I often think about the social construction and narrative policy frameworks when I look at issues in the world. I see the ways in which we categorize people and create narratives about those individuals that shape the way we understand them and interact with them. There are some people and groups that we have favorable constructions of, such as veterans, and some groups that we have negative views of, like drug users. There are some groups that are powerful and influential, like senior citizens, and other groups that might be sympathetic but lack power, like single working mothers. These two frameworks from political science are helpful in seeing how groups and individuals interact, how policies for groups develop, and how we justify the political decisions that we make.
I have applied these two frameworks when reviewing Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. For example, Desmond has a passage in which he writes, “Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them – which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.” This passage is generally about social movements and change, but I think it can be better understood when viewed through narratives and social constructions.
Trailer park residents may not be in much different economic situations than individuals living in inner city ghettos, but for the trailer park renter who is able to make rent and buy groceries (even if requiring government aid to do so), there is a notable difference. However, the difference is nearly entirely a narrative that they tell within their own minds. Policies that help the poor living in the inner city will likely help the poor living in trailer parks, but as the quote shows, social constructions shape the narrative that trailer park residents tell themselves about the poor living elsewhere, and ultimately do not support the policies which would help them both.
The other notable narrative at work in the short passage is the idea that people have to believe they have the collective capacity to change things. A mass uprising and mass movement could change the world, but only if individuals can tell themselves a compelling narrative to get them out the door and participating in a movement. Only if people can identify with others in similar economic situations, only if their narratives can overlap, only if they can establish social constructions which unite them can they engage in a way that will flex their political muscle, moving them from a socially sympathetic (or socially deviant) but weak position into one of power. The narratives people build are often based on social constructions, and those narratives influence how people understand the world, ultimately shaping what they see as possible and what policies they do or do not favor and fight for.