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The Power of Public Narratives

Public narratives are the narratives that people share publicly, typically with more than one other person. Each person has their own public narrative, it is the story they share. It is a story they share with others in their own words, their own use of everyday language. The story may be shared in a social setting such as over a drink in a bar or equally in a focus group or in response to a question from a journalist. There will be many different public narratives but within the public sphere some narratives will come to dominate. These narratives, the ones that become familiar and influential, are the narratives repeated the most often. These are the narratives that resonate with people.

A Story of self, us and now

Why are some narratives more powerful than others? Harvard’s Marshall Ganz, who was credited with the grassroots organising model for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has researched the links between public narratives and their ability to influence others. Ganz argues that powerful public narratives bring together three stories namely, a story of ‘self’, a story of ‘us’ and a story of ‘now’. The story of ‘now’ frequently takes the form of what needs to be done, what action needs to be taken given where we are, to achieve a desirable future. In the case of ‘red wall’ seats the action was voting Conservative. Ganz has developed the concept of public narratives as a leadership technique whereby leaders can better connect with and persuade others through their own public narratives.

Research challenges

For the researcher there are many challenges in capturing public narratives. A primary form of research is to seek to listen contemporaneously to discussions where people share their stories and to track those that get frequently repeated or very similar stories. However, public narratives get shared all the time in so many settings such as at the water cooler at work, in a bar, in a family setting watching the TV or over lunch. How does a researcher select which discussions to listen to? How do they design a representative methodology for particular constituencies or communities? The challenge becomes greater when you are looking back at a particular period. The researcher needs to identify if, and where, public narratives were captured, documented and recorded during the period of interest.

During elections public narratives about the election can be analysed through the lens of focus groups and interviews, where the stories shared by the public are recorded in their own words. In elections there are also journalists who interview people in a particular area to get a feel for the public narratives. Post Brexit many journalists felt they had missed the public narratives in post-industrial towns and one upshot was more journalistic forays by city based journalists to post-industrial towns. This often raised the hackles of regional journalists who had been reporting on local public narratives for many years. One group of northern journalists from regional papers such as the Manchester Evening news, The Yorkshire Post, The Liverpool Echo and others created their own podcast ‘the North Poll’ to report on political developments in the north during the 2019 election. This covered public narratives in post-industrial towns with episodes such as ‘word on the street’ where journalists reported on their discussions on the streets with voters. Thus there are many journalist reports of public narratives in local towns but normally these are in the form of the journalist’s own words and assessment of what they heard rather than the transcripts of the interviews themselves though they often include selective quotes. These public narratives shared through focus groups, vox pops and local interviews with journalists may not be representative but they are amplified through the media and reporting. This may give them greater weight or influence, enabling some to become symbolic of a wider public narrative.

Clearly the use of contemporaneous public narratives reported through the media is not unproblematic. They are often selected for their newsworthiness, and both vox pop interviews and focus group findings are frequently reduced to short soundbites. Interviews and quotes may also be selected to support a particular view or particular story. However, these public narratives matter. People are influenced by what they believe other people think. Research has consistently found that media presentations of statements by individual voters have a stronger influence on how voters judge the opinions of others and the overall climate of opinion than polling data reported by the media.

The power of vox pops

Clearly individual exemplar viewpoints may not be representative and there is no scientific base for generalising from exemplars, however, the research shows they have an influence on voter perceptions of public opinion. This may be because individual story exemplars connect with people in a different way than say polling data, they connect at an emotional level and the individual stories and viewpoints are easier to understand than movements in polling data. Research in a paper published in 2019 found these effects exist regardless of the introduction and format of those vox pop statements. Thus even when journalists provide context, explicitly stating that vox pops are not representative of the population, this does not seem to reduce the influence they have on voters’ perceptions of public opinion. This research also found that not only do vox pop viewpoints influence perceptions of public opinion, “they also directly influence people’s own opinions.”

John Harris and John Dokomos have conducted hundreds of vox pop interviews over ten years for their Guardian video series ‘Anywhere but Westminster’. They argue that while the use of vox pops attracts fierce criticism they also have value as “they can tell you things that opinion polling and election data still can’t.” Their interviews often run for ten to fifteen minutes. In December 2019 they published a video containing a series of interviews with former Labour voters who had decided to vote Conservative for the first time.

As a researcher you rarely have access to the full interview that a journalist conducted or even knowledge of those that were interviewed but whose voices were not published. In the case of focus groups there is generally more to work with, some are made available in full as videos, audio and transcripts, while others only provide selected quotes from focus group discussions. As I say this data is not unproblematic from the perspective of ethnographic research but this approach does allow us to capture part of the public narrative during elections and importantly the public narratives that were represented through the media. This matters as the research shows these public narratives influence voter perceptions of the overall climate of opinion and also their own opinions.

There has been much criticism of vox pops as lazy journalism and not being representative. It is certainly true that vox pops are not representative though some organisations such as the BBC often take inspiration from focus groups and use private companies to help pull together representative panels. However, the value of vox pops does not come from being representative. A poll may tell us that the majority of people are uneasy with immigration for example but it doesn’t provide us with the public narratives, the language people use, how they express themselves, or the concise way they lay out their story of themselves, their community and what needs to change.

Example of a changing public narrative

Prior to June 2017 there were 40 parliamentary seats which formed part of a ‘red wall’ that stretched from the Vale of Clwyd in the West to Great Grimsby in the East. These 40 seats had collectively elected Labour MPs for over 2,000 years, over 57 years on average in each constituency. In these seats the Labour Party had been seen as synonymous with local working class communities. Parents and grandparents passed down stories of Labour standing in solidarity with local working people in the mines, textile factories and the potteries. These stories shaped the community’s collective memory, identity and its politics. For decades industrial communities in ‘red wall’ towns felt Labour had their back. That Labour was ‘on their side’. These stories reinforced the dominant public narrative that these were Labour towns and Labour people. “When it came to election time, almost everyone would vote instinctively for the Labour party, because it was visibly an extension of their community’s interests.” Fundamentally the Labour Party represented people like them.

This historic public narrative of Labour towns and Labour people was fatally undermined in 2019. A new public narrative emerged in traditional working class communities through the sharing and repetition of stories that Labour took these communities for granted, had no aspiration for their areas, was not patriotic, betrayed them on Brexit, looked down on them, and left them behind. The Labour party was increasingly seen as being primarily interested in cosmopolitan cities and global issues rather than local issues in their communities. This created a new overarching public narrative that ‘Labour no longer represented people like us’.

Below are just two examples of public narratives which tell a story of self, a story of community and a story of now.

 “My parents voted Labour, so then we voted Labour and I think that we have started to rethink it now.” 
 “I come from a mining family. My dad and my granddad were miners. It goes back centuries. But I think we're all voting Conservative now.”