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Critical Discourse Studies

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‘“Narrative!” I can’t hear that anymore’. A linguistic

critique of an overstretched umbrella term in

cultural and social science studies, discussed with

the example of the discourse on climate change

Martin Reisigl

To cite this article: Martin Reisigl (2020): ‘“Narrative�” I�can’t�hear�that�anymore’. A linguistic critique of an overstretched umbrella term in cultural and social science studies, discussed with the example of the discourse on climate change, Critical Discourse Studies, DOI: 10.1080/17405904.2020.1822897

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© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

Published online: 02 Nov 2020.

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‘“Narrative!” I can’t hear that anymore’. A linguistic critique of

an overstretched umbrella term in cultural and social science

studies, discussed with the example of the discourse on

climate change

Martin Reisigl

Department of Linguistics, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria


In cultural as well as social science studies of discourses (e.g. of discourses on climate change), the concept of narrative is used in a very broad sense – as an umbrella term that lacks analytical accuracy. From the perspective of linguistics, it seems obvious to acknowledge five elementary generic patterns. In addition to narration, linguists differentiate between argumentation, description, explication and instruction. Each of these patterns fulfils a different basic pragmatic function. This article tries to make clear and justify why it is important, both theoretically and practically, to make a distinction between these five generic patterns. It is argued and shown that narrativization tends to go hand in hand with a relief of action, historicization, potential fictionalization, subjectivization and relativization. With respect to discourses on the climate crisis, these prototypical characteristics of narratives undermine both scientific attempts to justify claims of truth relating to the existence, causes and consequences of global warming as well as practical attempts to motivate people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.


Basic generic patterns; narration; description; explanation; argumentation; instruction; climate change / climate crisis


The title of my contribution alludes to the trend in cultural and social science studies, and as an interdiscursive consequence, also in the culture pages of quality newspapers, to use – in an inflationary manner – a far too broad and ultimately counterproductive concept of the narrative. The negative expressive speech act in the title speaks from my linguistic heart. However, it was not uttered by a linguist criticizing neighbouring discipines, but by the social democratic governor of the Austrian province Burgenland, Hans Peter Dos-kozil, in an interview of the Austrian quality newspaper Der Standard, published on 29 November 2019 (Weisgram & Doskozil,2019, p. 3). When asked why the Austrian Social Democrats scored so badly in the last elections, he answered:

© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

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CONTACT Martin Reisigl


It is always said that we must– I can’t hear the word anymore! – have a story, the narrative mustfit. This is crazy! I don’t need to tell people a story. I need to convey credibility. I have to make come true what I say. I need to know: What makes people tick?

It is highly interesting that a social scientist, viz. the political scientist Felix Butzlaff, felt chal-lenged by Doskozil’s refusal of the emphasis on narratives and stepped onto the scene of the same newspaper a week later with a long commentary. Among other things, Butzlaff went so far as to claim that Doskozil’s rejection of narratives is itself a narrative:

The narrative of the credibility one gets by listening to people, and ofʻcommon sense’, of the pursuit of modest prosperity, is just that: a narrative. But one that has largely abandoned the claim to social change. For if the basis for individual decisions is only what already exists, the possible change is also limited to this horizon. (Butzlaff,2019, p. 31)

This example shows the problem very clearly, which will be dealt with in the following sections. In social sciences and cultural studies, the terms narrative and narration have become broad, blurred and inflationary cover terms that lack analytical power. From a lin-guistic point of view, social scientists commit a category mistake when they confuse nar-ration with other basic generic patterns such as argumentation and explanation. Of course, the critique uttered by Doskozil is not a narrative, but a refuting argumentation.

In what follows, I would like to illustrate and justify my claim that such a metalinguistic misjudgement leads to analytical blurriness that ignores the basic pragmatic functions of communication and can have counterproductive practial consequences. I will try to show this with respect to discourse on the climate crisis. It is my aim to convince the readers of this volume that a linguistic perspective on the discourse on the climate crisis is highly sig-nificant when it comes to adequately grasping the communicative diversity in the discourse. A differentiated linguistic perspective is especially important for preventing fuzzy concepts of narration and narrative from promoting climate change scepticism and from undermin-ing the attempt to motivate people to change their lives towards a more climate-friendly lifestyle guided by principles of sufficiency and sustainability. From the point of view of applied linguistics, it is necessary to take a more precise look at discourses.

