Group Members: Sylvia Buchana, Jennifer Levine, Chera Marshall, Neil Supriyo

The Narrative Paradigm

Our presentation on Walter Fisher's Narrative Paradigm:

Narrative Paradigm Theory Overview
  • Narrative Paradigm suggests that humans are storytellers and that we experience and understand the world as a series of narratives or stories.
  • The Narrative Paradigm is not a theory but a way of viewing the world.
  • Narrative Paradigm shifts the focus away frompure logic to say that humans communicate with stories.
  • People are are narrative beings, before we are rational, curious or symbol-making/misusing. We make decisions on the basis of good reasons/arguments. Good reasons pertaining to history, biography, culture, perceptions/character of the other people involved.
  • The paradigm further explains that we use stories to learn or reinforce values and to help us make decisions. In order to do so, we choose which stories to believe from all the millions of stories in the world. This processes of deciding which story to believe is known as Narrative Rationality.
  • Narrative Rationality is based on two components: Coherence and Fidelity. Coherence refers to how well a story hangs together. Fidelity refers to the truthfulness of the story when compared to other life experiences.

Key Terms
Narration, Paradigm, Narrative Rationality, Narrative Probability, Narrative Fidelity, Rational World Paradigm

Key Terms Defined

Narration: is a theory of symbolic actions, words and deeds that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create and interpret them. A combination of all the stories from real life or imagination.

Paradigm: is philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school of discipline within which theories, laws and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.
Fisher defines paradigm as [2]: "By paradigm, I refer to representation designed to formalize the structure of a component of experience and to direct understanding and inquiry in the nature and functions of that experience - in this instance, the experience of human communication."

Narrative Rationality: The concept of narrative rationality, is that there are rational criteria for distinguishing the reliability, trustworthiness, and desirability of statements made in the conversations of life. Narrative Rationality is determined by the coherence, fidelity and value of our stories.

Narrative Probability (coherence): Refers to formal features of story conceived as a discrete sequence of thought and or action in life or literature (any recorded or written form of discourse) ie. It concerns the question of whether or not a story coheres or ‘hangs together’ whether or not the story is free of contradictions. In a story, we examine how the story strings together, how probable does the story seem, are the important details included, is it free from contradictions, how does it compare with other stories, and do characters behave/think consistently.

Narrative Fidelity (correspondence): Concerns the ‘truth qualities’ of the story, the degree to which it accords with the logic of good reasons: the soundness of its reasoning and the value of its values. Narrative Fidelity discovers how the story relates our knowledge and experiences, does it provide good reasons to guide our future actions, is it logical, is the story imbued with values.

Theory Specifics

The Rational World Paradigm
This paradigm has existed since Aristotle's Organon. This concept was formulated prior to Fisher's theory of the Narrative Paradigm. This concept states; [2]:
  1. Humans ae essentially rational beings;
  2. the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is argument - clear-cut inferential (implicative) structures;
  3. the conduct of argument is ruled by the dictates of situation - legal scientific, legislative, public, and so on;
  4. rationality is determined by subject matter knowledge, argumentative ability, and skill in employing the rules of advocacy in given fields; and
  5. the world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct.

Narrative Paradigm in Relationship to Other Theories

Threads of thought from social sciences and humanities like other theories of human actions, it seeks to account for how persons come to believe and to behave. Narrative paradigm is different from social science and humanities theories in that it projects narration not as an art, genre, or activity, but as a paradigm. Goes beyond these theories by providing a ‘new’ logic; the concept of narrative rationality, which applies to all forms of human communication. The narrative paradigm is meant to reflect an existing set of ideas shared in whole or in part by scholars from diverse disciplines, particularly those whose work is informed by or centres on narrativity. It does not necessarily impinge upon the existence or desirability of particular genres of discourse. It does however, directly bear on how they are to be interpreted and assessed.

Social Scientific Thories and the Narrative Paradigm
Narrative paradigm seeks to account for how people come to adopt stories that guide behaviour. It, too, is productive of description, explanation, and even prediction – in the sense that if one’s character can be determined and if one’s story in regard to a particular issue can be ascertained, it is possibly to predict a person’s probably actions, which is the best that social scientific theories can offer. Where the narrative paradigm goes beyond these theories is in providing a ‘logic’ for assessing stories, for determining whether or not one should adhere to the stories one is encouraged to endorse or to accept as the basis for decisions and actions.

