I read a couple of weeks ago that folk tales evolve in the same way as species do in biology. That is they follow a pattern of replication with variation that allows social scientists to use the same tools as the biologist to trace the family tree of a particular story to its origins. The example given in the article here was the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The analysis had pulled apart the story elements and explored how they were combined over centuries from disparate memes scattered across the globe. For example, the East Asian story has sisters at home alone when a tiger disguised as their grandmother knocks, is allowed in and sleeps with the sisters in their bed, eating the youngest whilst the older siblings manage to escape. The analysis shows that this is derived from the Western tale rather than being it’s progenitor. As we saw last week, stories carry meaning and evolve over time to reflect the social setting they inhabit.
This week (and next) I am going to encourage you to be more aware of story in everyday life. We are surrounded by many narratives – some of them obvious and explicit, many disguised and implicit – and the organiser needs to become attuned to the meaning of the stories told in their community. Stories – such as myths, legends and folk tales – reach back to pre-history and as we saw in my earlier post, often have their origins in attempts to explain the world in supernatural terms.
A deeper structure
The work of Joseph Campbell has always fascinated me. An American ‘mythologist’, he wrote extensively on comparative mythology and religion. He came to the conclusion that all great legends from across time and space are variations on a single ‘monomyth’. This underlying structure to all myth takes the form of a Hero’s Journey (illustrated right) and can be seen at work today as much as in ancient times. Campbell outlined his findings in his great work The Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949. He was deeply influenced by the psychological insights of Carl Jung who showed the importance of archetypes and the collective unconscious in understanding human experience. Campbell’s work has influenced many since, not least the creator of the Star Wars epics, George Lucas.
In organising, the community itself is the hero (or heroine) of their own Odyssey!
Whilst the community organiser is not devising myths for the modern world, nonetheless the structure of myth is instructive for the journey taken by communities and their leaders through their ‘adventure’. Organisers who are not aware of the shape of the network’s lived narrative may be confused or outraged when people respond in ways they do not expect. Our own actions can also be better attuned to the network’s inner story if we take account of the process through which the group is passing. In organising, the community itself is the hero (or heroine) of their own Odyssey! Story works at a deep level in organising as well as at the more superficial levels of our public narratives and we do well to be aware of its implications.
The stories we tell ourselves (and pass on to others in many unconscious ways) as organisers come from many sources. Our personal identity is shaped by the family ‘myths’ that are given us by our parents and close relatives – where we come from, how our parents met and how the family has lived before, how the feuds and friendships of the past are reflected today. Most of us understand ourselves in relation to a past that is only a partial reflection of the actual events, filtered and refracted through our parents’ perspectives. The truth of story however lies in its meaning and for most humans that is structured by our experience of our heritage, our place in the world defined by our parents’ expectations and by our peers’ norms. As we grow up, we create our sense of authenticity from choices to take on board or to reject our parents’ myths. We form our sense of self-belief out of a range of human factors such as our ethnic and national identity, our allegiances and convictions as well as our encounters with other people who shock or inspire us.
We create our sense of authenticity from choices to take on board or to reject our parents’ myths.
Organisers are fundamentally working with community identity. Shaping people’s expectations of the world, sharing our hope of change and belief in the power of collective action. Our self-belief, our authenticity and humanity all derive from our ability to tell ourselves and others an empowering story. If we can’t believe in ourselves as the hero (or heroine) of our own story, we will not be able to give meaning to the actions of the network. The inner life of the organiser is seldom considered but plays a crucial role in building the values and culture of the network. We know now that in defence of our dignity we remember only in ways that set us in a positive light. Even manifold failures are reimagined as minor obstacles soon overcome. Our self-image is very fragile and highly defended. Our capacity for resilience in later life is deeply influenced at neurological levels by our early life experience and our participation in social networks gives us many of the clues as to how we should behave today.
Meaning and process
I hope this discussion has sparked reflections on your own experience of story – in your family, your ‘clan’, your neighbourhood. Thinking about the influence of narrative on our community life starts from recognising the impact that stories have on our own perception of ourselves. The deeper sense of story as community journey can have profound ramifications on our practice as organisers and give us an understanding of the dynamics at work in neighbourhoods, often hidden from participants. We fail our friends and neighbours if we do not attend to the ways in which people work with change and understand their own and each other’s stories.
Next time: Story is all around us. Powerful institutions use narrative to persuade us that their way is the right way; we can use the narrative of the people to counteract these controlling myths. Story provides us with identity as families, groups, nations and even neighbourhoods.
Joseph Campbell (2004) The Hero with a Thousand Faces Available here as a pdf
Anthony Stephens (2001) Jung – A Very Short Introduction Oxford
Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended
Daniel Hunter (2013) Strategy and Soul – a campaigner’s tale of fighting billionaires. corrupt officials and Philadelphia casinos Hyrax