Dominant Narratives

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Overview

This guide provides a discussion-based lesson plan on dominant narratives. A dominant narrative is an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies. It usually achieves dominance through repetition, the apparent authority of the speaker (often accorded to speakers who represent the dominant social groups), and the silencing of alternative accounts. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither. This discussion guide will help students recognize dominant narratives, how they are perpetuated, and how and whom they benefit/harm.

 

Goals

  • To help students understand what dominant narratives are and how they function
  • To encourage students to think critically about the dominant narratives they take for granted

 

Implementation

This discussion-based activity can be implemented or adapted to suit the needs of a class. For example, it could be adjusted to fit the topic of the class (e.g. a course on public health could include this activity to specifically address dominant narratives that impact public health). Or it can be used as is to help students understand dominant narratives more generally. Pair this discussion with The Perfectly Logical Explanation Discussion Guide to encourage an even deeper exploration of dominant narratives and how they function.

 

Challenges

Students likely have personal stakes in dominant narratives. These narratives are often tied up in values, culture, and identity, so it is normal for students to feel invested in believing them or disbelieving them depending on how the narrative impacts them. If it seems like students are resistant to being critical of the dominant narratives, you might take time model for them how you personally engage with dominant narratives that you have felt/feel invested in.


Dominant Narrative Discussion Guide

A dominant narrative is an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies. It usually achieves dominance through repetition, the apparent authority of the speaker (often accorded to speakers who represent the dominant social groups), and the silencing of alternative accounts. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither.

In almost any topic you explore with your students, there will likely be dominant narratives that they have encountered and may believe uncritically. This activity can be adapted to fit any class, addressing dominant narratives that apply to the current topic your students are studying, or you can use this activity as a broader examination of dominant narratives and how they function. Depending on your class and whether or not your students have been primed to understand dominant narratives as a concept, you may skip some parts of this activity.


Option A: Give your students an example of a dominant narrative that they can analyze with some personal distance, and write it on the board. For example, before the Civil War, a common defense of slavery was:
“If slavery is abolished, former slaves wouldn’t have the means or ability to take care of themselves. Therefore, slavery is necessary for the wellbeing of slaves.” This example has the advantage of easing your students into thinking critically about dominant narratives before moving to more contemporary narratives in which they will have personal stakes, but it has the disadvantage of not addressing the role students may play in perpetuating or resisting dominant narratives.

Option B: Alternatively, pick a contemporary example with which they will be readily familiar. For example, the American Dream: “America is a meritocracy, and anyone can achieve their ambitions through hard work and perseverance.” Picking a contemporary example will likely make the activity more uncomfortable for the students (as they will have personal stakes in the conversation), and may bring out defensiveness if your students are not primed to think critically about social issues. However, contemporary examples do allow students to relate by bringing their personal experiences and immediate insight into the conversation.

 

Go through the dominant narrative together, encouraging them to think critically about it. As you go, jot down any properties of dominant narratives that they come up with.

  • Who do you suppose would say this?
  • Why would they say this?
  • Who does this narrative benefit? Who does it harm?
  • What assumptions are being made?
  • How does it function rhetorically? (you may need to parse this question if they are unfamiliar with rhetoric)
  • What narratives is it attempting to silence?
  • Why do you suppose this narrative had power?

If using a contemporary example, ask the students additional questions that encourage them to recognize how the narrative relates to them:

  • How is this narrative perpetuated?
  • How is participation in/belief in this narrative enforced?
  • How were you taught this narrative and by whom?
  • How has this narrative impacted you? How do you benefit from it? How does it harm you?
  • How have you participated in/resisted this narrative?

Ask your students to explain what a dominant narrative is in their own words. Jot down its essential properties as your students name them:

  • Serves the people in power
  • Told by the “victor”
  • Ignores other perspectives
  • Taught as “the truth”
  • Most people have heard it (in school, on the news, from parents, etc.)

Once you are satisfied that your students understand what a dominant narrative is and how it functions, ask them to come up with additional dominant narratives.

 

Option A: If your class is focusing on a particular topic, ask them what dominant narratives they have heard or read on that topic. Write them on the board.

Option B: If you want them to explore dominant narratives more generally, have them break up into groups of 4-6 people for 10-15 minutes. Give each group a paper with a topic, and have them list and discuss the dominant narratives they have heard about each topic. They should pick one dominant narrative from their list to write on the board. You should remind them that dominant narratives often sound reasonable (and maybe even are reasonable) and that it isn’t important whether they agree or disagree with the narrative. Some topics that you might assign to the groups are:

  • Immigration
  • Health Care
  • Gun Control
  • Nutrition
  • Communism
  • Protesting
  • Higher Education
  • Minimum wage
  • Prisons
  • Sports
  • Climate change

If you have time, pick a couple of dominant narratives the students have selected, and spend more time on them as a class, asking questions that encourage deeper reflection:

  • Who have you heard repeat this narrative, and what was the context?
  • How is this narrative perpetuated?
  • How is participation in/belief in this narrative enforced?
  • How does this narrative benefit the dominant social group(s)?
  • How has this narrative impacted you? How do you benefit from it? How does it harm you?
  • How have you participated in/resisted this narrative?
  • What alternative or marginalized narratives get drowned out or silenced by these narratives?
  • Does this narrative inhibit concrete action? (for example, do narratives around climate change and personal responsibility inhibit regulation that would impact corporations?)

 


Citations

Resource developed and hosted by LSA Inclusive Teaching Initiative, University of Michigan (http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/).