Beware the 'single story' - how we can frame master and counter narratives in stories (2022)

Beware the 'single story' - how we can frame master and counter narratives in stories (1)

(Video) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED

By Matt Sheehan and Annie Neimand

Narratives clearly have the power to persuade and impact the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of audiences.¹ However, narratives as tools aren’t neutral. They can be used to persuade people for positive aims such as justice, equality, and sustainability, but they can also be used to build support for terrorism, authoritarianism, and violence.²

Like the types of plots within narratives, many narratives can be placed into groups as well. Researchers call recurring narrative arcs “master narratives” and they play a large role in the how we perceive the world around us. Scholar Michael Dahlstrom writes: “Cultivation theory describes this influence of [narratives in entertainment] on public perceptions about the world. For example, although less than one percent of Americans are victims of violent crime, ∼70 percent of broadcast network television shows characters engaged as either a victim or perpetrator of such violence.”³ As a result, audiences may believe the world is more violent than it actually is.

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Popular stories and narratives play a large role in how we see the world. Using the example above, it’s easy to recognize why many Americans may be concerned about violent crime despite the fact that the data shows the threats to themselves personally may not be as grave as they perceive.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares two experiences from her life in a popular TED talk that demonstrate the danger of a master narrative, or what she refers to as “a single story.”⁴ She shares that as a child growing up in Nigeria she used to read a lot of English and American children’s literature. When she started writing her own stories at age 7, she wrote characters who were white, blue eyed, played in the snow, ate apples and talked about how lovely it was that the sun had come out. All of those experiences were foreign to her in Nigeria, but because they were in the books that she read she believed that was the way things were supposed to be. Later, when she went to college in America, she shared how disappointed her roommate was when she asked Adichie to share her “tribal music” and they listed to a tape of Mariah Carey — breaking from her roommate’s single story of life in Nigeria.

These single stories, or master narratives, can have a damaging effect on the veracity of narratives among certain populations, or could have a negative sociological effect by reinforcing stereotypes that could stigmatize certain populations. We have certainly seen this in news stories about refugees who are often portrayed as a threat or burden to society or in popular films where the villains are often played by men of color. These stories create a single story in the mind of the audience about that population, absent of complexity, diversity and nuance, and as a result, reinforce stereotypes and biases.

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Narratives that don’t conform to these master narratives are called counter narratives and are an emerging tool to increase the power of our storytelling. Social movement activists and organizations often work to create and amplify counternarratives about a particular issue or population to challenge cultural stereotypes and create new ways of seeing the world. Undocumented students in Chicago tell personal stories to build connections with other undocumented kids and to change how to world sees them.⁵ Black Twitter regularly shares personal stories to combat stereotypical news coverage of police violence toward the black community through campaigns like #iftheygunnedmedown and #sayhername. As Nick Wing describes #iftheygunnedmedown on Huffington Post, “users posted side-by-side photos, demonstrating the power that news outlets wield in portraying victims based on images they select.”⁶ Doing so called out the master narrative on black victims of of police violence and while also replacing that narrative with a narrative that breaks stereotypes and biases.

We can also see counternarratives in popular media. Television shows like FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s Insecure, and Academy Award-winning films like Get Out and Moonlight are providing counter narratives of what it is like to be a young black adult in America. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black was groundbreaking in changing the dominant narrative on the lives and issues affecting incarcerated women. And documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc., that tell stories about the food industry and how what we eat impacts our bodies and the environment, are changing how people think about health and consumption.

The study of counternarratives in communications is relatively new. However, the term counternarrative is already in use in other fields like critical race theory,⁷ feminist and gender studies⁸ and education⁹. There, scholars use counternarrative to describe how oppressed people use stories to establish their own understandings of themselves and their history in a way that runs counter to the traditional historical narrative, as well as how narratives can oppress marginalized populations.

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Recently, scholars have begun to turn their attention to the development of counternarratives that work to counteract harmful narratives. They do this by tapping into the same attitudes and beliefs that make harmful narratives persuasive for some groups of people, such as those being recruited for terrorism.¹⁰ They then supplant the harmful narrative with a new narratives featuring beneficial outcomes.

