Narrative paradigm

The Narrative Paradigm is a theory proposed by Walter Fisher that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or giving a report of events (see narrative) and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends.



The way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument. The traditional paradigm of the rational world claims that:

  • people are essentially thinking beings, basing their reasoned decisions on the merits of discussion and evidential reasoning;
  • what is judged rational is determined by the knowledge and understanding displayed, and by how the case is argued, i.e. the way in which the argument is made will determine the outcome so long as the form matches the forum which might be scientific, legal, philosophical, etc. This presupposes that life is a set of logical puzzles that can be solved through the application of rational methods.

Fisher reacts against this model as too limited and suggests a new paradigm of "narrative rationality". He begins with the proposition that:

  • people are essentially storytellers;
  • Making decisions depends on judgments about “good reasons”. Although people claim these reasons for their decisions[1], these reasons include history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved (all of which may be subjective and incompletely understood);
  • the test of narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate decisions to be made. Narrative coherence asks if the story hangs together. For example a storyline which presents the notion that a man loves his wife but depicts him abusing her and contrasts with a scene in which he is committed is not totally consistent or coherent. It does not make sense that a man who loves his wife will abuse her. Narrative fidelity states that if the story matches our own beliefs and experiences, we will accept it. Fidelity determines how the story plugs into the background of the world as a person has known it. For example someone who does not believe in God and just believes in natural laws is listening to a story of someone being healed by a miracle. This person might not be persuaded because there is no fidelity for this story and his experiences do not fit to the story. [2]
  • the world is a set of stories that must be chosen among in order for us to live life in a process of continual re-creation[3], from which each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs.

This does not deny that there is a system of formal logical reasoning. But, following Michel Foucault, such systems are formed through the savoir and pouvoir (knowledge and power) of the hierarchies that control access to the discourses. Hence, criteria for assessing the reliability and completeness of evidence, and whether the pattern of reasoning is sound are not absolutes, but defined diachronically by those in positions of authority. This will be particularly significant when the process of reasoning admits values and policy in addition to empirical data.

Fisher proposes narrative rationality and coherence (fidelity and probability) as an a priori basis upon which to decide which are good or bad stories. He argues that human communication is something more than its rational form; that its cultural context, and the values and experience of the audience are as important. Perhaps the most meritocratic, democratic or subversive implication of his ideas has to do with who is qualified to assess the quality of communication. In the traditional model, expertise as defined by the power hierarchies is required to present or judge the soundness of any formal arguments. Fisher maintains that, armed with common sense, almost any individual can see the point of a good story and judge its merits as the basis for belief and action.

So, to Fisher, narration affects every aspect of each individual's life and the lives of others in every verbal and nonverbal bid for a person to believe or act in a certain way. Even when a message seems abstract, i.e. the language is literal and not figurative, it is narration because it is embedded in the speaker's ongoing story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and it invites listeners to interpret its meaning and assess its value for their own lives.

The psychology of Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm

The first pillar of Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm theory claims that people are storytellers (5). Fisher also states that people interpret stories by using “good reasons”. According to the theory, good reasons are events of history, past events in one’s own life, culture, and characters involved.

Situation models

When people experience a story, the phase of comprehension is where people form a mental representation about the text (Zwaan 15). The mental representation that is formed is called a situation model. The situation model is a “mental representation of the people, objects, locations, events, and actions described in a text” (Zwaan 15). This supports Fisher’s model in that the components that Fisher claims are valid in determining good reasons, are related to those that are formed in the situation model.

Probability and fidelity

The second part of Fisher’s theory deals with how people determine the probability and fidelity of a story (5). Fisher claims that people have an inherent skill in determining probability. In a test done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which was related to Fisher’s claim, subjects were presented with a brief personality profile (496).

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

The subjects were then asked which one of the two statements they thought was more probable.

  • Statement A: Linda is a bank teller.
  • Statement B: Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement.

In the sample of undergraduate students who were given this problem, 86% had said that statement B was more probable. However, this result does not correspond with a model of probability that states the probability of A is always greater than the probability of A and B (Kahneman & Tversky 98). What Kahneman and Tversky concluded from this experiment is that with increased specificity in the text, the compound target, (X & Y, or Linda is a bank teller & who is active in the feminist movement) can be judged more probable than a single component (X or Linda is a bank teller) (97). The conclusion that was made from Kahneman and Tversky’s test also supports Fisher’s idea of narrative fidelity. Narrative fidelity is defined as whether or not the stories that people experience relate to what they know to be true in their own lives (Fisher 5). When people draw their conclusion that the compound target is more probable than the single component, they are putting what they know to be true from their own lives into determining the story’s fidelity.

Narrative and argumentation: Narration is one of the first language skills all children develop and narrative seems to be universal across cultures and time. In contrast argumentation must be taught and it is the basis for public discourse in our culture. However, after learning argumentation, people often resist using it and prefer to use narratives. Still, for example statistics can add new and more detailed information to the story.[4]

Works cited

  • Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
  • Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Zwaan, Rolf A. "Situation Models: The Mental Leap into Imagined Worlds.” Current Directions in Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society 8.1 (1999): 15–18.

