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The Science of Political Storytelling

October 4, 2012

College Office
Liz Shanahan.
MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Elizabeth A. Shanahan, associate professor of political science, conducts research under the rubric Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), which focuses on the influence of political storytelling on policy decisions. She explains that political narratives inform people about which relationships matter, whom the relevant actors are, where to assign blame, and, perhaps most importantly, what parts of reality we should pay attention to and what parts should be ignored.

“In essence, policy narratives create policy realities, which can have direct effects on political decisions, even in the face of countervailing scientific evidence,” said Shanahan.

Shanahan has developed NPF while working on regional environmental issues, such as bison management, winter use in Yellowstone National Park and hydraulic fracturing, as well as other national issues such as climate change and alternative energy development. While ongoing, her research has revealed that the most powerful component to policy narratives is the use of a strong and accessible hero, not just the portrayal of a dastardly villain. For example, in the case of development of an offshore wind farm near Nantucket, Mass., the winning coalition constructed narratives that framed the corporation proposing the wind turbines in federal waters as the hero who would help ‘deliver the nation from its addiction to foreign oil.’ In contrast, the losing coalition constructed narratives describing a villainous wind farm developer—the ‘greedy multi-national corporation out to make money off the backs of residents and ruin the viewscape.’

Shanahan is invited to present her NPF research at a 2013 public policy conference in Grenoble, France. She was also invited to submit a manuscript for a symposium on “New Theories of the Policy Processes” in the Policy Studies Journal. Former MSU Master of Public Administration students Molly Anderson and Ross Lane have assisted Shanahan in conducting various studies and are co-authors on two publications.  

Updated: 06/19/2013