To build support for women’s right to vote, suffragists often played into dominant conceptions of womanhood in order to resonate with and not threaten societal norms, while at the same time told stories that pushed society to see new possibilities for women as political actors. For example, suffragists often held parades in public settings. During these parades, they would act out Joan of Arc narratives to show that women could embody political strength while adhering to feminine ideals. These parades were designed to articulate their goals, demonstrate their capacity to participate in civic life, attract the attention of the press, and build support among the public and government officials. While they played into a master narrative on women’s role in society, they leveraged it to introduce a new narrative that helped others imagine women as political actors.¹¹ Their chosen color of white also reinforced their purity, a master narrative they used to their advantage as they argued that their moral authority made their voices critical to the electoral process.

As Adichie closed in her TED talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

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It’s important to recognize that master narratives are fluid, and that by trying to break one, we can create a new one that may also be harmful. The organizations in the humanitarian sector working to protect and serve refugees, for example, seeks to break away from the master narrative in the news media that refugees as a threat or burden by telling stories that show refugees are just like you and me, but need help to have a better life. They tell stories of refugees seeking to better themselves through education and giving back to their host communities. However, we suspect that many of these stories situate refugees as helpless beneficiaries of donors. As a result, a new master narrative of refugees as helpless and destitute has emerged.

A great example of a refugee counter narrative comes from Fusion. Watch this story of a Syrian dancer. How does his story break away from stereotypes and overused plot structures? What are the deceptive cadences and the unexpected emotions? How do the filmmakers leave space for us in his story, while also creating full spaces to replace our assumptions and potential biases?

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Citations:

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  1. Braddock, K., & Dillard, J. P. (2016). Meta-analytic evidence for the persuasive effect of narratives on beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. Communication Monographs, 83(4), 446–467.
  2. Braddock, K., & Horgan, J. (2016). Towards a Guide for Constructing and Disseminating Counternarratives to Reduce Support for Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 39(5), 381–404. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2015.1116277
  3. Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13614–13620.
  4. Adichie, C. N. (2009). The danger of a single story. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
  5. Swerts, T. (2015). Gaining a voice: storytelling and undocumented youth activism in Chicago. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 20(3), 345–360.
  6. Wing, N. (2017, December 07). When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/media-black-victims_n_5673291.html
  7. Harper, S. R. (2009). Niggers no more: a critical race counternarrative on Black male student achievement at predominantly White colleges and universities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6), 697–712. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390903333889
  8. Jupp, J. C. (2013). What are white progressive masculinities? Counternarratives and contradictions of committed white male teachers in inner-city schools. Gender and Education, 25(4), 413–431. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2013.770827
    Lal, J. (2011). (Un)becoming women: Indian factory women’s counternarratives of gender. The Sociological Review, 59(3), 553–578. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02026.x
    Thoreson, R. (2013). Beyond equality: The post-apartheid counternarrative of trans and intersex movements in South Africa. African Affairs, 112(449), 646–665. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adt043
  9. Schroeter, S. (2013). “The way it works” doesn’t: theatre of the oppressed as critical pedagogy and counternarrative. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(4), 394.
  10. Cobb, S. (2013) Speaking of Violence the Politics and Poetics of Narrative Dynamics in Conflict Resolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  11. Borda, J. L. (2002). The woman suffrage parades of 1910–1913: Possibilities and limitations of an early feminist rhetorical strategy. Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports), 66(1), 25–52.

FAQs

What are the dangers of the master narrative and single story? ›

These single stories, or master narratives, can have a damaging effect on the veracity of narratives among certain populations, or could have a negative sociological effect by reinforcing stereotypes that could stigmatize certain populations.

What is the main message of Adichie's talk What is the danger of a single story ?)? ›

Adichie argues that single stories often originate from simple misunderstandings or one's lack of knowledge of others, but that these stories can also have a malicious intent to suppress other groups of people due to prejudice (Adichie).

What does it mean by the danger of a single story? ›

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

What is an example of a master narrative? ›

The American dream: success through hard work, determination, going to school, going to college, choosing a major, getting a career, getting married, having a child, buying a house – that's a Master Narrative. It's a script that tells us how to live our life.”

Why is it important to tell more than a single story? ›

The risk of the single story, the one perspective, is that it can lead us to default assumptions, conclusions and decisions that may be incomplete, and may lead to misunderstanding. Operating from the context of a single story can prevent us from a more complex, nuanced view of a situation.