Narrative rationality

According to Fisher, the narrative paradigm is all-encompassing. Therefore all communication can be looked at through a narrative lens, even though it may not meet the traditional literary requirements of a narrative. Individuals are able to distinguish what makes a story legitimate by using what Fisher refers to as narrative rationality. Rationality consists of two factors: coherence and fidelity. Coherence can be best defined as if a story makes sense structurally. Is the story consistent, with sufficient detail, reliable characters, and free of any major surprises? The ability to judge coherence is learned, and improves with experience. Narrative fidelity is concerned with whether or not the story is true. Fisher establishes five criteria that affect a story’s narrative fidelity (Fisher, 1987):

  • questions of fact that examine the values embedded in the story, either explicitly or implicitly
  • questions of relevance that consider the connection between the story that is told and the values being espoused
  • questions of consequences that consider the possible outcomes that would accrue to people adhering to the espoused values
  • questions of consistency between the values of the narrative and the held values of the audience
  • questions of transcendence that consider the extent to which the story’s values represent the highest values possible in human experience

Narrative rationality versus narrative emotion

The narrative rationality and the narrative emotion are complementary within narrative theory. The rationality approach to narratives works through the lens of narrative effectiveness in conveying the story, as well as its consequent social implications. The narrative emotion otherwise puts under scrutiny the emotions stirred up in reaction to fiction and thus analyses the purpose of narrative through its very reception. [5] Narrative emotion studies how "emoting by proxy" characterizes the experience of attending to a narrative.[6]

Narrative emotion is a recent trend of narrative theory:[7]

"It is only with the advent of modern aesthetics that emotion could be valued as a proper object of study."


Narrative theory has been widely applied within the field of communication, although not specifically. Those who have used narrative theory within their research refer to it as a general way of looking at communication. Fisher’s theory has been applied to organizational communication, family interaction, racism, as well as advertising. One example of a study that used narrative theory more directly was conducted by L.D. Smith in 1984. Smith looked at the fidelity and coherence of narratives presented at Republican and Democratic Party platforms and found that despite obvious differences, each party was able to maintain coherence and fidelity by being consistent in both structure and overarching party values (Smith, 1989).


Fisher offers a humanistic model of communication in that individuals take sometimes complex information and transform it into narratives. This characterizes humans as "storytelling animals" exchanging messages with each other, and that each message is judged as credible in terms of its consistency and by reference to the values and beliefs of the audience. But, not all human discourse follows the story form and his reference to the subtext of the speaker's or writer's own narratives is less than compelling. Further, he fails to specify how critics are to make their choices between narrative probability or fidelity, and provides no criteria for testing narrative probability. It seems that the critic becomes "a standard unto himself", disposing of more traditional rationality without anything convincing to replace it, e.g. it is not acceptable in most formal contexts that a storyteller would be judged superior in credibility to an expert witness. Finally, the logic of good reasons is inadequately developed, as it fails to consider how values can be presented in argument and, once presented, how the "relative worth" of one value can be evaluated against that of another.


Critics of Fisher’s narrative theory contend mainly that it is not universally applicable as Fisher states. For example, Rowland (1989)(this reference is not provided in the list below???) believes that narrative theory should be applied strictly to communication that fits classic narrative patterns, because the generality with which Fisher applies narrative theory undermines its credibility.


  1. ^ Jameson, D.E. (2001).
  2. ^ youtube,2009
  3. ^ Jameson, D.E. (2001).
  4. ^ Jameson, D.E. (2001).
  5. ^ Deslandes, Jeanne A Philosophy of Emoting Journal of Narrative Theory – Volume 34, Number 3, Fall 2004, pp. 335–372
  6. ^
  7. ^
  • Anderson, Rob & Ross, Veronica. (2001). Questions of Communication: A Practical Introduction to Theory (3rd ed.). New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-25080-0
  • Cragan, John F., & Shields, Donald C. (1997). Understanding Communication Theory: The Communicative Forces for Human Action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0-205-19587-3
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1984). "Narration as Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument." in Communication Monographs 51. pp. 1–22.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1985). "The Narrative Paradigm: An Elaboration." in Communication Monographs 52. December. pp. 347–367.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1985). "The Narrative Paradigm: In the Beginning." in Journal of Communication 35.Autumn. pp. 74–89.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1987). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-500-0
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1988). "The Narrative Paradigm and the Assessment of Historical Texts." in Argumentation and Advocacy 25.Fall. pp. 49–53.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1989). "Clarifying the Narrative Paradigm." in Communication Monographs 56. pp. 55–58.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1994). "Narrative Rationality and the Logic of Scientific Discourse." in Argumentation 8. pp. 21–32.
  • Fisher, Walter R. (1995). "Narration, Knowledge, and the Possibility of Wisdom" in Rethinking Knowledge: Reflections Across the Disciplines (Suny Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences). (Fisher & Robert F. Goodman as editors). New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Griffin, Emory A. (1999). A First Look at Communication Theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw–Hill. ISBN 0-07-246015-6
  • Warnick, B. (1987). "The Narrative Paradigm: Another Story," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 172–182

Jameson, D.E. (2001). Narrative Discourse and Management Action. Journal of

  • Business Communication 2001. 475–511.

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