Narrative theory is about looking at worlds, from their construction and governance to the real people living within them. This perspective is useful for understanding the complexities of not only literature but the mechanisms of medicine, law, management, and economics. In the process, questions arise around established paradigms—the answers have the potential to bring about concrete disciplinary, practical, and policy-oriented outcomes.
In this episode of the Delve podcast, McGill Desautels Faculty of Management Professor Lindsay Holmgren discusses her research on narrative theory. Her recent paper, “Narrative in the Economic Sphere: The International Monetary Fund and the Scripting of a Global Economy,” analyzes the language around International Monetary Fund policies past and present to illustrate the IMF’s role in establishing and covertly disseminating the ideological foundations of a finance-centric, global economic paradigm.
In the context of economics and the IMF, the narrative approach is important when considering how the organization functions, from its past, into the present, and how it might change in the future. Applied to people sitting at a negotiation table, it raises certain questions: how are narratives and stories being constructed about lending and borrowing money, about IMF rules and regulations, and about borrowing nations themselves?
Economic models and real-world experiences
The IMF demands a particular kind of financial growth from borrowing nations, a type of growth that might not support more sustainable economic models that could suit these nations better over the long term. As Holmgren’s research points out, the narrative of a nation is complex and specific: it’s about its people, its history and its system within a nation’s borders and outside those borders, with other nations and international bodies like the IMF.
“When we’re looking at narrative, we’re looking at worlds,” explains Holmgren. “We’re trying to understand what governs the world of the story. It has to have coherent, logical governing principles. What happens with a global financial culture is that a world that might have been governed by an array of different principles begins to be governed exclusively by a principle of finance or principle of money. And it becomes very nearly impossible for people in that world to understand a world that isn’t governed by those principles.”
Formed in 1944 in the post-war Reconstruction Era, at the United Nations conference in Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund was meant to aid in post-war reconstruction to establish a lasting global monetary order on which the United Nations and other nations could depend. The amount that member nations pay into the fund determines their political power within it.
In the IMF’s makeup is a tension between economic power, economists’ use of mathematic principles over narrative to determine causality or correlation, and the real-world experiences of nations. In narrative terms, where time is essential to understanding the construction of these worlds, the various causal relationships simply don’t line up.
“I saw in the language available to me, in annual reports, a manipulation of the way time functions,” says Holmgren. “Time is one of the most crucial aspects of narrative. Why? Because narrative can only occur in time. This was something that concerned me about expectations for how economic outcomes will unfold. How those expectations are set up and manipulated by manipulating the time it takes for those events to actually take place—the time it takes for money to be made and lost. All of those things are highly problematic.”
Narrative as a means of change in organizations
In economic management, both at the IMF and in other organizations, the lens of narrative theory can reveal where systemic change is happening or could happen.
“It’s a system of language that we’re looking at, and a system of language is really the system,” says Holmgren. “We understand the world in the context of language. And we understand how language means in the context of its stories.”
Whether in the context of a corporate office or a large organization like the IMF, often not enough time is given to dialogues that allow narratives to unfold and common ground to be found. Yet this productive dialogue is hugely important for the health of an organizational environment. “We’re trying to get at a shared narrative,” explains Holmgren. “All that means is that we aren’t going to come to an agreement. Or, in the context of the IMF, we’re going to create conditions that are virtually impossible for nations to comply with, and then what happens? Everything takes more time.”
Whether looking at economic models or organizational models, it’s clear that not everything in a world or nation or office can truly fit into a model that ignores narrative complexities. “Such models cause uncomfortable positions to be forced upon individuals who can’t embody them,” says Holmgren. “It forces individuals to accept a model of their existence that isn’t comfortable for them, that they can’t live inside of.”
Narrative theory has broadly helped to make room for the idiosyncratic experience of human beings, Holmgren says: “I am talking about the experience of difference that narrative theory demands that we attend to. That’s essentially what it is—it’s looking for an array of possible interpretations of experience.”
For more insights, listen to the full interview with Professor Lindsay Holmgren on the Delve podcast.
This episode of the Delve podcast is produced by Delve and Robyn Fadden. Original music by Saku Mantere.
Delve is the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Subscribe to the Delve podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple podcasts and Spotify, and follow Delve on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.