In the popular textbook, Intercultural Communication in Contexts, authors Judith Martin and Tom Nakayama write, “It may be difficult for you to envision, but at one time a unified story of humankind — the grand narrative — dominated how people thought of the past, present, and future. The grand narrative refers to the overarching, all-encompassing story of a nation or humankind in general. Because of the way it is built, this grand narrative organizes history into an understandable story that leads to some ‘truths’ over other possible conclusions” (2012, p. 137).
Also, in an earlier time, Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) wrote, “In contemporary society and culture — postindustrial society, postmodern culture — the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation (p. 37).
Two expressions in the quotes above catch my attention: (a) “It may be difficult for you to envision…at one time…the grand narrative” and (b) “in contemporary society…the grand narrative has lost its credibility”. So, today it is said there is no unified story of humankind. There is no grand narrative or what some term metanarrative.
But, isn’t an assumption of no unified story itself a grand narrative? In other words, the unified story today is that there is no unified story of humankind. This line of reasoning reminds me of the early presentations of relativism in its absolute form. Of course, we have backed away from absolute relativism because of its dead-end destination. It is not possible to live it out.
What is a metanarrative? Michael Matthews defines metanarrative as the overarching story formed from controlling stories within a culture. He argues that metanarrative is the basis for worldview core assumptions about all of reality. Matthews borrows from Michael Kearney who understands worldview to be the encompassing assumptions about: self, Other, relationships, classifications, causality, time, and space.
What are “controlling stories”? They are the oft told narratives about victories, calamities, heroes, and villains that ascribe meaning to history and purpose to current events. These are found location to location.
In his dissertation research, Matthews saw twelve (12) moderating variables emerge from metanarrative. He uses the concept of “moderating variables” building on the work of Irving and Klenke (2009). The twelve are:
- Taxonomy – a system of classification, arrangement, and organization
- Identity – status markers that established position, privilege, and power
- Community – socio-cultural institutions that promote and prohibit behavior
- Cosmology – stories about origin
- Epistemology – a sense of how we know things and therefore predictability
- Authority – the determination of who is the storyteller
- Morality – a set of values (right versus wrong and/or honor versus shame) used for assessment
- Functionality – the form of the story
- Destiny – strategic and significant purpose
- Temporality – sequence issues
- Locality – space issues
- Unity – the thematic plot of the story
In summary, a big picture story provides purpose and meaning to groups of people. How? The big picture story or metanarrative is a compilation of single controlling stories and sets of stories, most often gathered informally over time. From the metanarrative moderating variables create a framework of purpose and meaning.