Central to agency are the questions: What is an action (versus an *‘event’, a ‘happening’ or a ‘state’) (see action theory)? Whose action is it (including who can be held responsible for it)? Is it meaningful and morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Three aspects of agency, all equally relevant for narrative theorising (though from different perspectives), can be singled out as especially important: (i) agency as an epistemic issue (for the use of narratives in the social sciences); (ii) linguistic agency (for the analysis of *character representations in the *storyworld); and (iii) agency in narrating a storied world (pertaining to the author-narrator-audience relationship) (see audience; author; narrator).

 (i) The question of (human) agency is central to the study of self, *identity, and personhood. Agency can be located according to two contrasting views:  it is either a ‘subject position’ that is determined by dominant discourses and *master narratives (see positioning), or it embodies the self-creating (if not self-inventing) subject. From the first perspective (a world-to-subject direction of fit), the subject’s actions are given to the subject by social, historical and/or biological forces, subjecting the subject and determining its action potential.  From the second perspective (a subject-to-world direction of fit), the human subject creates itself; it is based on consciousness and free will, capable of making decisions, and agentively engaged in both world- and self-making, particularly in narrative self-constructions (Bruner 1990). All attempts to position the subject (dialectically) in some middle-ground between these two extreme points of departure start with some form of socio-cultural grounding within which the subject can agentively position itself; such models situate the subject in levels of responsibility and commitment, the negotiation of which results in the becoming of a moral person.

(ii) ‘Linguistic agency’ (also called ‘agentivity’ or ‘animacy’) refers to the linguistic marking of different perspectives in which represented characters are viewed as relating to objects and to other characters in the (represented) world (see existent). Languages typologically offer different lexical and grammatical choices for character and event construction, and by use of such choices speakers signal different *perspectives (and position selves and others) in terms of more versus less agency, dynamism, and affectedness. In this way way, speakers can downplay or foreground characters’ (as well as their own) involvement in narrated events and event sequences, and also create evaluations and stances with regard to who is morally right or at fault.

(iii) Singling out and ordering events in terms of their *tellability (and thus as relevant to the listener and to the speech situation) -- and marking them as told from a particular *point of view -- constitute important stepping stones in the construction of what Mills (1940) termed the ‘grammar of motives’.  That grammar in turn regulates social relationships at the cultural as well as situated level of interactions, thereby contributing to narrative sense-making as well as the interpretation of narratives. Besides the issue of the degree of agentivity ascribed to characters, a question that is central for  narrative analysis is whether the overall order is created by the agency of the author, by the agency of the *implied author, or by the position of a narrator, or whether ‘agency’ itself lies within the consciousness of reader or *audience in the reception and perception process (see reader-response theory).

See also: ethical turn

            References and Further Reading

Bruner, Jerome (1990) Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Budwig, Nancy (1995) A Developmental-Functionalist Approach to Child Language, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mills, C. Wright (1940) ‘Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive, American Sociological Review, 5, 904-13.

Quigley, Jean (2000) The Grammar of Autobiography: A Developmental Account, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Michael Bamberg (602 words)


Master narrative

The term master narrative typically refers to pre-existent sociocultural forms of interpretation. They are meant to delineate and confine the local interpretation strategies and *agency constellations in individual subjects as well as in social institutions (see institutional narrative). Lyotard originally coined the terms grand récit and metanarrative for what are nowadays commonly referred to as master narratives; he furthermore characterised the Enlightenment (the narrative of infinite progress and liberty) and *Science (the triumph of pure knowledge) as the two great master narratives of Modernity. In *postmodern theorising, the era of master narratives viewed as secure knowledge systems that formed the center of cultural epochs has come to an end, leaving us ‘stranded’ in the heterogeneity of performed knowledges that are competing with one another, changing the question from what is true to what knowledge is being used for (see truth).  Indeed, in late-modern and postmodern social and literary analyses the term master narrative has been extended to all sorts of legitimisation strategies for the preservation of the status quo with regard to power relations and difference in general (e.g., differences related to *gender and sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, etc.).

