Reshaping the Narrative Debate

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In Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan Williams sets out to alter the terms of the public discussion about working, caregiving, and work-family conflicts. In doing so, Williams also reframes part of the conversation about the use of narratives in legal analysis and policy-making.

This essay describes the debate about narrative or storytelling in the legal academy. Two decades ago, a pitched jurisprudential battle surfaced in the pages of law reviews about the value of storytelling as legal scholarship. Since that time, narrative has sifted into academic texts: people are telling stories all over the place. Research is also emerging in cognitive neuroscience about the value of stories to human comprehension. And law schools are beginning to consciously recognize that part of what they do is to train storytellers. Another narrative phenomenon has also become more pronounced during this same time frame. The overwhelming majority of the information people acquire comes from press accounts rather than reading original materials. The media have a singular ability to prioritize public issues and mold perceptions. Thus, press-constructed stories have become an increasingly powerful tool impelling or obstructing policy change.

Part I of this essay describes the history of the debate about the value of narrative as legal scholarship. Part II examines the explosion of stories and attention to storytelling both inside and outside the legal academy. It also reviews emerging evidence from cognitive neuroscience about the importance of stories to the ways humans understand the world. In Part III, the essay centers on media-created narratives and focuses on Joan Williams’ instructive methodology for interrogating press-constructed myths. Moving from dismantling to reconstruction, Part IV circles back to the importance of stories - and the ways academics can develop counter narratives that can help reshape public understandings about work, families and fairness.

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Seattle University Law Review