Posted by: hobbesonafob | July 12, 2009

On the Importance of Stories for COIN and the State

I’ve been doing some research on peacebuilding and came across John Winslade and Gerald Monk’s book Narrative Mediation: a New Approach to Conflict Resolution. This book is the first time that I have come across the idea of narratives in an academic setting (i.e. not at the pub). The narrative perspective on conflict is intriguing, especially for somebody who hasn’t been prone to studying the so-called “touchy-feely” side of things. The authors write the following about narratives and conflict:

“…from the narrative point of view, conflict is likely because people do not have direct access to the truth or to the facts about any situation. Rather, they always view things from a perspective, from a cultural position. Drawing on this perspective, they develop a story about what has happened and continue to act into a social situation out of the story they have created. Facts, from this perspective, are simply stories that are generally accepted. From time to time these stories lead to diametically opposed readings of events. Again, this is not anyone’s fault. It is to be expected, given the nature of human cultural interaction. Nevertheless, these stories have effects and produce realities” (p. 41).

This perspective places a strong emphasis on how people interpret actions or other forms of information. The applications this has for population-centric counter-insurgency strategies (also known as “nation-building” while being shot at) is how events are interpreted by the population. One can also apply this concept to other states. For example, how does a Canadian view resource extraction (e.g. taxation) and how does this view compare to how an American may perceive resource extraction by the state or  contentious and coercive nonstate actors (CCNAs)? ALL of the Tillian attributes of “stateness” can be viewed within the purview of narratives:

narratives diagram.001

There are endless examples or situations where narratives can be examined. For the sake of my time, I’ll draw an example from a couple of books I’ve been reading over the summer.

Michael Ignatieff’s book Empire Lite looks at one narrative that the British Empire constructed over its colonies (some colonies with more effectiveness than others *cough cough American Revolution cough*):

“Effective imperial power also requires controlling the subject people’s sense of time, convincing them that they will be ruled for ever. The illusion of permanence was one secret of the British Empires long survival. Empires cannot be maintained and national interests cannot be secured over the long term by a people always looking for the exit” (p. 76).

In The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen gives a full chapter to the road-building project in the Afghan province of Kunar. Here is Kilcullen quoting Colonel Cavoli from the I-32 Infatnry in the Kunar valley in 2005-2006:

“…one of the most important things a road does that no other technique can do is to convey a sense of long-term commitment to the people. You can drill a well in a day, and build a school in a month… but it takes a long, long time to build a road. When you start a road, you send a message that this isn’t a month-long partnership — it’s for the long haul. This is very important for all the reasons you can dream up, but let me highlight one: when you mix this sense of long-term commitment with a persistent-presence methodology, it becomes apparent to everyone that U.S. and ANA forces are going to be in the towns for a long, long time” (p. 95-96).

The similarities between these quotes (as there are many differences) reveal that both nation-builders/colonizers are attempting to persuade the population that the nation-builder/colonizer is an organization that is worthy of compliance.  The U.S. forces won’t be as extreme as the British in convincing the population that they would be there forever because that would be a contentious narrative among the population that the Taliban or other CCNAs could capitalize on.

Not only do narratives highlight the importance of information campaigns and communicating to the population, but I think that narratives are essential for social control. The importance of being able to mobilize a population is shown in Joel S. Migdal’s description of social control: “Social control is the currency over which organizations in an environment of conflict battle one another.” For him, social control is divided into three levels:

COMPLIANCE: “conformance to its demands by the population. Compliance often first comes with the use of the most basic of sanctions, force.”

PARTICIPATION: “to gain strength by organizing the population for specialized tasks in the institutional components of the state organizations.”

LEGITIMATION: the “acceptance, even approbation, of the state’s rules of the game, its social control, as true and right” (p. 5).

The ability for a CCNA or the state to exercise social control provides an incredible resource from which to draw. Social, mental, and even emotional capital can be drawn from those who are willing to support certain narratives.

Again, I would like to draw attention to yourself and ask question about how you have attempted to provide narratives for the actions of the state or the CCNA that governs you (e.g. The story behind the wars my country engages in is ______. The story behind the police in my community is based on _____.).

In conclusion, stories matter (and I’m not even trying to attempt to justify my studying of history for the past five years!).

Works Cited

Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite. Toronto: Penguin Group, 2003.

David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


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