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The Narrative Paradigm

Fisher's Narrative Paradigm offers new insights into communication behavior and directs our attention to democratic processes in the area of rhetorical criticism. Fisher contributes the sense that people's lived experiences make them capable of analyzing rhetoric. Further, the Narrative Paradigm helps us to see the nature of multiple logics at work in our communication encounters. Thus, the Narrative Paradigm has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of human communication and human nature in general.

Yet, it also has attracted a great deal of criticism and revision. Given that it is a relatively recent theoretical framework (Fisher's first conceptualization of the theory appeared in 1978), this is to be expected. In fact, the dialogue stimulated by the claims of the Narrative Paradigm may be seen as healthy growing pains for the discipline. The critique of the Narrative Paradigm falls into four major categories: (1) the breadth of the theory's coverage, (2) the conservative nature of the framework, (3) its failure to remain consistent to its claims of democracy, and (4) its failure to actually provide an alternative to the rational world paradigm. We will briefly discuss each of these criticisms.

The critique that the Narrative Paradigm is too broad mainly focuses on Fisher's claim that all communication is narrative. Researchers object to that claim for two reasons: First, some have questioned the utility of a definition that includes everything. How meaningful is the definition of narrative if it means all communication behavior? Further, how testable is a theory that is so broad and inclusive? Second, some researchers, notably Robert Rowland (1987; 1989), suggest that some forms of communication are not narrative in the way that Fisher maintains. According to Rowland, science fiction and fantasy do not conform to most people's values. Rather, these genres often challenge existing values. Further, Rowland questions the utility of considering a novel (such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon) and a political pamphlet (such as one produced by the Committee on the Present Danger) both as narratives. Although both tell stories about the repressive character of the Soviet system, they do so in such different ways that Rowland believes it does a disservice to both writings to place them in the same category. Further, it complicates our understanding of the definition of narrative when two such disparate examples can both be labeled as narrative.

The second critique deals with the conservative bias inherent in the narrative approach. William Kirkwood (1992) observes that Fisher's logic of good reasons focuses on prevailing values and fails to account for the ways in which stories can promote social change. In some ways, both Kirkwood and Fisher agree that this observation is more of an extension to the theory than a punishing critique. Fisher (1987) claims that humans are inventive and that we can accept new stories when they appeal to us. In this process we can change our values rather than demand that stories simply confirm our existing values. To a degree, Miles changed his values regarding the importance of voting and involvement in student life as a result of Jorge's narratives.

The last two criticisms of the Narrative Paradigm take it to task for failing to live up to its claims. Rowland (1987) finds that the narrative approach does not actually provide a more democratic structure compared to the hierarchical system espoused by the rational world paradigm, nor does it completely offer an alternative to that paradigm. Rowland says that Fisher overstates the problem of domination of the public by the elite, or by the expert, in the rational world paradigm. Additionally, Rowland argues that "there is nothing inherent in storytelling that guarantees that the elites will not control a society" (p. 272).

Despite criticisms, which primarily urge refinements of the theory, not its abandonment, Fisher's Narrative Paradigm has contributed a great deal to the study of human communication. Fisher has provided a new paradigm for understanding human nature, squarely located in the symbolic realm of communication. The idea that humans are essentially storytellers is a captivating one. Storytelling seems an apt metaphor for understanding how humans use communication to make sense of the world (Opt, 1988). Future scholarship will extend the framework of the Narrative Paradigm to remediate its shortcomings and capitalize on its strengths. In constructing the Narrative Paradigm, Fisher has provided a rich framework for such scholarship to take place.

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