Monday, January 22, 2007

Why Story Needs Discourse

Strictly speaking, that Burke pentad, to which I referred earlier today, focuses on only have of the domain of narrative analysis: the description of the events being recounted. In the terminology of Seymour Chatman, from whom I acquired my working knowledge of narrative theory, this half is called the story; and its complementary half is called the discourse. If the story is concerned with those elements that need to be accounted for, the discourse is concerned with how those accounts are rendered, such as the rhetorical devices that guide the reader of the text through the accounts. The significance of discourse is illustrated in almost painful clarity in a report of a recent sociological study about racism that is now available, as summarized by the author, at the Nieman Watchdog Web site. Here is the critical text of the summary:

In this experiment, I hired young men to pose as job applicants, assigning them resumes with equal levels of education and experience, and sending them to apply for real entry-level job openings all over Milwaukee. There were two teams, one white and one black. The two members of each team also alternated presenting information about a fictitious criminal record (a drug felony), which they “’fessed up to” on the application form. During six months of fieldwork, the two teams audited 350 employers, applying for a wide range of entry level jobs such as waiters, sales assistants, laborers, warehouse workers, couriers, and customer service representatives. The results of these studies were startling. Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background. Racial disparities have been documented in many contexts, but here, comparing the two job applicants side by side, we are confronted with a troubling reality: Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.

This is about as good an illustration as we can hope for of the critical role that discourse can play, regardless of the strength of the "underlying facts" of the story. The greatest virtue of this account is the way in which it presents its key result in a manner that is as vivid as it is meaningful. The implication that the "level of the playing field" for a black with a clean record is the same as that for a white with a felony conviction cannot fail to grab the attention of the reader! It would be nice to believe that the strength of that formulation will be enough to incite action to change this imbalance, but I am not holding my breath!

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