Marshall Ganz on narratives and social movements

Live blogging from the workshop “From Social Network to Social Movement” at Harvard Law School. Marshall Ganz from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, presenting The role of narratives as leadership practice in social movements. You can also follow on Twitter: #HLSsocnetworks

Social movements are a form of association. Tocqueville studied the problem of individualism and he discovered the rich associational life in the US and found it encouraging for 3 reasons: 1) active associations brought individuals out of their silos and brought them together to learn their common interest 2) at least theoretically, the promise of democracy that equality of voice will balance the equality of resources: people coming together around a common interest can mobilize power 3) these associations were voluntary, freed from coercion, so they serve as crucibles for value renewal.

Social movements emerge as a result of purposeful actions of individuals to transform values into actions – they are collective, they are strategic, they are organized. They are initiated as a hopeful response to conditions being intolerable. In the US they have been major drivers of social and political reform.

You don’t make social movements without leadership: accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve purpose – it’s a social practice, it is not about charisma – under certain challenging conditions, for example when there is unpredictability. Myth of the charismatic leader which leads people: Civil Rights Movement – Dr King’s movement practiced by thousands of people – a critical density of leadership is required because social movements are so decentralized. They are models of distributive leadership. Five leadership tasks: 1) bringing people together around shared values, 2) around common interests in the forms of lateral relationship commitments 3) structured collaboration in the form of leadership teams or whatever structure appropriate 4) strategizing 5) action: making things happen on the ground.

The core mission of ‘narrative’ is the way in which we learn how to exercise agency, i.e. exercising choice under conditions of uncertainty. It is a moment which is both exilarating and frightening. We don’t exercise agency unless we are confronted with anxiety, something we have to deal with. Anxiety causes us to pay attention. Urgency is often what precipitates attention and anxiety in social movements. Also anger: what we believe the world ought to be and reality out there are different. We could respond by withdrawing into inaction, or develop curiosity, explore the issue further (see book “The Sentimental Citizen”). What initiates a plot in a narrative is a situation of uncertainty, as that is when we beging to pay attention and get engaged as agents. Because of this we learn to feel affectively not just cognitively. We learn experientially not just conceptually. The purpose is to make sth happen. Social movements have created agency where there was none. They make demands on hope, courage, risks because social change does not happen without these. Stories help us aquiring the capacity to act. Narratives used by Barack Obama: why did he do what he did, what are the life circumstances which brought him here, coupled with the hopefulness that people will need to have in order to act and become involved. The constructed stories are used to make people participant of the affective reality being communicated – it is not about giving a list of CV episodes. The “story of us” communicates the values which constitutes your group.

Social movements are not simply structures, set of relationships, they are narratives, which create identities and transcend the micro and the macro level, by tranforming both individuals and the world. Ganz says he is really interested to learn how this works in the context of new media. In the Obama campaign people were trained systematically in narrative construction and storytelling: why does this matter to you? why are you here? in order to equip people to articulate their moral sources of value (in the words of Taylor) so to feel empowered. YouTube was enormously powerful in the campaign as it showed people in action, it enabled an emphatetic relationship which is difficult to achieve in words.

*Liveblogging on this talk by my colleague Lokman Tsui available here.

About Corinna

Corinna di Gennaro (BSc LSE; MPhil, DPhil, Oxon) is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School.
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