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Layers of story

How do we make sense of story? How can we link between the layers of story to help us make sense of some broader picture, or to derive a clearer view of some desired future?

One way to do this is Causal Layered Analysis [CLA] – and it fits very well with the Zahmoo story-bank. It also gives us a means to make sense with all of those small fragments of narrative that don’t match our usual story-criteria of people, place, time, triggers, events and ‘the punchline’.

CLA describes narrative in terms of four distinct layers:

— At the surface is the litany, the world of the tabloid-newspaper, the everyday of ‘the world as it should be’ – or, more often, the ‘litany of complaint’ that it’s not ‘as it should be. That’s one of the classic signals here: whenever we see a key-phrase such as “they should…” or “they ought to…” or suchlike, that narrative is at the level of the litany. “My truth is the truth” is another theme we’ll see asserted here – and often that’s all that people will see, hence why CLA is sometimes depicted as an iceberg, with only the Litany layer visible above the surface.

— Beneath this is the systemic layer, the layer of social causation. Here we’d shift from personal-story to shared-story, and to the common-themes and supposed certainties¬†– “just the facts, ma’am…” – that underpin that shared-story.

— Beneath this again is the worldview layer – the stories and narratives through which we decide what is ‘relevant fact’ and what is not. These stories last much longer than those of ‘the litany’, but they do still change over time: look at the history of science, for example, the changing stories that underpin the structure of scientific revolutions.

— And beneath that is a core of deep-myth and metaphor – “the unconscious emotive dimensions of the issue”. These are the culture’s creation-myths, those deep, subtle, somewhere-in-the-background stories that underpin assertions such as “we hold these truths to be self-evident” and suchlike. It’s here that we find the foundations for different ‘ways of knowing’: for example, the very different deep-stories that underpin what we’d see in the layers above as a ‘scientific’ worldview versus a ‘religious’ one.

(If you don’t mind coarse language, these differences between the CLA layers are illustrated well in this annotated version of a Louis CK comedy-routine.)

And in all of these layers, and between the layers, there are conflicting or competing narratives. So, given these layers of story:

The challenge is to conduct research that moves up and down these layers of analysis and thus is inclusive of different ways of knowing. Doing so allows for the creation of authentic alternative futures and integrated transformation. CLA begins and ends by questioning the future.

With practice, we’ll see all of these layers in action as we collect narratives and anecdotes in our Zahmoo story-bank. Using its tags and comments, Zahmoo can help us identify the CLA layer where each story-fragment sits, and, using links between the stories, weave a stronger overall story of a shared-past and for a shared-future – making sense through story, with Zahmoo.


Graphic adapted from iceberg-image by Uwe Kils and Wiska Bodo under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license.

August 24th, 2012 by Zahmoo
Filed in: For Business, For Community, For Family
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