The Role of Stories in the Policy Process: A Glimpse into the Narrative Policy Framework

by Juhi Huda, Ph.D. Candidate/Lead Graduate Teacher
Environmental Studies Program

You won’t stir up much controversy if you claimed that stories are important to human existence. Without stories, communication would not be possible or at least be difficult. These stories, often referred to as narratives, are indeed powerful and frequently used by policy actors to communicate information about policy issues. They are also relevant for groups engaged in influencing the policy process to achieve a desired policy outcome. A policy process framework that focuses on the influential role played by narratives in the policy process is the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) – a theoretically grounded framework used to understand policy process influences. It examines strategically-constructed stories that contain measurable elements and strategies that influence public opinion toward support for a particular policy preference. For example, policy scholars using the NPF have studied narratives of coalitions for and against installation of wind turbines off Nantucket in the United States (Shanahan et al. 2013) or the siting of a nuclear power plant in India (Gupta et al. 2014) among others.

A policy area ripe for exploration of its underlying narratives is agricultural biotechnology, which abounds in conflicting narratives from both camps – for and against the issue. Given the large mix of actors and stakeholders (including national, state, and local governments, scientists, farmers, non-profit organizations, and corporate sector actors), understanding the on-going debate about the advantages and disadvantages of the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops becomes a complex matter. All stakeholders involved in the policy debate – whether in support of GM crops or against them – claim to have scientific evidence that supports their respective policy positions. But policy decisions are not made solely on the basis of scientific evidence.

It is important to delve into other factors that are taken into account in the policy decision-making process and investigate questions such as – What factors influence public opinion on contentious scientific and policy issues? What are the social dimensions of scientific issues and scientific dimensions of social issues? And how do these and other relevant aspects lead to policy change? One way to get at these relevant factors is through exploring the varied narratives employed by different actors in the policy issue and studying the prevalence of these factors in their narratives.

Below, I provide a brief example from my research in which I use the Narrative Policy Framework to examine narratives in agricultural biotechnology policy in India. Through an analysis of the narratives used by stakeholders, I examine how the policy issue of the commercialization of Bt eggplant¹ – which was going to be India’s first GM food crop – is framed by opponents and supporters of the GM crop. One of the findings of the study is that more frequent use of evidence may not be associated with narrative strategies to successfully influence policy outcomes. Examining the narratives of supporters and opponents of the GM food crop, those in support of the GM food crop used more evidence as compared to those who opposed it. Yet the decision did not go in their favor. The matter, of course, is not that simple. Use of scientific evidence may not be singularly influential in the policy process, but it is important to explore what may be other factors that can be leveraged to gather support for a particular policy preference. An analysis of the narratives and the elements contained therein may help throw light on some of these factors.

1. This transgenic eggplant is created through the insertion of a gene cry1Ac from the soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) into eggplant and is said to provide the plant with resistance against lepidopteran insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera).

Works Cited

Gupta, K., Ripberger, J. T., & Collins, S. (2014). The Strategic Use of Policy Narratives: Jaitapur and the Politics of Siting a Nuclear Power Plant in India. In M. D. Jones, E. A. Shanahan, & M. K. McBeth (Eds.), The Science of Stories: Applications of the Narrative Policy Framework in Public Policy Analysis (1st ed., pp. 89–106). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shanahan, E. A., Jones, M. D., McBeth, M. K., & Lane, R. R. (2013). An Angel on the Wind: How Heroic Policy Narratives Shape Policy Realities. Policy Studies Journal, 41(3), 453–483.

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