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Review of  Narrative as Social Practice

Reviewer: Olga Levitski
Book Title: Narrative as Social Practice
Book Author: Daniele M. Klapproth
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.114

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Date: Fri, 14 Jan 2005 00:25:01 -0500
From: Olga Levitski
Subject: Narrative as Social Practice: Anglo-Western and Australian
Aboriginal Oral Traditions

AUTHOR: Klapproth, Danièle M.
TITLE: Narrative as Social Practice
SUBTITLE: Anglo-Western and Australian Aboriginal Oral Traditions
SERIES: Language, Power and Social Process 13
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2004

Olga Levitski, Department of Linguistics, York University, Toronto


This book is a comparative study of two cultures and their respective
storytelling traditions: Anglo-Western and Central Australian Aboriginal.
The author compares the oral storytelling traditions of two widely
divergent cultures - Anglo-Western culture and the Central Australian
culture of the Pitjantjatjara/ Yankunytjatjara Aborigines. The book
demonstrates that the process of narrating stories has different meaning
and different function in cultures under investigation. Narratives reflect
values, worldviews, and patterns of representation the various situations.
From the point of view of social constructivism, narratives are used for
social construction of reality. The core constructive element of
narratives is cognitive/narrative scheme. The author demonstrates that,
despite certain similarities, such schemata display a high degree of
cultural variability, and are in fact culturally specific.

The book deals with both theoretical and empirical issues and is
indispensable to the scholars studying oral traditions and narratives. The
book offers students of linguistics, folklore, and anthropology an
original insight and methodological framework, which incorporates the
theories of discourse analysis, cross-cultural pragmatics, folklore study,
ethnography of communication, and anthropology. It opens a venue for
studying storytelling as a social process and social practice, an
essential human communicative activity.


The book is organized in two parts, theoretical and empirical. Part one
consists of four chapters. The first chapter introduces the aims of the
study, its theoretical and methodological background, theoretical
framework, and outlines the analyzed data. The second, third, and fourth
chapters focus on the theory of narrative discourse, its role in the
social construction of reality, and its cognitive dimensions.

Part two, with its empirical focus, presents a detailed comparison between
Anglo-Western and Pitjantjatjara/ Yankunytjatjara oral folk narratives.
Chapter 5 and 6 offer a discussion of the Anglo-Western fairy tale and a
traditional Pitjantjatjara/ Yankunytjatjara narrative. These chapters aim
at developing criteria of "what makes a good story" in two respective
traditions. The final two chapters bring together theory and practice, and
draw conclusions in respect with theoretical and empirical findings of the

Chapter 1. Introduction

This chapter introduces the theoretical framework, aim of the study, and
outlines the data for the cross-cultural comparison of two traditions:
Anglo-Western and Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, the Central
Australian indigenous culture. Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, people
of the Western Desert, like all Central Australian people traditionally
lived as semi-nomadic hunters-gatherers. This life was practised until the
1930s. The Western Desert people had deeply religious understanding of the
Universe. The present-day Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people
retained their traditional values, beliefs, and practices. The terms of
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara are the names of the two closely
related (south-eastern) dialects of the Western Desert Language. Although
there are certain differences between the two dialects, they are very
close. The number of Pitjantjatjara speakers is estimated at around 1,600,
and the number of Yankunytjatjara speakers at 200 to 300. (p. 17)

This book is one of the few linguistically oriented studies of narrative
discourse in Australian Aboriginal languages that examine oral folk
narratives. The narratives encapsulate human experience and mirror
worldviews. Although the genres of traditional oral folk narratives exist
in both Anglo-Western and Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara cultures, their
forms and functions differ, and they reflect different worldviews. For
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, the rich oral storytelling
tradition plays an outstanding role in their socio-cultural life and, is
intrinsically linked to the culture's religious and mythological worldview
and totemic social organization.

Chapter 2. Creating webs of significance: the role of narrative in the
sociocultural construction of reality

This chapter focuses on storytelling as socio-cultural practice, and on
its socio-cultural contexts. It discusses of the theoretical framework of
social constructivism, introducing Berger and Luckmann's (1996) theory of
social construction of reality. Language plays a central role in the
processes of reality construction. This chapter also deals with the
function of narrative in social construction of reality, construction of
social identity, and exploration and transmission of knowledge in two
cultures - Anglo-Western and Australian-Aboriginal.

