Metanarratives: The Stories that Cultural Groups Tell Themselves

Metanarratives—which literally means “grand narrative”—is a story that provides context and meaning for the lives of an entire group of people. Typically, there are competing and overlapping narratives within a social group. In the U.S., there is the story of throwing off the king’s tyranny, individualism and freedom to practice one’s own religion, the belief that everyone is created equal by their Creator, Manifest Destiny and conquering the West, the systemic oppression of black and Native populations, a melting pot nation of immigrants, the American Dream and American exceptionalism.

 

Examining More Examples of Metanarratives

More than just nation-states, the concept can apply to pretty much any significant social group. As other religions have their own scriptural texts, the Bible is a metanarrative for Christianity. Sports rivalries are steeped in previous competitions, tribal alliances, and legends who are larger than life, as well as the general lore of the sport itself. During championship games, divisional rivalries can melt into conference allegiances. And so, while in many ways we can’t escape the metanarratives that continuously inform our cultural values, we can also pick and choose which narratives we use from one situation to another.

For better or worse, metanarratives bind us in a common cause and cultural touchstones. Even individuals, who reject parts or most of a society’s metanarrative, must still navigate within the society and its institutions. Moreover, long-ingrained metanarratives can be disruptive even after a society rejects the meaning of their narrative. Slavery, for example, has been outlawed in the U.S. for more than 150 years, but we’re still struggling with cultural racism as well as institutions that struggle to achieve broad consensus on affirmative action and criminal justice policies.

 

Social Creatures Tell Stories

So long as we remain social creatures, metanarratives are inevitable. We have language as an instinct. We have connection with other people as a biological need. Storytelling may be inevitable, but the stories themselves are mutable. As our media and cultural touchstones become more narrowcast and insular, our web of cultural stories also evolves. The metanarratives become more disperse, numerous, and overlapping—which allow more freedom for individuals to choose their own values, but it also increases cultural conflicts that threaten to overwhelm the society in a more systemic way.