Do you think that, beyond providing analysis, evidence & skills, think tanks should also be engaging more (consciously) in strategic communications and narrative change in their own communications? Or is that a slippery slope and better left to advocacy organisations and activists?

Think tanks often have to work in short term project cycles, I also think that we can get better at recognising when larger advocacy movements or organisations are a target audience for the research and getting our evidence to them to use, as well as recognising when policymakers are the target audience and we want to try and affect change directly. Sometimes it may be both.

Should think tanks engage in narratives? Absolutely. ESPECIALLY think tanks. If think tanks did not engage in narratives, it reinforces the narrative of knowledge as the exclusive remit of elite circles, which include think tanks. Knowledge (and facts) become dismissed by the public as irrelevant or distant to their daily lives, and thus unimportant in governance and public policy.

1) its not just the right that exploits narratives, 2) narratives have long-term consequences – far beyond an individual recommendation (in fact a narrative can prevent us from looking for mistakes in our plans), and 3) they should not be seen as one more tool in the toolbox – far more important.

We also need to improve the narrative playing field with alternatives. With the sorry state of our ability to debate or have a dialogue about many important issues in society, it’s important to not just bash opposing views but listen and offer alternatives.

Watch the video to find out how the panel answered these questions.