Chapter 3. The narrative sharing of worlds: storytelling as communicative

Chapter three describes with the pragmalinguistic aspects of narrating as
act of communication exploring the model of narrative as interplay of
narrated and narrative event. Following Bauman (1986), the narrative event
is understood as an instance of socio-communicative verbal interaction in
which stories are told and shared. (p. 28)

Casting experience into narrative form is one of the most central ways by
which human beings attempt to make sense of their lives. (p.3) The chapter
is based on a communication-oriented framework that recognizes the various
levels of communicative event. The notion of narrative aesthetics is
introduced here as the culture-specific coherence structures used in
narrative creation.

Chapter 4. Exploring the structure of narrated worlds: the search for
story schemata

This chapter introduces the concept of the story schema as a tool that
helps explore the culture-specific narrative coherence structures.
Schemata are understood as structures of expectations that enable
individuals to process, and make sense of, their experience. Story
schemata consist of expectations of the structural make-up and conceptual
organization of stories. This chapter analyzes a number of schema-related
analytical frameworks and critically evaluates their usefulness for cross-
cultural narrative research. Central in this respect is the conclusion
that Anglo-Western narratives are built as problem-solving episodes.

Chapter 5. The Beautiful and the Beastly: cultural specifics of Anglo-
Western narrative aesthetics

This chapter offers a detailed analysis of the traditional fairy tale
Beauty and the Beast. The text-building conventions, and the criteria of
what makes a good narrative, are discussed there in light of the
theoretical findings made in previous chapters. Using the concept of
episodic analysis (Johnson and Mandler, 1980), the author shows that the
Western stories are prototypically based on the concept of problem-

Chapter 6. Always keeping track: text building strategies in
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara storytelling

Unlike in the Western narratives, the storytelling principles of the
Pitjantjatjara tradition are not based on problem-solving. The chapter
presents a detailed analysis and discussion of the traditional
Pitjantjatjara narrative "A child transforms into a Kangaroo", and
attempts to answer the question: what makes a good story in Pitjantjatjara
and Yankunytjatjara cultures? Specifically, the chapter is dedicated to
testing the analytical tools developed for Anglo-Western narratives and
their cross-cultural applicability. It is aimed at defining the text-
building conventions used by the narrators within Pitjantjatjara culture.

Chapter 7. Holding the world in place: the interrelatedness of story,
practice and culture

In this chapter the author brings together the findings of the textual
analysis of Chapters 5 and 6 by comparing the culture-specific narrative
aesthetics of the two traditions. A special emphasis is put on how the
narrative creation in both traditions is interwoven with culture-specific
social discourses.

Chapter 8. Conclusions and implications

This chapter summarizes the findings regarding the similarities and
differences of the two storytelling cultures. The cross-cultural
description and definition of the narrative is presented.


This book is a fascinating study, providing a highly original and
innovative insight into the interrelatedness of narrative structures and
the worldviews they mirror. Klapproth offers a very broad overview of
disciplines, concepts, and theories that are related to the field of
narratology. In general, this book can be of a great interest as an
introduction to the subject of narrative analysis. The book overcomes one
of the shortcomings of numerous studies that deal only with archival data.
In addition to the archive sources, the author, a field anthropologist and
linguist, analyzes the traditional stories that she personally collected.
She also translated the studied texts as close to the originals as
possible, without editing or embellishing them, because editing the
stories makes them sound and be perceived as Western. The first-hand
knowledge of the studied communities and their traditions enabled the
author to provide an ethnographically thick description of the community's
social practices. Such a thorough understanding of spiritual, religious,
and many other aspects of a studied culture, and attention to linguistic
and extra-linguistic details, help the author uncover the disparity
between Anglo-Western and Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara aesthetic
principles, which lay in the core of the storytelling practices.

The descriptive treatment of the data is very rich and detailed. The book
systematically examines the previous research in the various adjacent
disciplines, such as cognitive science, discourse analysis, cultural
anthropology, etc. The references and theoretical discussions of the
concepts pertaining to the narrative theories are undoubtedly an excellent
starting point for anyone who is interested in construction of reality
through the narrative practices. The book certainly will be of interest to
readers specializing in linguistics, anthropology, folklore, comparative
and cultural studies.

