State legislatures as sources of narrative data

By: Katherine Chang (, University of Washington) and Dr. Elizabeth Koebele (, University of Nevada, Reno)

Narratives surround us. Whether we’re reading the news, catching up with a friend, or browsing Twitter, we are inundated with stories. When crafted just right, these narratives can spur an affective response and encourage us to view the world in a specific way. Thus, it’s no surprise that Narrative Policy Framework scholars have artfully analyzed narratives derived from a wide variety of sources – from formal policy documents and news media to Tweets and YouTube videos – to understand their complex influences on individual’s perceptions of and societal dialogue around policy issues. Yet, connecting how individuals or groups craft and respond to narratives with actual policy outcomes remains a challenge.

In this blog post, we consider how to narrow the gap between narratives and policy decisions by leveraging an underutilized source of narrative data: documentation of the activities of state legislatures. We highlight that the state legislative process contain two main sites of interest for NPF researchers – committee hearing meetings and floor sessions – as they include narratives crafted by state legislators, policy experts, formal lobbyists, and private citizens.

Unique meeting dynamics embedded in these legislative proceedings provide an abundance of narrative depth and potential for NPF examination. For instance, in our 2020 article published in Politics and Policy, we leverage public testimony data from education committee hearings in Nevada to explore how coalitions of policy actors use different narrative strategies in relation to the broader political environment. Legislative testimony operates as a public line of communication between policy actors and legislators, and members of the public strategically utilize policy narratives to communicate their preferred policy solutions to state legislators in the hopes to sway their vote. Therefore, studying narratives in legislative testimony can help us better understa

nd how individuals craft narratives with the intent towards influencing policy outcomes, and if their ambitions come to bear.

Narratives from public testimony only scratch the surface of possibilities in using state legislatures as sources of narrative data, however. Recently, we have begun to examine how state legislators (rather than members of the public) strategically use policy narratives in committee meetings – a setting where they seek to discuss and ask questions about policy issues, convince other legislators of the value of specific policy solutions, and signal policy positions to the general public. This type of exploration allows us to better understand whether and how state legislators strategically craft narratives during bill discussions. Our findings will yield valuable insight into how narrative strategies map onto legislators’ eventual votes, potentially providing an explanatory link between broader public narratives and actual policy outcomes. While a multitude of factors influence state legislators’ eventual votes, this kind of narrative analysis creates exciting possibilities for untangling the influence of narrative strategy and issue framing on policy outcomes.

Of course, the use of state legislative narrative data is not without its challenges. Data access and collection are significant barriers, as few state legislatures publish cleaned, ready-to-use text transcripts of their proceedings. Instead, the majority of state legislatures provide video records of committee hearings and floor sessions, which require significant time and resources to collect and preprocess into text for analysis. Legislative narrative data also often need to be merged with other datasets, such as a speaker’s political affiliation or official roll call vote records, to make analysis meaningful. Moreover, comparative or longitudinal analysis of these data may n

ecessitate methodological advances in automated coding given the wealth and scale of available data.

There are exciting opportunities lying in wait within state legislatures across the U.S. – opportunities where NPF scholars can investigate policy narratives at the intersection of specific policy issues, coalition and elite behavior, partisan politics, and more. State legislatures are hardly novel grounds for political analysis, and NPF scholars can benefit greatly by expanding further into these narrative-rich spaces. We look forward to more NPF research dedicated towards the study of policy narratives in state legislative venues.