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The Culture Hack Curriculum

Deep Dive: Reframing Narratives

Recall the first step of the CHL methodology and the Point of View statement you created in Module 4. In your POV statement you listed a series of actions that needed to be taken in order for your narrative intervention to be successful. Narrative reframing is a process that consists of changing the frames you identified to new ones that can support the objectives outlined in your POV statement. Narrative frames are like mental schemas that contain all the information we have learned throughout our life; as such it contains the virtual layer of the narrative form. There are as many narrative frames as there are narrative forms in one culture. We hold all of them, but we act and think differently depending on which narrative frame we have been socialised into.

The assumption behind narrative reframing is that we can change the current narrative frames around a particular topic to activate new logics, new ideas, truths and beliefs. In this way we can generate new intentions and everyday actions that eventually lead to different material expressions of the narrative form: new speeches, new texts, new images, new sounds, etc. 

In other words, through narrative frames, we can intervene in the current cyclical process of the narrative form (please see Unit 2 of Module 2 for reference). Consider the narrative reframing conducted in the Yo Prefiero El Lago campaign. The narrative frame that dominated the narrative space was The Airport is Progress for Mexico.  The team at CHL proposed an alternative narrative frame, We Prefer the Lake:

The Airport is Progress for Mexico < We Prefer the Lake

Under the dominant narrative frame – The Airport is Progress for Mexico – the focus was on progress, reinforcing the public belief that building more infrastructure is good. This narrative frame contained the belief that economic growth means progress and therefore the airport is a necessity. For the Atenco community, narrative reframing entailed questioning these capitalist logics and replacing them with other logics that are life-affirming. Thus, the new frame – We Prefer the Lake – does not contain any notion of progress whatsoever. In shifting the focus of the narrative frame to the ecosystem and the community that would be destroyed and displaced in the building of the airport, the narrative reframing brought public attention to the only thing that truly mattered for the community: the lake, their source of life, and their habitat. 

Importantly, the new narrative frame aligned with the objective of the campaign articulated in their Point of View statement. The community wanted to change the public conversation by offering an option that did not only revolve around the construction of the airport and the idea that economic progress is an imperative. They were able to create a new narrative frame that opened up a new space in the narrative landscape and centred the conversation around the environment, nature, and life.

Explore Further:

To read about the Yo Prefiero El Lago campaign in more detail, please see the case study.

How do we reframe narratives?

Recall in Module 2 you learned that the narrative form is made up of the material and virtual layers. The virtual layer is invisible and held subconsciously. The process of reframing narratives entails making the virtual layer perceptible and changing them to better reflect the beliefs and ideas we seek to promote in this world. Narrative reframing is a profoundly reflective and inward-looking exercise to make us question the cultural narratives we take for granted by looking below their surface. We can find evidence of narratives in our everyday lives, such as conversations, media and other cultural artefacts. However, these cultural artefacts reflect much deeper layers of the narrative that are normally not visible, nor are they easily accessible. The first step in reframing narratives involves surfacing these hidden layers of the narrative form. 

Figure 1: The Narrative Form Model

Step 1: Analyse metaphor, truth & ideology

When we analyse frames, we surface the virtual layer that makes up the narrative form. The virtual layer drives human behaviour, actions and expressions. For simplicity let us focus on three key aspects – metaphors, truth constructs and ideologies (see Module 2). For step one in the narrative reframing process consider the  following  key questions to uncover these aspects:

METAPHOR: This aspect involves reflecting on and questioning what kind of metaphors are hidden behind a narrative frame. Recall from Module 2 that metaphors not only structure the way we communicate but also how we make sense of the world, they are cognitive structures that we often do not question. In the YPEL case study, for example, the frame “ The Airport is Progress for Mexico” utilises the metaphor that development and progress are growth. We understand growth through our bodies and it evokes a sense of ‘natural development’ which is associated with life.

  • What are the metaphors embedded in this narrative frame? 
  • What sensation does the metaphor evoke in your body? 

LOGICS: This aspect has to do with our belief systems and those truths that we assume and do not question. In the YPEL case study for example, in order to believe that the Airport is Progress (frame), and that progress is good (metaphor), it is necessary to believe that nature is a commodity (truth construct). Only then can you agree to destroying an ecosystem to build the airport. 

  • What are the truths and logics embedded in this narrative frame? 
  • What do you need to hold as true in order to believe this frame? 

IDEOLOGY:  This aspect refers to the cultural context and the ‘justification for action’ that is held by society. In the YPEL case study, for example, the ideology was Neoliberalism.

  • What is the ideological foundation of this frame?
  • What cultural context is justifying this frame?

Explore Further:

Watch this scene from They Live (1988) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology – do you think Ideology is like a pair of sunglasses? Explain.