Why are counter narratives important? ›

The effect of a counter-narrative is to empower and give agency to those communities. By choosing their own words and telling their own stories, members of marginalized communities provide alternative points of view, helping to create complex narratives truly presenting their realities.

What is the main point that Adichie makes in her TED talk when she describes her experience of reading Western children's books? ›

What is the main point that Adichie makes in her TED talk when she describes her experience of reading Western children's books? She is emphasizing that the characters are similar to her.

What does the author mean when she refers to a single story? ›

The "single story" is the one biased view that is often warped and persuades the audience; it is strongly opinionated and stereotyped.

How can we avoid the danger of a single story? ›

Here are three key ways to avoid the dangerous single story when building and maintaining personal and professional relationships. Read. Listen. Absorb.

What are examples of single stories? ›

Adichie gave several examples of the single story in action: The single story of Africa as a place of catastrophe; the single story of Mexicans as “abject immigrants;” the single story of poor people “as [nothing] else but poor.”

What means single story? ›

A single story is a one sided point of view of something or someone. Single stories have the power to tell false interpretations of the actual story. In a TED talk, Chimamanda's roommate was surprised on how well she knew English.

What happens when we reject the single story? ›

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the danger of single stories as well as the value of seeing beyond them: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place (or person), we regain a kind of paradise.” Question the stories you tell about yourself and others.

What is a master narrative in a story? ›

Master narratives have been defined as “culturally shared stories that guide thoughts, beliefs, values, and behaviors” (McLean & Syed, 2015, p. 323).

What is a counter narrative mean? ›

Definition of counternarrative

: an alternative or contradictory narrative Theirs was a counternarrative that contrasted starkly with the assessments of military commanders who lauded the operation as a triumph.—

Whats a master narrative? ›

A master narrative is a transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture. All master narratives are narratives, but not all nar- ratives are master narratives. This complex definition of two of our key terms and how they relate to one another requires some further unpacking.

Who is the target audience of the danger of a single story? ›

The audience of this talk is potentially large and varied, including both the people attending the TED conference and the people who access the speech online. Adichie engages her audience by using a neutral and accessible language.

What role does power play in constructing a single story? ›

What role does POWER play in constructing a single story? The people in power give voice only to the oppressed. The people in power cannot be influenced by the effect of a single story. The people in power tell the story that best suits their interests, and control its content and distribution.

What kind of stories did Adichie read and write as a child? ›

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they ...

What is a master narrative quizlet? ›

A master narrative is a person which is white and male, who would tell a story about history through their point of view.

What is an example of Counternarrative? ›

Examples of counter-narratives may include point-by-point takedowns of extremist arguments, personal stories told by former extremists, lectures and sermons denouncing violence, and multimedia campaigns created by individual activists and organizations.

What is grand narrative in literature? ›

A metanarrative (also meta-narrative and grand narrative; French: métarécit) in critical theory—and particularly in postmodernism—is a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience, or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealized) master idea.

How does Adichie describe the characters in her early writings? ›

Adichie tells us that the characters in her early writings reflected the kind of characters she came across in the books she read. They were white, had blue eyes, played in the snow, ate apples and talked frequently about how lovely the weather was. Was this answer helpful?

What does a balance of stories mean? ›

Creating a balance of stories

Rather than simply emphasise our differences, we can use a balance of stories to reveal not only differences but also our similarities. Everyone's life, and everyone's wider culture, is composed of multiple overlapping stories.

What connection does the author draw between British American and African stories? ›

What connection does the author draw between British, American and African stories? British and American stories are more readily available across the world, while African writers and their stories are less accessible in other countries.

What is stereotype explain? ›

A stereotype is a widely held, simplified, and essentialist belief about a specific group. Groups are often stereotyped on the basis of sex, gender identity, race and ethnicity, nationality, age, socioeconomic status, language, and so forth. Stereotypes are deeply embedded within social institutions and wider culture.

What is the difference between story and storey? ›

Is it Story or Storey? Both story and storey are correct. Story is the American spelling for a building's horizontal level with more than one floor, while storey is the British preferred spelling with the same definition. Story can also mean a narrative or series of events.

How does Adichie begin her speech? ›

Adichie begin her speech by narrating her childhood habit of reading and writing at an early age. The striking feature about it is that it's quite different from what one would have normally expected from the introduction of a speech with the title 'The Danger of a Single Story'.

