Monday, 6 June 2011

Cultural narrative and ideology

Running through my email this morning before starting the day I realise I have so much work that has to be done quite quickly that it is hard to prioritise and thus to start any of it. So here’s something that doesn’t have to be done urgently and yet appeals rather more, an email from a colleague:

Hi Tim
I was sent this question from one of my PhD students in Australia and I thought it would be something that would set you thinking:
Do you know what the difference might be between a cultural narrative and an ideology?
As ever, answers on a postcard!
Dr Bernie Carter
Professor of Children's Nursing

Well as is obvious from previous posts, I have the no expertise on this sort of thing and no proprietary rights on how any of the key words ought to be used (such as the rights that might accrue from having popularised a fruitful way to speak of ‘narrative’ or ‘ideology’). But what might the differences be? Or, perhaps better, what would one want a difference to do?

Assuming that there’s something right about the sociologist Daniel Bell’s description of action oriented political beliefs to capture the nature of an ideology, how does that line up with what a cultural narrative might be? Two thoughts spring to mind as to how one might weight that phrase. First, putting weight on ‘narrative’ might be to stress the idea that it is something that is actually told or repeated. Second one might stress its role in cultural identity.

So, a narrative repeated to forge an identity. One example of that might be Old Testament accounts of the tribes of Israel. There seems much evidence that such stories were told and retold and served to rationalise who the tellers and hearers were in eschatological terms. Another might be the way history seems to have been lived as present in Northern Ireland to keep alive both rival community identities and to maintain a set of ongoing, but historically grounded, grievances.

A third example is the repetition of John Major’s thought (or at least a thought like this one) “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.” I suspect that almost no part of this is generally true of Britain (‘warm beer’ for example, suggests that John Major didn’t actually drink real ale) but it serves – for some at least – as a kind of cultural ideal.

I could imagine that a culture or community or population could frame a cultural narrative in the terms of a political ideology: a country, perhaps, in the grip of a social revolution seeing the revolution as a kind of teleological inevitability. But in the main, surely ideology and cultural narrative will look quite different? No UK political party has explicitly campaigned for cricket grounds, warm beer and bicycling old maids (it is always the economy, stupid). But John Major clearly wanted us implicitly to associate preserving the values linked to that list with his party.