Figure 2: Analysing the YPEL Frame

In this diagram, we can see how ideology, metaphors and truth constructs contribute to a frame and thereby guide actions, by creating new concepts and intentions in the narrative form. 

Step 2: Change the metaphor, truth & Ideology

According to the narrative objectives you identified at the end of Module 6, you will now create a new frame by changing each of the aspects you identified in Step 1. Once again, we can use the YPEL example to show how this can be done.

METAPHOR: You must think of other metaphors that can reflect your narrative objectives. In the YPEL case study, the narrative objective was to think of the lake as a living being thus the metaphor of economic growth was replaced by the lake is life.

  • According to your narrative objectives, which metaphor helps you move the narrative towards a life centric / syntropic frame?
  • Which metaphors help you speak to and unite the communities you are targeting?
  • Using the existing power dynamics in the narrative, what metaphors can create a paradigm shift? 

LOGICs:  The metaphor naturally is related to the truth you wish to enact. In the YPEL campaign, an animistic view of the world allowed people to tap into the belief that all beings and things on this planet are alive. As a result, the truth construct changed from Nature is a commodity to Nature is alive and is sentient. The corresponding logic of this is that ‘for me to exist, the lake must exist’.  

  • According to your narrative objectives, what kind of belief systems do you wish to underpin your new frame?
  • What underlying assumptions are you trying to communicate?
  • Related to the moment of the conversation, what are the most radical truth constructs that the communities are willing to accept?

IDEOLOGY: When we are trying to understand our new ideological stance, it is useful to unearth the ideologies that are present and from there find a more appropriate ideological stance. In YPEL, the national referendum created an opportunity to recast the whole issue by bringing attention to the rights of nature for the lake.

  • What ideology can you utilise to justify your metaphor and truth constructs?
  • What ideologies are latent in the conversation that you can bring to the fore?
  • What evocative belief systems and philosophies can you use for your narrative objectives?

Step 3: Create a new frame

In this step, you will come up with a new narrative frame that embodies your new metaphor, truth construct, and ideology. We advise you to come up with several frames. Be intuitive, tap into your knowledge and instinct, and keep in mind your Point of View statement and your narrative objectives. It can be useful to adopt a forward-thinking mindset. What kind of ideas, intentions, actions, behaviours and material expressions could be unlocked from the new narrative frame you are proposing? What is it achieving for the public debate or conversation you are intending to intervene in? 

In YPEL for example, the new frame “I prefer the lake”  completely changed the tenor of the public conversation. It removed the focus on the Airport and laid emphasis on the community and on the interdependence of humans and nature and the possibility to choose life.

Figure 3: Changing the YPEL Frame

In this diagram we can see that as we change the ideology, metaphor and truth constructs, the frame changes which shifts the concepts and intentions in the narrative form, resulting in different actions.

The Iceberg Exercise

The metaphor of the iceberg is often used in narrative work and is a useful way to understand the narrative form model quickly.

For this exercise, it is important to remember that there are no right or wrong answers. There is not only one way to answer “What is the truth construct? What is the ideology? What is the metaphor?” Similarly, there is no such thing as a single, perfect narrative frame. The same narrative intervention can have several possible narrative frames, tailored to different audiences’ needs. This exercise is intended as a self-reflective deep analysis of narrative frames and is the heart of the culture hack methodology. The exercise offers a user-friendly format to reframe a narrative whether in a group or individually.

The image of the iceberg is useful because it reminds us of the two layers of the narrative form, the top visible material layer, and the bottom invisible virtual layer. There are two parts to this exercise, in the first part we will reveal the hidden layers of the narrative form. In the second part of this exercise, we will create a new narrative frame.

For Iceberg 1 – Above the iceberg is a description of the messages, actions, and expressions you found in the data you collected. Below the iceberg, answer from your data

  • What is the frame?
  • What is the metaphor? 
  • What are the logics?
  • What is the ideology?

Recall your narrative objectives before moving on…

Note: use one iceberg per narrative community you identified in Module 6.

For Iceberg 2 – Above the iceberg is a description of your reframed messages, actions and expression you will take

  • What ideology supports the new message?
  • What are the logics for the new message?
  • What is the metaphor of the new message?
  • What should the frame change to?

Further activity

Your New Narrative Frame

In addition to the iceberg activity, you might want to use the reframe analytic below to think even more deeply about your new narrative frame you would like to use to create narrative intervention or “hack” into the dominant cultural narrative you are interested in. Always keep your narrative objectives in mind (that you identified at the end of module 6).  

