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Form, Content, and Defining a Narrative

Form and Content of Policy Narratives

        NPF scholars often describe narratives in terms of content and form. According to Shanahan, Jones, McBeth and Radaelli (2017), “form refers to the structure of narratives, and content refers to the policy context and subject matter” (p. 175). The NPF takes a structuralist approach to narratives, believing that policy narratives have exact elements (form), which “can be generalized across space and time to different policy contexts (Shanahan, et al., 2017). Contrary to postpositivism, which states all narrative content is unique, the NPF empirically studies content in terms of strategy and belief systems. This allows researchers “to examine unique policy contexts while still aspiring toward generalizable findings” (Shanahan et. al., 2017, p. 177).

Defining a Policy Narrative

       Narrative elements refer to the structure of a narrative. Per Shanahan, Jones, McBeth and Radaelli (2017), “informed by narratology, the NPF focuses on four policy narrative core elements” (p. 175). These policy narrative core elements are as follows:

        I. Setting: Policy narratives are always related to policy problems and have specific policy contexts. As a result, the setting of a policy narrative always includes “policy phenomena such as legal and constitutional parameters, geography, evidence, economic conditions, norms, or other features that some nontrivial amount of policy actors agree or assert are consequential within a particular policy area (Shanahan, et al., 2017, p. 176). The setting includes props such as laws, evidence, or geography. These props “are often taken for granted, but- at times- also may become contested or the focal point of the policy narrative” (Shanahan, et al., 2017, p. 176).

        II. Characters: All policy narratives contain at least one character, but often include multiple characters. Characters may include villains, victims, or heroes. Newer NPF studies “have explored different and more nuanced character types, such as ‘beneficiaries’ of a policy outcome (Weible, Olofsson, Costie, Katz, & Heikkila, 2016), ‘allies’ and ‘opponents’ (Merry, 2016), and ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘charismatic experts’ (Lawton & Rudd, 2014)” (Shanahan, et al., 2017, p. 176).


        III. Plot: Per Shanahan, Jones, McBeth and Radaelli (2017), “the plot situates the characters and their relationship in time and space. The plot provides the arc of action where events interact in a beginning middle and end sequence” (p. 176).

        IV. Moral of the Story: According to Shanahan, Jones, McBeth and Radaelli (2017), the moral of the story gives purpose to the characters’ actions and motives. As such, in the NPF, the moral of the story is often equivalent to the policy solution” (p. 176).

         Per Shanahan, Jones, McBeth, & Lane. (2013), “at the micro and meso levels, policy narratives are constructed by individuals and organizations advocating for a policy goal derived from some defined problem” (pg.457). As a result, two conditions must be present in order for a policy narrative to exist. First, a policy narrative must contain a policy preference or an opinion on a policy-related behavior. Elaborating on this, Shanahan, et. al., (2013) explains:

“For example, one policy narrative may only identify the negative impacts on the fishing industry of potential windmills off the coast of Nantucket with no specified policy preference; another policy narrative may specifically articulate the policy preference of halting the installation of these windmills due to their economic impacts on fishermen. The former casts a judgment on the externalities of a policy behavior—windmills in operation; the latter directly identifies a policy preference, no installation of windmills. This condition differentiates a policy narrative from other texts such as lists and chronologies” (p.457).


        Secondly, a policy narrative must contain at least one character who is portrayed as a hero, victim, or villain (Shanahan, et al., 2013). In the example above, fisherman are viewed as the victims. The NPF’s use of characters helps to differentiate it from other frameworks by bringing the story to life. Put simply by Shanahan, et. al., (2013), “policy stance or judgment of policy-related behavior + story character = policy narrative” (p. 457).


Merry, M. (2016). “Making friends and enemies on social media: The case of gun policy


        organizations”. Online Information Review, 40(5), 624-642. doi:10.1108/oir-10-2015-0333

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. Doi:



Shanahan, E.A., Jones, M.D., McBeth, M.K., & Radaelli, C.M. (2017). The Narrative Policy


        Framework. In Weible & Sabatier (Eds.), Theories of the policy process (4th ed., p. 173-213).


        New York, NY; Routledge. Doi: 10.4324/9780429494284-6

Weible, C. M., Olofsson, K. L., Costie, D. P., Katz, J. M., & Heikkila, T. (2016). “Enhancing Precision


        and Clarity in the Study of Policy Narratives: An Analysis of Climate and Air Issues in Delhi,


        India”. Review of Policy Research, 33(4), 420-441. doi:10.1111/ropr.12181

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