Unlike other researches, Klapproth uses her own detailed transcription of
the recorded performances. The author's goal is to study the micro-
dynamics of performance, at pragmatic and discourse level in order to
define the aesthetic criteria of what is considered an ideal/good
narrative in a given tradition. This goal is achieved: the dissimilarities
between the two traditions are evident. Different narrating techniques and
principles govern the text generation and processing in two respective
storytelling traditions. The differences in story production and
comprehension are stipulated by the divergent worldviews (one is deeply
rooted in a spiritual and religious syncretism that is characteristic of
the Aboriginal people, who regard humans as part of nature, another one is
a modern Westernized worldview and its aesthetics).

Although the author's contribution to the narratological research is
undisputable, the book is not free of minor shortcomings. The cross-
cultural applicability of schema-theoretical story model is tested on two
sets of data. However, ironically, the choice of data is subject to the
same criticism that we find in the author's discussion of the data used by
other investigators. The author maintains that "one of the major problems
affecting much of the story research carried out within the cognitive
science framework stems from the fact that inadequate data were used in
the development of the theories and models." (p.155) As Klapproth points
out, the claims made by Johnson and Mandler, and by Rumelhart, two studies
that are taken as a basis for testing the schema story models, are at
times questionable, because "the development of a story that represents
the underlying structure of stories ... [are] ... from a variety of
cultures."(p.155) As Klapproth demonstrates, such a choice of data is not
suitable for the culture specific micro-research, which deals with the
patterns of conceptual and organizational structure of narratives,
linguistic, prosodic, mimetic, etc., features found in live performances -
"textual surface features"(p.167)

The author analyzes two performances of folklore texts. One is the
artistic performance of the tale Beauty and Beast by a professional
actress. The second one is a community member's performance of the
traditional story of type Kutara-Pula-Stories ("brother pair") by a gifted
storyteller. The tale Beauty and the Beast is a folklore tale by origin
(AT 400-459), but its record represents a literary text. Its variant
performed by Katherine Hepburn was not stored in, and retrieved from, a
collective memory, but was a version of a story written down and
memorized. R. Firth wrote about the "plasticity" of a folklore text:

"One of the critical ways in which myth (like all folklore) differs
radically from written or printed literature concerns variation. There may
be as many different versions of a particular myth as there are tellers of
that myth. Even one individual teller may alter details in his account of
a myth over a period of years or a lifetime". (Firth, p. 207)

The comparative study would have benefited from the Anglo-Western data
obtained in the same manner - from a community storyteller who narrated
the story that he/she learned from another community member. Therefore, it
would be more appropriate methodologically to study a live performance of
the tale that is part of some local tradition, the text that is not merely
memorized, but reproduced as a folklore variant. There is no doubt that
the appearance and structure of a text in this case would differ
significantly from that analyzed in a book, probably having more gaps,
pauses, or logical inconsistencies. On the other hand, at the
conceptual/content level, the narrative scheme - plot - might be very
similar (same protagonists, goals, etc.) The folklore texts do not exist
as ready-made narratives, but rather represent variants of a prototypical
version that is stored in a collective memory, i.e. is known to the
members of a particular culture. With very rare exceptions, the folklore
texts are never mechanically memorized, but rather reproduced or re-
created each time they are performed.

The second text under investigation is a traditional
Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara story. We know that this tale exists in
three variants in author's collection, and that the studied variant is the
longest and most elaborate. (p.220) However, there is no information on
how the storyteller has learned the tale, or on which occasions it was
told. We don't know if the variants of this tale were recorded from other
informants. Knowing the dynamics of folklore we may assume that the text
in question is part of a local tradition, probably is a fragment of a

The plot of the tale can be schematically outlined as follows: there were
two brothers, one of them (the younger) every night turned into kangaroo,
keeping this secret from his elder brother. Once, when he was enjoying
himself in a form of a kangaroo, the wild dingoes chased and torn him
apart. His elder brother discovered his death and mourned his younger
brother. Based on what we know about other oral traditions, this text is
most probably, a fragment of a myth or mythical tale about human-animal
metamorphosis and punishment for breaking a taboo. Although this version
is elaborate, we cannot assume this text to be a full and final version.
Thus, it is necessary to compare this text to other myths from the same or
similar traditions in order to find parallels or its fuller versions. The
text seems to be truncated, because there is no internal logic or
motivation for 1) the younger brother to turn into kangaroo; 2) his death.
There is a vague mentioning that the younger brother was punished for his
transgression. The motivation for this metamorphosis could be found only
based on the comparison of this text with others.