Deep Dive: why we reframe narratives

Before outlining how to build a narrative strategy, let’s zoom out and understand the bigger picture behind why we reframe. Recall in Module 3 you learned about cultural evolution (an onto-shift towards an inter-being narrative environment); in Module 6 you mapped different narrative communities on an appropriate mapping framework (such as the knowledge-system framework). Here in Module 7 we are reframing the narratives of the narrative communities in order to evolve culture. 

There are two ultimate aims of intervening through narratives/reframing: The first is to evolve narratives beyond anthropocentrism, and towards an ethic of interbeing (see description of cultural evolution and the “ontological-shift” in Module 3). We can visualise this “onto-shift” using the mapping framework from Module 6. As you can see in the diagram, we want to move narrative communities or clusters of narrative communities into the top right quadrant so their logics evolve to support a more regenerative system and a higher plurality of knowing. This is cultural evolution. 

The second aim is the unity or harmonisation of narratives and narrative communities through their underlying logics, so we are more likely to convince the critical mass of the public needed to shift culture in the direction of life-affirming futures. 

The theory of change behind this onto-shift is based on the idea of the “Overton window”, or “window of discourse” which describes the range of political ideas deemed acceptable to the public. In other words, the narratives in the public conversation set the boundaries of public and political acceptability around the “written rules” of laws/policies and the “unwritten rules” of culture (Robinson, 2018). The aim of Culture Hack Labs is to make the radical common sense (or, move the Overton window towards the radical, or, the non-anthropocentric cultures based on an ethic of interbeing). Read more about this theory of change.

The Narrative Strategy

Now that you have developed a new narrative frame, you need to create a narrative strategy around these new frames. Recall that in Modules 4, 5, and 6 you developed a Point of View Statement, a listening model, and a coherent map of the narrative landscape. We are now able to determine the key parameters for conducting a “culture hack”. In this unit, we will look at narrative dynamics and the communities that we want to target for your new narrative frame. In Module 6, through the mapping of the narrative landscape, we were able to identify the evolution of narratives in the time frame we established in our listening model. Hacking narratives means intervening in the path currently undertaken by the different narratives. As we propose new frames, our intention is to change the trajectory of a narrative to trigger new actions and events. This is where we must consider the impact we wish to exert on the environment where narratives evolve. 

In sum, the narrative strategy must answer the following questions:

  1. Which narrative communities are you focusing on?
  2. How will you engage them to achieve your narrative objectives? 
  3. What medium will the intervention be? (we offer guidance for this in Module 8)

To provide more detail to your strategy, think about the following:

  • What is the current trajectory of the various narrative communities?
  • In what way do the narrative communities intersect?
  • What direction do we want these narrative communities to take in the narrative space? (please refer to the Systems Knowledge Framework, and the idea of the onto-shift – described in the deep dive section above)
  • What kind of intentions and actions do we seek to encourage through our new frames?

Narrative Communities & Audience

The listening model gave us information regarding the narrative communities that are active in shaping the narratives we seek to intervene in. We must decide whom to speak to (target audience), and who is best positioned to spread our messages (influential nodes). In turn, this will guide how we craft the key messages, what symbols we must pick, and what type of content we can create to represent the new frames. The target audience for the messages we want to communicate are the narrative communities we identified in our narrative objectives. They are also the audience whose views matter enough to swing the pendulum on a particular social issue. It is important to understand that all audiences are narrative communities but not all narrative communities are audiences.  Questions that can guide this inquiry are:

  1. Which audiences are you targeting with your frame?
  2. Who is part of this audience? 
  3. What is the audience profile? Age, gender, tastes, political stances & socio-economic situations, etc.

A narrative intervention or ‘culture hack’ is different from a marketing strategy. A marketing strategy seeks to increase product or service sales by tailoring a specific communication strategy that responds as closely as possible to the interests and tastes of the targeted consumer audience, mostly for profit. For narrative change practitioners, the goal is profoundly different.

We ultimately seek to cultivate cultures that are life centric. We are looking for messages, frames, and communications that can unify many different communities towards life-centric goals. These commonalities are where we are most likely to convince a critical mass of our audience(s) – see the deep dive section above for more.

When thinking about how to communicate these new frames these are the questions you should ask:

  1. What are the shared interests of the audience? 
  2. Is there a common discourse, a recurrent theme? 
  3. Is there a preferred type of media to express their opinions, tastes, and political stances?
  4. What are common metaphors? Common myths, symbols?

Influential nodes are members of the communities who have an influential role in the public conversation. As a result, they hold a certain influence in shaping the narrative. Look back at the mapping of the narrative landscape and answer the following questions:

  • Who are the leaders/influential figures that are most listened to?
  • What is the difference between these influential communities according to the type of power, political stance, age range, socio-economic, cultural background, etc?