Policy narratives

Assume you find a policy narrative intolerably simplistic. You can rejigger it in three ways: Denarrativize it; provide a counternarrative; and/or offer a metanarrative accommodating a range of different story-lines (arguments), including versions of the simplistic narrative and your preferred counternarrative.

  • Denarrativize! To denarrativize is to critique the policy narrative, point by key point. The best way to do that is to bring counter evidence to each point the offending narrative holds. To denarrativize is to take the story out of the story, i.e., to disassemble it by contravening its parts. Abundant case evidence exists to call into question the Tragedy of the Commons, for example. (In case it needs saying there can be virtues in forms of disassembly, if your aim is a disarticulated array or, at the other end, a spirited melee.)
  • Counternarrativize! The chief limitation of denarrativization in the inability of critique on its own to generate an alternative narrative to replace the discreditable one. In contrast, a counter-story challenges the original by virtue of being a candidate to replace it. Common property resource management is full-fledged counternarrative to the Tragedy of the Commons.
  • Metanarrativize! A metanarrative is that policy narrative—there is no guarantee there is one, or if so, only one—which the narrator holds in order to understand how multiple and opposing policy narratives are not only possible but consistent with each other. Claims to resource stewardship is a metanarrative shared by policies based in the Tragedy of the Commons as well as in other explanations, including but not limited to common property resource management. That is, a group—the techno-managerial elite, “the community,” the Other—asserts stewardship over resources they do not (altogether) own, because they alone, so the metanarrative goes, are capable of determining and adjudicating where better management holds.

The driver in counternarrative and metanarrative, beyond dissatisfaction with the offending original, is that critique on its own does not underwrite or stabilize decision making, as critiques do not tell their own story. More, by annihilating the original without providing an alternative, uncertainty increases with respect to the policy issue of interest. (Such is why dystopians are so fascinated by ruinous critique—their sense of realism is intensifying all the time!)

The pressure remains, however, to come up with a counternarrative or metanarrative, i.e., scenarios or arguments that people find more convincing, if only case-by-practice-by-case. Suspended somewhere between the always-incomplete pull of utopia and the never-good enough push from dystopia is more like the realism I know and experience.

What to do? The function of messes in policy and management is to frustrate the storyline of beginning, middle and end. At times that is a very good mess to be in.

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