This mini-series looks at how we integrate elements of stories into our personal identities, literally letting stories transform who we are. We look at the storyworlds that grow up around stories, narrative identity, and create a basic framework to analyze further.

The research is pulled from my Master’s Thesis in Cultural Anthropology where I did an ethnographic study with a group of anime fans, but don’t get bogged down in the anime of it. A football game is a story. A band has a story. Televisions shows. All these things develop storyworlds through which we shape our personal identities and interact with others.

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This blog is dedicated to transformational storytelling, which means a lot of things: stories for education, stories for therapy, stories that call to social action, and stories for identity management. We have and will discuss each of these in particular, but there is a set of common principles, concepts, and methods shared between them.

Today, I will begin a brief introduction into one of those foundational concepts: Narrative Identity or the “story we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others.” And we will start with storyworlds: social settings built up around stories (and its more than just fan conventions).

 Narrative, unbound.

“We are forever composing impression of ourselves, projecting a definition of who we are, and making claims about ourselves and the world that we test and negotiate in social interaction.”

Riessman, 1990

“Most people are fans of something,” says Jonathan Gray in the introduction to Fandom: identities and communities in a mediated world. From Potterheads, to Trekkies to Country Music Fans and Football Fanatics. “Fandom is beautiful”¦and [has become] an ever more common mode of cultural consumption.” (2007:1,7) Where fans were once seen as “odd” or “absurd” in their dedication to a single show or pastime, this fervor has become increasingly accepted and even promoted by enterprise. No longer is a fan someone who has “lost touch with reality,” but simply someone who “really loves that show,” said one of my ethnographic interviewees.

Moreover, fandom has become a means of identification, especially for those who may feel marginalized by mainstream society. Francis Hsu (1963) posited that, in societies where clans and castes have become de-emphasized, people seek social identification through a system of clubs. The clubs are groups that become “imagined communities with false borders” (Anderson 2006), and play an integral role in constructing and disseminating cultural norms. Clubs do this chiefly by offering social resources that create “communities of practice” in which individuals use common social-symbolic tools to construct and perform their identities.

As the world shrinks through globalization, individuals find themselves with a growing array of identities to choose from. No longer are we simply defined by kinship group, religion or occupation. We can now identify with social movements (women, gay men, lesbians, ethnics, disabled people, etc.), connective social circles (networks through online socialization like Facebook) or common interest groups such as motorcyclists, extreme sports, scrap bookers or anime fans (Linger 2005).

There is a growing scholarly conversation among disciplines in the Humanities and Social Science as to how fans manage their identities, navigate multiple expressions of identity, and use fandom as a tool to position themselves relative to others. (Wenger 1998; Harrington and Bielby 2010; Karpovich 2006; Jimenez 2005).

Not Only Fans: Narrative Identity

Fan culture is interesting, but it may hold a key to broader applications. If transformational storytelling is our goal, it makes sense to look at people whose lives are transformed by stories. How did the stories wiggle there way into the identity of these individuals? How do these individuals manage their identities? How are social contexts important?

And not just fans of sci-fi television, but fans of football, music, and artists. Even social networks. These are all stories. What can we learn about transformational storytelling from fans?

To look at these questions, I will unify three complimenting identity management concepts: the personal identity narrative, the performative identity, and shared cultural resources. These three concepts will be lumped together as Narrative Identity.

First we require a definition of narrative as the central sense-making structure that allows human beings to arrange, categorize and present symbolic ideas. As Hydén  (1997) 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.” Therefore, narrative provides the roadmap for symbolic ideas to be connected and interpreted.

Storyworlds

The term “story-world” originally comes from literature and is simply, the world in which the story takes place including all characters, settings, themes, etc. The concept migrated into fan studies as the source from which fan-created-material (like fanfiction or cosplay) is drawn (Harris and Alexander 1998). Here, fans were attempting to participate in the story-world, largely by adding to it. In this way, the story-world grows far beyond the original authors into something organic, changeable and defined differently by each individual participant. (Hills 2002; Henry Jenkins 2007)

I extend the term “storyworld” further by adding “storyworld groups” and “storyworld cultures” to the conversation. A storyworld group is defined as any free-association (fluid or changing in composition), group that exists around a set of fictional or fictionalized stories. These groups celebrate, advocate and participate in fan events such as viewing parties, conventions or fanfiction circles. The storworld group is a specific unit, and membership is often identified on a group by group basis. Some examples of storyworld groups might include a specific Dungeons and Dragons Circle, a specific fan club with registered membership or a specific group of friends who regularly get together to watch a specific show. Membership in a storyworld group will be defined, for our purposes, through self-identification. Some groups are more formal and may maintain membership lists with their own membership criteria.

If a storyworld group is micro in nature, then a storyworld culture is macro. A storyworld culture is a collection of storyworld groups that focus on the same set of fictionalized stories. The storyworld groups that belong to the same storyworld culture often share many manifestations. For instance, Dungeons and Dragons Fandom is a storyworld culture with several shared features (character personas, conventions, jargon, etc.). Inside that storyworld culture exist any number of storyworld groups like specific gaming circles and online communities. Membership in the storyworld culture and group will also be defined through self-identification.

We can extend this to football (I guess I like this analogy). A storyworld culture would be football fandom, where as a storyworld group may be a fantasy football league, specific sports bar the night of the game, or friends who watch the game together and talk about the events.


Next, we will take a peak at the Triad of Narrative Identity as a framework to see how individuals incorporate elements from stories and storyworlds into their own lives. 

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Chris Michaels

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