Narratives and the Institutional Imagination

Political scientist Catherine Fieschi argues that every country needs a good tale to help it adapt to change while maintaining a sense of collective identity.

Date Posted

14 Jun 2016


Issue 15, 14 Jun 2016

The word ‘narrative’ often has adverse effects on my audiences: a rolling of the eyes at best; switching off entirely, at worst. Most sit queasily trying to tame their allergy to a word that has become over-used and under-valued. This is a great shame.

But why should we care about stories? Well, think of the state of Europe at the moment: a European Union that has not been able to evolve a new narrative (beyond its post-war rationale as a guarantee of peace) has become hampered and weak, fragmented in the face of crises and unable to (re-)capture the allegiance of its own citizens. What if it did have a new narrative? Would it be able to cope with new forms of diversity, to turn new challenges into opportunities? The point is that in the absence of a strong, new narrative promulgated by institutions and shared by its people, across its diverse geographical and political landscapes, Europe is not coping. It is not re-inventing itself. It is not playing the role it should be playing on the world stage, and it is letting its own people down. That’s what happens in the absence of a narrative: no one can imagine themselves as part of a greater whole beyond short-term wins and losses, beyond their immediate circle of family and friends (people who are ‘like’ them). The absence of a narrative betrays the absence of the institutional imagination that allows us to plan our future together as we evolve — together.

The Importance of the Institutional Imagination

In his wonderful (and oft misunderstood) 1983 book Imagined Communities,1 the late Benedict Anderson pointed to the spread of print capitalism — not just the advent of the printing press, but also capitalism’s ability to circulate the results — as the point of origin of nationalism. Print capitalism, he argued, is what made “imagined communities” possible. In other words, it enabled human beings to think of themselves as connected despite time and distance.

Attributing the advent of national consciousness to the development of the printing press, Anderson traced all of the transformations unleashed by the latter: the circulation of ideas in cheaper and faster ways,the creation of communities of thought, the emergence of national languages and the development of secular allegiances which came to be seen as the defining features of modern nationalism. What Anderson highlights is the capacity of shared stories to create shared destinies.

Claus Offe further develops this idea in his well-known discussion about institutions: it is through institutions, he argues, that necessary moral codes and beliefs are generated — along with, more importantly, the most necessary of illusions for stable democratic societies: that I share something with people whom I have never met. That, as Offe puts it, “my anonymous fellow ‘citizens’ are actually trusted, ‘compatriots’”.2

My point here is that institutions and narratives go hand in hand: the narrative generates a sense of shared destiny; this is encoded, promulgated and upheld by institutions, who in turn strengthen the narrative, which in turn strengthens the institutions. The virtuous circle of a shared belonging needs both of these elements to be sustained. Institutions will not simply keep going if they are not fed by the imagination of the narrative, and narratives will not take root and play their full role, if they are not repeatedly upheld by active institutions committed to the narrative. What I have referred to as a virtuous circle is in fact a virtuous path: it moves forward as nation and state change and adapt to circumstances not necessarily of their own choosing. But it takes place within an institutional framework that is its own creation, fueled by an ever-evolving capacity to tend to and harness the stories of its people and weave them into a narrative.

The Elusive Nature of Narratives

Narratives are elusive creatures — try too hard to make one and citizens are quick to catch the whiff of propaganda. The ‘Britishness’ story under Gordon Brown is a good example of a narrative shoved down people’s throat: a barely disguised attempt to ‘graft’ a message on an existing narrative about tolerance and community with the result that (a) the graft never ‘took’ and, (b) people began to question the ‘official motives’.

Yet, let them run fallow, unsupported by institutions, and narratives cease to perform their binding function.

Narratives are also elusive in the sense that, when they work, they are difficult to distinguish from habits, conventions, stories, myths and institutions themselves. So how can we tell when we’re seeing, or hearing, a narrative?

A good narrative can account for failure, expansive enough to fold in individual misfortunes while maintaining its logic. The many and varied strands of stories within a narrative can successfully incorporate the things that don’t quite fit.

First, a narrative is not ‘ just a story’ — it is a system of stories that hang together and make sense of the way history has unfolded; But it also offers a glimpse of the future as somewhere different, yet to which one can still relate.

Second, it is as much about believing in how the stories relate to one another as it is about the stories themselves. A narrative weaves stories together to make sense of history and of the present and future, according to a set of values that provide an explanation for how a series of events needs to be understood and interpreted.

