Dominant Fables and Counter-fables

Dominant and counter-fables are key concepts in my work on narrative, so I’d better explain them. I start my research about narrative by looking for narratives – movies, novels, plays – that deal in a serious way with organizations and leadership. That immediately rules out those where the organization is just the setting for a personal story, for example office romances. Then I classify narratives by context, for example those dealing with UK politics (for example Yes Minister and The Thick of It, which I discussed in my post of March 13) or those dealing with public high schools.

After studying quite a few of the narratives dealing with a particular context, I start to see common patterns, for example recurring plot structures, types of characters, organizational dynamics, or physical settings. This is what I call the dominant fable. Then I ask what sort of audience would likely appreciate or identify with the dominant fable, and whose interest would it be in to disseminate the dominant fable. With movies, the assumption most analysts make is that if a certain type of film works, then there will be remakes to appeal to, and profit from, the same audience. I don’t think this is the case with management narratives, first because they are rarely big box-office hits, and second because the recurring versions of the dominant fable can be several years, or even decades, apart. Cashing in, in contrast, happens much faster.

After the dominant fable has been around for some time, we start to see counter-fables. A counter-fable begins with the dominant fable, but then rejects, inverts, or subverts it in some way. Counter-fables are often satires or parodies but not always. Exactly what the counter-fable rejects, inverts, or subverts depends, of course, on the nature of the dominant fable, which thus influences the form and tone of the counter-fable.

This semester I have been finding in my Narrative and Management course at the Rotman School that the students have readily picked up on the concept of a dominant fable, and when I suggest a presentation looking at two or three movies in a particular genre, the presenters readily identify and analyze common elements in plot and character. The idea has purchase. Next week’s narrative turn will discuss movies about transformational teachers in urban public high schools to show how dominant and counter-fables play out in that context.

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