The author's argument against those investigators who approach the
folklore texts as having universal underlying narrative schemata is valid
only at the discourse level of analysis of the live performance. However,
it becomes problematic at a higher level of analysis (content of tale, or
its plot). Plots of both the Anglo-Western and Aboriginal tales are based
on the same motif of human-animal transformation and protagonist's
real/possible death as a result of breaking a taboo/promise. While the
logic of the narrative/plot in the Anglo-Western tale is clear (spells and
the evil sisters preventing the Beauty from coming on time), the
motivation for the Aboriginal tale is not obvious. Nevertheless, its
absence in the studied version does not mean that it does not exist. There
might be such motivation in an Aboriginal story as well. Knowledge of the
internal logic of the plot could be crucial for the author's goal in
studying the worldview and the various social practices in a given
culture. For example, the motivation for the transformation can be rooted
in some kind of totemic beliefs (a kangaroo may be a totemic animal).
Alternatively, it can provide an insight regarding the cosmogony, myths of
creation, etc.

Analyzing data from different unrelated traditions is a method used in a
comparative folklore, which studies macro, or content level of the
narrative schemata, namely motifs that have worldwide parallels, and are
classified and catalogued in the Folklore motif index. (Aarne-Thompson)
The macro level of the narrative schemata is as important as its micro-
dynamics level, but the reviewed book addresses only the micro-level of
the schemata. The notion of narrative scheme when applied to the folklore
text can also presume a macro-level or content analysis. There can be a
broader understanding of a narrative scheme as mini-scenario that is
stored in a collective memory, and is retrieved or re-created during each
performance. As the author remarks, the analysis is possible on a variety
of levels (p. 168), and the conceptual level presupposes the abstract
level of the story plot. Here is, for example, how P. Crepeau explains the
importance of understanding that in respect with folklore, the level of
cognitive competence, "langue", and the level of performance, "parole",
are interrelated:

"That folklore is a communicative process rather than an aggregate of the
traditional materials and that it should consequently be dealt with as
such is a point no one will argue. But one should also bear in mind that
if analysis of folklore items cannot pretend to explain the whole of
folklore, it nevertheless constitutes a necessary step towards a full
comprehension of this cultural phenomenon. ...Of course folklore is
performance and as such it cannot be fully explained without any attention
paid to its process. However, in folklore as in language, there is no
performance without underlying competence. Folklore is a communicative
process on its own, with its own structuring rules. There is the
folkloristic parole; there is also the folkloristic langue..." (Crepeau,

In conclusion, it can be said that the author understands the narrative
scheme quite narrowly, as a surface level of text formation, appearance,
or linguistic make-up of the individual text/performance with all the
richness of its prosodic, mimetic, gestural and grammatical features.
(p.173) Such understanding of a story scheme is perfectly legitimate, and
corresponds to the book's goal. It helps reveal the individual
characteristics of the studied texts and uncover the differences in
storytelling practices in two cultures.


Bauman, R. (1986) Story, performance and event: contextual studies of oral
narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. (1966) The social construction of reality.
Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Crepeau, P. (1978) The invading guest: some aspects of oral transmission.
In: Yearbook of symbolic anthropology, 1, 11-29.

Firth, R. (1984) The plasticity of myth: cases from Tikopia. In: A, Dundes
(ed.) Sacred narrative. Readings in the theory of myth. University of
California press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London.

Mandler, J. and Johnson., N. (1977) Remembrance of things parsed: story
structure and recall. In: Cognitive Psychology, 9, 111-151.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1975) Notes on schema for stories. In: Bobrow, D. and
Gollins, A. (eds.) Representation and understanding. New York: Academic
Press, 211-236.

Thompson, S. (1955-1958) Motif-Index of Folk Literature. A classification
of narrative elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval
Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and Local Legends. Rev. & enlarged
ed., 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Olga Levitski has a MA degree from St-Petersburg State University, where
she specialized in folklore. Now she is a MA student of theoretical
linguistics at York University of Toronto. Her main interests are
discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and folklore. At the moment she is
finishing up her master's degree working on plurilingual codeswitching;
this also involves fieldwork conducting sociolinguistic interviews (data
collection, transcription and analysis).

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