Humanistic Theories and the Narrative Paradigm
Sees narrativity as a legitimate and useful way to interpret and understand human relations. The narrative paradigm is concerned with the pragmatic effects of texts as well as interpretation. It’s a way of understanding lived as well as imagined stories. It is also a philosophical view of human communication, but is not a model of discourse. The primary function of paradigm is to offer a way of interpreting and assessing human communication that leads to critique, a determination of whether or not a given instance of discourse provides a reliable, trustworthy, and desirable guide to thought and action in the world. It predicts that all normal human discourse is meaningful and is subject to the tests of narrative rationality. It holds that meaning is a matter of history, culture, and character as well as linguistic convention and interanimation. Fisher’s interest is in all forms of communication; with the concept at the end of communication being practical wisdom and human action.
Narrative paradigm stresses ontology rather than epistemology, which is not to say that knowledge does not exist, but that it does not have an absolute foundation in ordinary discourse. The subject of such discourse is symbolic action that creates social reality. It does not provide a specific method of analysis; it does propose a precise perspective for critically reading texts.

Critique of Theory
  • Anyone can judge the quality of narrative/rhetoric
  • Concept of narrative as encompassing all communication may be too broad
  • Does not specify HOW values are recognized in narratives or in an audience
  • Does not account for the attraction of “evil” texts such as that of “Mein Kampf”
  • Does it leave room for texts that go beyond, that attempt to LEAD rather than REFLECT audience values
  • Does not attend to the oppressive power of corporate media

Fisher's Conclusion of the Narrative Paradigm

The only way to determine if a story is a mask for ulterior motives is to test it against the principles of narrative probability and fidelity. The formal features of narrative probability concerns coherence, consistency and non contradiction. It appears they also depend upon comparison and contrast with prior accepted stories. Narrative paradigm should be viewed as including material as well as formal features. Such a view is necessary to any interpretation and assessment of stories, especially those told to ‘mystify’ the audience. The narrative paradigm sees people as storytellers – authors and co-authors who creatively read and evaluate the texts of life and literature. It envisions existing institutions as ‘providing plots’ that are always in the process of re-creation rather than as scripts; it stresses that people are full participants in the making of messages whether they are agents (authors) or audience members (co-authors).

Correspondence with Walter Fisher about Social Technology and the Narrative Paradigm

----- Original Message -----
From: Walter Fisher
To: Chera Marshall;
Sent: Sunday, September 26, 2010 11:36 AM
Subject: Re: Came across your email while researching you, what a great surprise.

Hello Chera,
Good to hear from you.

A colleague recently asked me to join his seminar to talk about the narrative paradigm. One of the questions raised by a student was how my theory related to the emergence of new communication technology. My answer was as follows; I agree with Kenneth Burke--the history of the world is marked by permanence and change. Communication means have obviously changed over time. Without trying to trace this whole process, I thin it is sufficient to recognize the move from oral communication, to written communication, to telegraph, to phones, to radio, to television, to computers, to cell phones, and so on. What has not changed over time is that these various means of communication have been the instruments by which messages are conveyed, received, and interpreted. And where there is attribution of meanings, there are stories.

Hope this helps.
Best hopes for your future.

Walt Fisher

----- Original Message -----
From: Chera Marshall;
Sent: Thursday, September 23, 2010 9:57 AM
Subject: Came across your email while researching you, what a great surprise.

Hello Professor Fisher,

My name is Chera and I have just begun a Graduate course in Education called Education Technology and Communication. This is a part of my Masters of Education program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. In the first class of this course we were asked to choose a communication theorist and report back to the group about key concepts and ideas behind their main theory. My group chose you and to be completely honest we knew very little about the theory and psychology behind Narrative Paradigm.

If you have the time to respond it would be greatly appreciated in helping our class grasp a more thorough understanding of narrative paradigm and social communication via technology.

Thanks for your time and know that we are enjoying learning more about you and your discoveries,

Chera Marshall


[1] Fisher, W.R. (1989). Clarifying the Narrative Paradigm, Communication Monoghraph, 56, pp: 55-58
[2] Fisher, W.R. (1984). Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.; Communication Monoghraph, 51, pp: 1-22
[3] Fisher, W. R. (1985).The narrative paradigm: An elaboration. Communication Monographs, 52(4), 347-367. doi:10.1080
[4] Fisher, W. R. (1985),The Narrative Paradigm: In the Beginning. Journal of Communication, 35: 74–89. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1985.tb02974.x
[5] Warnick, B. (1987).Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73: 173-174
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