Drawing on the concept advanced by the Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA), I understand discourse to be a communicative and interactional macro-unit that com-prises specific groups of concrete texts, conversations, interactions and other semiotic events as well as action units. These actual discursive units, i.e. tokens, relate to specific genres and other semiotic action patterns, i.e. to types (Reisigl, 2018, p. 51). Among these semiotic types, we find various basic generic patterns, narration being one of them. Argumentation, description, explanation and instruction are further basic generic patterns. They are incorporated– often in form of combinations – into the par-ticular texts and conversations which belong to a specific discourse. Here, I call them basic generic patterns. In other theories of texts, genres and discourses, they are discussed under additional labels such as text types or discourse types, discourse modes, forms of dis-course, textual patterns (in German: Vertexungsmuster) or simply genres (see, for instance, Smith,2003, pp. 8–48 and Bax,2011, pp. 54–94). Each of the five generic patterns fulfils a different basic communicative function. We lose a lot of our analytical and practical potential if we do not recognize the differences between these patterns with their dis-tinctive functions and do not let them have practical effects. This shall be shown in the following sections. The paper will first deal with narration (section 2) and then,


subsequently, with the other four basic generic patterns (in section 3), before an overall conclusion is drawn (section 4).

What is and what is not a narrative?

The questionable tendency towards narrativization in public discourses, as well as scien-tific discourses, can be illustrated with many examples. Three examples may suffice here (a fourth example with be discussed at the end of the section on argumentation).

First example: Thefirst example is taken from a newspaper commentary by the cultural scholar Wolfgang Müller-Funk. On 7/8 September 2019 he wrote in the Austrian newspa-per Der Standard about the alleged re-actualization of the apocalyptic narrative on climate change and argued for more serenity in the climate crisis.1Müller-Funk derives his stoic attitude at least in part from the connotations inhering in the concept of the narrative. Müller-Funk writes:

A gap is opening up between the urgency of acting and the time that would be necessary to change our way of life and production sustainably. Already thefirst ecological turnaround operated with the apocalyptic narrative of an impending world catastrophe. If we do not act immediately, the end is looming. At that time, it was the forest, for whose survival it wasfive before or even five after twelve. As is well known, forest dieback has not occurred in the dramatically predicted form, and one must be allowed to hope that it will be similar with respect to climate change. Global warming is undoubtedly caused by the wrong way of life and production, but the climate has changed in previous centuries also without human influence. Today, for example, some climate researchers speak of a coming ice age – this makes forecasting even more difficult. (Müller-Funk2019b, p. 43)

As you can see here, Müller-Funk relativizes the scientifically based findings of anthro-pogenic global warming and the warnings of its negative consequences into ONE alarmist narrative among OTHER narratives. Müller-Funk is not a die-hard climate sceptic, but a nar-ratological relativist with a very ambivalent attitude. He ignores that the danger of dying forests has been contained by politically orchestrated measures against acid rain, and he uses the typical climate sceptical argument of the naturalness of the past climate change. At the end of the quote, he even refers to an alleged narrative of the impending ice age, as told by some climate researchers, ignoring the overwhelming scientific consensus among climatologists who have no doubt whatsoever about man-made global warming (see, for instance, Doran & Zimmermann,2009). Moreover, Müller-Funk neglects that the problem of dying forests has become more virulent again under the influence of climate change. I am convinced that the concept of narrative used by Müller-Funk favours his scientifically unjustified relativism and that such a conceptualization of the narrative is based on a cat-egory mistake. This critique will be justified in more detail below.

Second example: But let usfirst look at another example based on a very generalized con-ception of the narrative. The sociologist of knowledge Willy Viehöver also uses the concept of narrative in his analysis of climate discourses in print media and scientific as well as popular science journals (Viehöver,2003a, 2003b, 2008, 2011, 2012a, 2012b). He meta-phorizes the talk of the climate catastrophe as a myth of reflexive modernity and asserts that the idea of a climate catastrophe can only unfold its institutional effect in


the mode of narration or myth. Viehöver also assumes that we are dealing with stories of climate change that have certain narrative forms.

