In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Narrative in Sociocultural Studies of Language

  • Introduction
  • Narrative and History: Brothers Grimm, Schoolcraft, and Boas

Anthropology Narrative in Sociocultural Studies of Language
Hilary Parsons Dick, Claudia P. Segura, Nancy Dennehy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0180


Narrative is a way of using language and other signs (images, gestures, etc.) to produce a coherent account that posits interconnection between past, present, and future events. Such accounts are pervasive, appearing in a stunning array of settings, from religious rituals to gossip sessions. The pervasive character of narrative has led some scholars to assert that storytelling is a primordial human capacity: an inherent ability with which we are born, one that separates us from other animals. While the pervasiveness of narrative draws the attention of anthropologists, they generally resist presumptions of narrative primordiality. Instead, as the works discussed in this bibliography show, anthropologists focus on situatedness, interaction, and power in the production of narratives, probing not only the culturally and historically specific practices that constitute narrative in particular contexts but also who does and does not have the right to tell stories. While studies of narrative can be found in nearly every field in the social sciences and humanities—and across the subfields of anthropology—in this bibliography, we concentrate on narrative scholarship in sociocultural studies of language in linguistic anthropology and the closely related field of sociolinguistics. We have chosen this focus because narrative has long been at the center of sociocultural studies of language and because this work is able to most thoroughly theorize narrative. Such studies spotlight the multifunctionality of language—the idea that language practices, including those of narrative, do more than convey words and reflect on events; they are form of social action through which people create worlds. Sociocultural studies of language consider how actors use narrative to point to and enact social identities, borders, and hierarchies; to express emotion, evaluation, and position; and to transform the self and one’s social world. We begin with a discussion of the historical precursors of contemporary work on these topics, considering how early figures such as Franz Boas conceptualized narrative. We then engage the key theoretical frameworks that inform contemporary work on narrative. After this, we survey of the central themes and topics in present day narrative studies, with a focus on the discussion of “identity” across domains, from the production of selves to the rendering of nation-states. We conclude with the work on narrative, space-time, and change. Sincere thanks to Michèle Koven and Sabina Perrino, who gave the authors thoughtful guidance during the research phase for this bibliography. We are grateful for the insightful feedback we received from our anonymous reviewer and for the careful editorial work of the Oxford Bibliography staff. We also thank Laura Heston for her support. All remaining errors or omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Narrative and History: Brothers Grimm, Schoolcraft, and Boas

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, narratives were a focal point of ethnographic work on language and culture. This work reveals an enduring understanding of narratives as practices that help produce group identities, a point to which we return in later sections. Indeed, narratives were central both to the historical development of anthropology, exemplified in the work of Franz Boas in the United States (Boas and Hunt 1902), and to the political uses of history in the creation of the modern nation-state, exemplified in the work of the Brothers Grimm in Germany (Grimm and Grimm 2016). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, inspired by Herder’s conceptualization of language and nationalism, argued that the qualities that defined the core of German national identity could be found in peasant folk narratives (Bauman and Briggs 2003, pp. 197, 205). To establish links between the here-and-now and a transcendent “German essence,” the Grimms created the appearance of fidelity between recorded versions and original narration by erasing the particularities of instances of storytelling as well cultural differences across Germany. Such fidelity putatively revealed a “national voice [that] had been there all along” (Bauman and Briggs 2003, p. 220). In contrast to the Herderian view of language, Boas argued that language was a distinct domain that did not neatly overlap with cultural and biological differences (Bauman and Briggs 2003, pp. 258–259, 268–269). He saw narratives as a tool of ethnographic documentation, and the comparison of narratives was at the core of Boas’s effort to make anthropology a science. In this endeavor, Boas closely collaborated with members of indigenous groups, most notably George Hunt (Boas and Hunt 1902) and also mentored students from indigenous groups, such as Ella Deloria (Deloria 2006). Like 19th-century ethnographer and US Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Boas posted that narratives could reveal the forms of thought that ordered the so-called “Indian mind” (Bauman and Briggs 2003, pp. 231, 281; Schoolcraft 1992). In contrast to Schoolcraft, however, Boas argued against evolutionary views of culture, which posited indigenous peoples and languages as inferior to European ones. Nevertheless, not unlike the Brothers Grimm, Boas decontextualized narratives from their specific instances of collection. Though done to create a scientific systematicity, this was also an erasure that occluded the postcolonial contexts in which these narratives unfolded (Bauman and Briggs 2003, p. 281)—contexts that later work on indigenous narratives highlights and critiques (see works cited in Ethnopoetic Approaches to Narrative).

  • Bauman, Richard, and Charles L. Briggs. 2003. Voices of modernity: Language ideologies and the politics of inequality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486647

    The authors address the construction, articulation, and ideologization of language in Western thought, with a focus on the role these have played in creating “modernity” and “tradition.” The book includes detailed discussions of methodological and political approaches to narrative in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including chapters on the Brothers Grimm, Schoolcraft, and Boas.

  • Boas, Franz, and George Hunt. 1902. Kwakiutl texts I. Publications of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, anthropology. 4 vols. New York: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History.

    This work contains a large body of texts—including tales, myths, and other forms of narrative—in Kwakiutl, an indigenous language spoken in the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, accompanied by English translations. Collected by George Hunt under the guidance of Franz Boas, this work is one of many such collections produced by Boas and Hunt.

  • Deloria, Ella Cara. 2006. Dakota texts. Bison Books ed. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Dakota Texts presents an array of Sioux mythology and narratives in their original language and in translation. Originally published in 1932, this work made a landmark contribution to the study of Sioux cultural practices.

  • Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 2016. The original folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm: The complete first edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    First published in 1812, this work contains the narratives collected by the Brothers Grimm in their classic work Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), commonly known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales. This work includes such paradigmatic tales as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Cinderella,” which have had enduring impact not only on German national culture, but on children’s folklore and popular culture across cultural and historical contexts.

  • Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. 1992. Algic researches: Comprising inquiries respecting the mental characteristics of the North American Indians; First series, Indian tales and legends. New York: Harper.

    This book, originally published in 1839, is a collection of the tales of the Ojibwe people of the northern U.S. Midwest. Schoolcraft’s most influential collection of narratives, Algic Researches was the central source of native lore for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. In gathering Ojibwe narratives, Schoolcraft worked with his wife Jane Johnston and his brother-in-law George Johnston, children of a Scotch-Irish father and Ojibwe mother.

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