Who came up with the master narrative? ›

Master narrative, metanarrative, metadis-course, and grand narrative, as expounded by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924–98), are broadly synonymous terms which refer to totalizing social theories or philosophies of history which, appealing to notions of transcendental and universal truth, purport to ...

What is the narrative approach in ethics? ›

Narrative ethics is an approach that focuses on personal identity through story, and particular events in the life story of the individual or community. These form a basis for ethical reflection and learning, both for individuals or groups. In many respects it resembles or presupposes virtue ethics.

What is a master narrative in PR? ›

What is a Master Narrative? A master narrative is how you articulate your fundamental brand promise. Think of it as a strategic guide that provides the focus your brand needs to develop and launch a long-term communications plan.

What is alternative narrative? ›

Alternative narratives are positive, pluralist or progressive narratives based on the intercultural principles and respect for human rights. In the time of fake news, polarisation of debates, hate speech and dividing discourses, they are powerful tools to help the Intercultural Cities to speak up and tell their story.

What is dominant perspective? ›

Dominant narrative can be used to describe the lens in which history is told by the perspective of the dominant culture. This term has been described as an "invisible hand" that guides reality and perceived reality.

What is a counternarrative critical race theory? ›

In their groundbreaking work on critical race theory of education, Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) defined counter-narratives as “naming one's own reality” or “voice” by critical race theorists through “parables, chronicles, stories, counterstories, poetry, fiction and revisionist histories to illustrate the false ...

What is the difference between a narrative and metanarrative? ›

What is Grand Narrative, or Metanarrative? - YouTube

How do you write a PR narrative? ›

It's critical to control your narrative.
...
Here are some basic tips.
  1. Identify your brand story. ...
  2. Work with a professional writer. ...
  3. Make a list of reporters and media companies in your area. ...
  4. Send your list of contacts the big pitch. ...
  5. Create relationships and offer free content. ...
  6. Pay to play.
7 Jul 2017

What is a metanarrative in simple terms? ›

/ˈmetənærətɪv/ (formal) ​a type of play, novel, etc. that experiments with or explores the idea of telling a story, often by drawing attention to the fact that it is an invented story, not an account of real events.

What is the danger of a single story when teaching or learning social studies? ›

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

How can you avoid the danger of a single story? ›

Here are three key ways to avoid the dangerous single story when building and maintaining personal and professional relationships. Read. Listen. Absorb.

What is a single story narrative? ›

A single story is a one sided point of view of something or someone. Single stories have the power to tell false interpretations of the actual story.

What is the main point that Adichie makes in her TED talk when she describes her experience of reading Western children's books? ›

What is the main point that Adichie makes in her TED talk when she describes her experience of reading Western children's books? She is emphasizing that the characters are similar to her.

What does the author mean when she refers to a single story? ›

The "single story" is the one biased view that is often warped and persuades the audience; it is strongly opinionated and stereotyped.

What role does power play in constructing a single story? ›

What role does POWER play in constructing a single story? The people in power give voice only to the oppressed. The people in power cannot be influenced by the effect of a single story. The people in power tell the story that best suits their interests, and control its content and distribution.

What are some examples of single stories? ›

Adichie gave several examples of the single story in action: The single story of Africa as a place of catastrophe; the single story of Mexicans as “abject immigrants;” the single story of poor people “as [nothing] else but poor.”

Who is the audience of the danger of a single story? ›

Therefore, the main audience was formed by the people attending the conference, and some of them are visible in the video. Throughout the talk, the audience appears attentive and responsive as they applaud and laugh.

What happens when we reject the single story? ›

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the danger of single stories as well as the value of seeing beyond them: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place (or person), we regain a kind of paradise.” Question the stories you tell about yourself and others.

How does Adichie begin her speech? ›

Adichie begin her speech by narrating her childhood habit of reading and writing at an early age. The striking feature about it is that it's quite different from what one would have normally expected from the introduction of a speech with the title 'The Danger of a Single Story'.

What is a single story house? ›

(of a building) having only one floor or level.

What is the main point of the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? ›

The main topic of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk “The danger of a single story” is how single stories can lead people to develop prejudiced ideas. The talk also discusses the influence literature has on the way people view themselves and others, and how stories can be used to control narratives.

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