This is part of a series that draws on ethnographic fieldwork with anime fans. The series creates a framework for exploring the relationship between narrative, performance, and identity. I explore a theory of narrative identity in which individuals incorporate elements from stories into their lives. I document how anime fans use anime-specific narrative resources such as archetypes, icons, and language to shape their personal identity narratives and perform those identities to both anime fans and non-anime fans.

Check out the rest of the series.


Stories are part of humanity, and have been ever since, and probably before, humankind took to speech. John Niles (Niles 2010) even went as far as to call humankind Homo Narrans, “storytelling man.” But let’s take that though a little further. To what extend do people use narrative to build their personal identities?

I first posit that the “narrative” as a “sense-making” structure that gives the “bones” allowed for people to “create and give meaning to our social reality (Hydén 1997:50).” Further, I suggest that narratives can be effectively and intentionally used to teach, to shape, and to guide behavior.

In a general sense, this is building off of work by Joseph Campbell (2008) and Carl Jung (1981), who had complimentary notions of archetypes as described in Christopher Vogler”™s book The Writer”™s Journey (2007) where mythic narrative elements (archetypes and journeys) act as guides for personal and social behavior. BronisÅ‚aw Malinowski also discussed the idea of a social charter (1971) where myths act as guides or a sort of playbook for behavior.

In more recent years, Charlotte Linde, an anthropologist, theorizes about the use of narrative as a sense making structure and story as a resource for identity management during her ethnography of an American Insurance Company (2003; 2000). The definition of “narrative” will be discussed in detail later, but for now we will define story as a presentation of events, whether real or fictitious, involving three primary elements: plotting, character, and setting (Morrell 2006:51). Linde details how incoming employees use stories from training materials and social settings to mold their own identity and guide their behavior in the workplace.

James Wertsch, an anthropologist from Washington University in St. Louis, carries this further by postulating that narratives are the primary sense-making structure, and are carried collectively by groups as part of a narrative schema inside a social circle”™s collective memory (2008; 2000). Indeed, the study of illness narrative inside medical anthropology suggests that narratives can be used to, among other things: 1) to reconstruct one”™s life in line with a greater narrative, 2) as a form of strategic interaction in order to assert or project one’s identity, and 3) to transform illness from an individual into a collective phenomenon.

So, it can be asserted that narratives are instrumental in creating, shaping, and projecting (or performing) identity.

Narrative is the central sense-making structure that allows human beings to arrange, categorize and present symbolic ideas. Hydén (1997:50) said, it has only been recently that “social scientists began to consider narratives as one of the ways in which we create and give meaning to our social reality. To earlier generations of social scientists, the narrative was merely one of many forms of representation.” Therefore, narrative provides the schema or roadmap for symbolic ideas to be connected and interpreted. Narrative is built in the same way story is: with character, plot and setting.

Identity, according to Joel Charon is “the name we all call ourselves” and also “the name we announce to others that tells them who we are.” (2009:84) Identities are positional or relational. They are “perceived social locations of the individual where one has situated [themselves] in relation to others,”¦[and] the name one tries to communicate with others” (Stone 2011:93).

So our working definition of identity is the socially constructed, socially maintained, and socially transformed meanings a person attributes to himself or herself (Berger 2011; Burke 1980).

To further clarify definitions, I will call the internal “identity” the personal identity narrative, here meaning the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves. The external “identity” in the paragraph above, I shall refer to as the performative identity, meaning the “me” we attempt to show others.

These definitions come together in the theory of narrative identity which we described earlier as the interplay between narratives and social identity construction in which individuals incorporate elements from narratives (fictionalized, social, and others) into their personal identity narrative and attempt to project this identity narrative by way of a performative identity.

The triad of narrative identity is an analytical framework that is used to analyze narrative identity by describing the connectedness between the shaping and projecting of narrative identity using narrative resources.

Narrative resources are narrative elements that provide symbolic points of reference, context, and content for fashioning identity and for performing identity.

These three aspects work in concert together: personal identity narratives, performative identities, and narrative resources. This works in a procedural way:

  1. Narrative resources exist “out there” and are shared by both audience and performer. They do not have the exact same set, and both interpret these symbols differently.
  2. The actor uses these shared resources to cobble together a personal identity narrative. That is “Who do I say I am?”
  3. That personal identity feeds into the performative identity: Who do I want others to know I am?
  4. The performance is the observable interaction projected by the actor.
  5. The audience relies on the shared narrative resources for audience interpretation.
  6. This creates the perceived self, or perception of the actor. This is who the audience thinks the actor is.
  7. The audience provides feedback, both intentionally and unintentionally.
  8. That feedback influences the performance, which influences the performative identity, which can ultimately influence the personal identity narrative.

Consider this simple example: Jerry is a football fan. His personal identity narrative is, therefore, informed by narrative resources that may include sports narratives, sports jargon and personal experiences. Jerry also performs this identity in order to situate himself as an athlete among his circle of friends. In order to communicate this, he again draws on narrative resources. In this case, those resources may be a brand of clothing that carries symbolic weight and that the group understands to point towards athletes. He may also adopt (enact) certain gestures and language that have been made popular by celebrity athletes. The audience (individuals in his circle of friends) sees these performance features and associates Jerry with athletics, therefore perceiving him as an athlete.

Going forward, I will attempt to walk a three-sided line. First and foremost, I will strive to enable anime fans to share their own voices through their own interviews, interpretations, and performances.

The second line is an attempt to create an analytical framework for investigating the theory of narrative identity. This framework will help us draw conclusions about the form and substance of narrative identity in social contexts. This is a test, and it may be that the framework is insufficient or plain faulty.

The third line is to fit this work in with the larger question of stories for education, identity management, and transformation. I will discuss some applied approaches and further directions for research of this type.

The next post in this series is a brief introduction to anime.

Stay tuned!

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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