Foucault’s analyses of the discourses of the insane and imprisoned, and of homo- and heterosexuality, followed up and elaborated in the field of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 1992; see discourse analysis (Foucault)), center on master narratives from a ‘macro’ perspective, analysing the strength and coherence of such master narratives as well as their historical changes. In contrast, others have adopted a more micro-analytic approach. They have studied how the (personal) stories of individuals as personal sense-making strategies (in Lyotard’s terms ‘petit récits’) resort to and corroborate, but also resist and subvert, socioculturally dominant master narratives (Bamberg and Andrews 2004). The questions faced by both macro- and micro-analytic approaches concern the nature or fabric of both master and counternarratives (as ideologies, plot constructions, story lines, and discourses), as well as the social and individual forces that cause macro narratives to (historical) change. Of particular relevance is the problem of resources that enable the individual subject to draw up *positioning strategies that contribute and ultimately lead to (historical) change. Central to discussions around master and counternarratives is the problem of how locally situated narrating can bring about any liberation and emancipation from dominant master narratives, or whether this hope is just a nostalgic leftover of the master narratives of the Modern, with only local ‘rupturing effects’ now being possible.

            References and Further Reading

Bamberg, Michael, and Molly Andrews (eds) (2004) Considering Counternarratives: Narrating, Resisting, Making Sense, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Chouliaraki, Lilie and Norman Fairclough (1999) Discourse in Late Modernity: Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Lyotard, Jean-François (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 

Fairclough, Norman (1992) Discourse and Social Change, Cambridge: Polity P.

Foucault, Michel (1972) The Archeology of Knowledge, New York: Pantheon.

Michael Bamberg (486 words)



 Positioning has become an influential construct in the analysis of oral narratives, allowing researchers to explore how humans make sense of themselves and construct their (and others’) *identities (see conversational storytelling). In proximity but also in contrast to role-theoretical constructs, notions of footing and framing (Goffman and Tannen), schema- and script-theoretical concepts, Burke’s dramatism, and concepts of stance and indexicality, positioning builds on *metaphors of place to characterise the subjective sense of location, suggesting that notions of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ entail ‘being in place’ (see space in narrative).

Current discussions of the concept of positioning draw on two different interpretations. The more traditional view, which strongly influenced the development of this concept and showed its relevance for theorising identity, self, and subjectivity, explains positions as grounded in *master narratives (also variably called plotlines, master *plots, dominant discourses, or simply cultural texts) which are viewed as providing the social locations where subjects are positioned (Hollway 1984; Davies and Harré 1990; Harré and van Langenhove 1999). In this line of reasoning, subjects maintain a quasi-agentive status inasmuch as master narratives are construed as inherently contradictory and in competition with one another, so that subjects are forced to choose: they (agentively) pick a position among those available. According to this view, positions are resources that subjects can choose, and when practiced for a while they become repertoires that can be drawn on in narrative constructions of self and others.

An alternative view elaborates on Butler’s (1990) view of performing identities in acts of ‘self-marking’ (see performativity). This view is more concerned with self-reflection, self-criticism, and *agency (all ultimately orientated toward self-revision). It draws a line between the being-positioned orientation with its relatively strong, determining underpinning and a more agentive notion of the subject as positioning itself.  In contexts of self-positioning, the discursive resources or repertoires are not always and already given but rather are constructed in a more bottom-up and performative fashion, and they can generate counternarratives. The analysis of how speakers actively position themselves in talk -- in particular in their stories -- starts from the assumption that the orderliness of story-talk is situationally and interactively accomplished (see communication in narrative; discourse analysis (linguistics)). Taking narratives as situated and performed actions, positioning has a two-way orientation.  On the one hand, it orients how *characters are situated in space and *time in the *storyworld, positioning the characters vis-à-vis one another as relational story-agents.  On the other hand, it simultaneously affects how the teller designs the story in order to define a social location for himself or herself in the act of telling a narrative to an *audience.

            References and Further Reading

Butler, Judith (1990) ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, in Sue-Ellen Case (ed.) Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP.

Davies, Bronwyn, and Rom Harré (1990)Positioning: The Social Construction of Selves’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20, 43-63.

Harré, Rom, and Luk van Langenhove (1999) Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action, Oxford: Blackwell.

Hollway, Wendy (1984) ‘Gender Difference and the Production of Subjectivity’, in Julian Henriques, Wendy Hollway, Cathy Urwin, Couze Venn, and Valerie Walkerdine (eds) Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity, London: Methuen

Michael Bamberg (540 words)