Third, a good narrative can account for failure, or at least for bumps in the road. It is expansive enough to fold in individual misfortunes while maintaining its logic. This is why the many and varied strands of stories within a narrative are important; because they can successfully incorporate the things that don’t quite fit. A good example would be the narrative of the American dream which can accommodate failure because its main thrust is that of adventure, and of people willing to seize their chance — rather than of success (which would have made it much more fragile). Still, there are enough stories of success that the narrative is effective in providing legitimacy and institutional momentum.

The minute a narrative becomes fixed, i.e. appears incapable of accounting for, and accommodating change, it starts to become dysfunctional.

Finally, a narrative is as much about the past as it is about the present or the future: one of its key roles is to change, adapt and expand in ways that allow its proponents and actors to evolve over time. The minute a narrative becomes fixed, i.e. appears incapable of accounting for, and accommodating change, it starts to become dysfunctional. This has institutional effects. The French Republican narrative around laïcité, its particular brand of militant secularism, offers a good example of a once powerful narrative incapable of evolving to encompass change. The results on the institutions of the French Republic — chiefly, the alienation of a number of its non-secular citizens — are dramatic.

Narratives and Diversity

Diverse nations (by that I mean nations for whom the absence of a homogenous population might have been an obstacle to the cohesion needed to live together peacefully under a set of shared national institutions) seem to have long recognised the value of a good narrative. The Canadian narrative on multiculturalism — in which a multicultural ‘mosaic’ leaves even greater room for adaptation and change — is a case in point, and a manifest success as evidenced, in part, in the readiness with which Canadians, both recent and long-established, cite it as Canada’s founding creed; they also readily cite the protection afforded by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Canada’s multicultural narrative also seems capable of expanding — of encompassing new forms of diversity, new forms of the ‘new’.3

A powerful narrative, capable of evolving and accommodating new forms of diversity, is a key piece of institutional architecture.

The Canadian mosaic, as it is known, is just under-specified enough to be powerful, because it remains accommodating. The narrowly defined linguistic multiculturalism of a few generations ago has gradually given way to a broader multiculturalism that addresses mega-trends that might have threatened the nation and its institutions: inequality, new demands for recognition, and new ways of formulating such demands. In the face of this, Canadian institutions continue to uphold multiculturalism: for every new challenge, there is a corresponding attempt to respond through the promotion and expansion of the multicultural narrative and its clockwork — but generous — logic. Whether in the face of terrorism (the role of Muslim community leaders is often pointed to in the surfacing of the so-called ‘Toronto 18’ plot in 2006) or in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis (strengthened by Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s presence at the airport in December 2015 to welcome the refugees with the words “You arrive as refugees, but you leave this airport as permanent residents of Canada”), multiculturalism is seen as an essential but accommodating narrative that underpins both behaviour and expectations. But it has changed: housing quotas are no longer quite as engineered, or engineered on the same basis as before. For example, Toronto Community Housing reflects a concern for new forms of discrimination and inequality along generational and income lines. It has become accepted that diversity runs deeper than race, or gender, that it can look different, or needs to be spotted through a different set of lenses.

The point here is that a powerful narrative, capable of evolving and accommodating new forms of diversity, is a key piece of institutional architecture. Diversity will not cease to come up as a relevant issue, because we can expect some enormous changes ahead — in our family lives, in our working lives, in the way we move across the globe, and the way we choose to spend our time, our money, our energy. Our successful societies have given us more choice and more of a capacity for educated choices. This is bound to reshape the way in which we coalesce with one another, who we think is similar to us, whose differences we can relate to, and whose may seem increasingly alien. So importantly, while narratives need to adapt, they are also a powerful way to help us and our institutions adapt in the face of change. By continuing to maintain Offe’s necessary ‘democratic illusion’, strong adaptive narratives allow us to evolve with confidence, to change whilst remaining true to ourselves as collectives.


Catherine Fieschi is the Founder and Executive Director of Counterpoint, a London-based global cultural risk consultancy. As a political scientist, Catherine believes that rigorous social and cultural analyses can help leaders make better decisions, in both the public and private sectors. She advises business and political leaders around the world and serves regularly on government task forces.


  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
  2. Claus Offe, “How can we trust our fellow citizens?”, in Democracy and Trust, ed. Mark Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 63.
  3. For the most recent evidence, see The Current State of Multiculturalism in Canada: The New Evidence, Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2010. See in particular pages 7 and 8 for references [citing Michael Adams, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism (Toronto: Viking, 2007)]. http:// www.cic.gc.ca/english/pdf/pub/multi-state. pdf. For the most recent data from 2015, see http://www.environicsinstitute.org/uploads/ institute-projects/environics%20institute%20 -%20focus%20canada%20spring%20 2015%20survey%20on%20immigration- multiculturalism%20-%20 nal%20 report%20-%20june%2030-2015.pdf.

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