For the years between 1970 and 1995, Viehöver examined a corpus of 1265 German newspaper and weekly articles (taken from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Neues Deutschland, and Der Spiegel) and 931 scientific and popular-scientific texts from the German and English-speaking world (taken from the three journals Science, Nature and Bild der Wissenschaft). A central result of his research, which cannot be presented here in its entire complexity, is that he believes to have ident-ified six competing narratives, each of which is divided into six episodes. The episodes Vieh-över counts are the introduction to the setting (E1), the reference to the causes (E2), the reference to the consequences (E3), the mentioning of solutions (E4), the conclusion (E5) and the reference to conditions of reception and resonance (E6). What Viehöver names ‘epi-sodes’ are not really episodes in the sense of events of short duration embedded in a larger time period. Moreover, Viehöver’s so-called narratives have little to do with narrated stories. Viehöver’s alleged narratives are (a) the assumed narrative of the global greenhouse as an anthropogenic catastrophe caused by the greenhouse effect, (b) the presumed narrative of anthropogenic ice ages that would be triggered by areosols, i.e. by air pollution (‘global cooling story’), (c) the supposed story of the nuclear winter that follows a nuclear war, (d) the alleged narrative of a paradisiacal warm period, which was made possible by technical means that allow for climate modelling, (e) the alleged narrative of the periodic return of sun-spots and (f) the alleged narrative of climate change as a media and sciencefiction.

Much of what Willy Viehöver calls narratives and episodes has to do with argumenta-tively concluded relationships between causes and consequences in the past and in the future. In this respect, most of what Viehöver has investigated is connected less to the basic generic pattern of the narrative than to the two generic patterns of (causal) expla-nation and argumentations (justification). Many of the causal explanations and the argu-mentation patterns that appear in Viehöver’s data are fallacious from a climatological and an argumentation-analytical perspective. A linguistically sound re-analysis of Viehöver’s text corpus could elaborate on the various argumentation patterns referring to natural-ness, ignorance, numbers, (endangered) freedom, etc. However, Viehöver does not focus on argumentation in his study, since he exclusively views his analysis through the lens of an overstreched concept of narrative. This is a misfortune because his discourse analytical work is differentiated in many respects – including his references to Paul Ricœur’s narratological approach.

However, it seems that Viehöver relies on a more generalized concept of the narrative than Ricœur does. Ricœur makes a distinction between narration and historical nation, though he discusses their close relationship in great detail. He conceives of expla-nation in a rather broad sense that tends towards integrating argumentation. I will argue below that explanation and argumentation are distinct generic patterns, though they can be closely linked. Ricœur stresses the importance of a narrative understanding of history on the basis of a narrative configuration that integrates heterogeneous elements into a unity, but he also stresses that explanation cannot be subsumed under narration and that there still remains a‘distance’ between the two (Ricœur,1988, pp. 214–215, 269). Fol-lowing Arthur Danto, Ricœur argues that we cannot tell the ‘history of the future’ in the strict sense, since narrative utterances represent the events of the past in the light of


later events that are unknown to the actors themselves, but known to the narrator (cf. Ricœur,1988, p. 216). Ricœur (1988, pp. 339–340) admits that he has put into brackets the epistemological issue that historical reconstructions make stronger claims of truth with respect to the representation of past events than fictions, but he is well aware of this difference. And he is also aware of the fact that the concept of the narrative has its limits, and that beyond these limits there are a series of non-narrative discursive modes (Ricœur,1991, p. 434). However, these non-narrative patterns of communication remain rather shapeless in Ricœur’s books, and they are – for the most part – also neglected in Viehöver’s works.

This disregard has consequences. Just as with Müller-Funk, it seems no coincidence that Viehöver’s use of a dispersed concept of narration is accompanied by a relativism that partly fosters scepticism towards climate change. This is precisely the crux of the concept of narrative used in a generalized and unanalytical way. The metalinguistic and conceptual narrativization of representations of climate change in social-scientific and media discourses often tends to go hand in hand with a relief of action, a historicization, a potentialfictionalization, a subjectivization and a more or less strong constructivist relati-vization and, consequently, also trivialization. In other words:

(a) When we tell a story, we are usually in a relaxed situation, we lean back and listen cur-iously. The situation in which we tell a story is not associated with any acute pressure to act on the interactors in the present situation. That is to say: Narratives are not sequences of directive speech acts or instructions that prepare imminent actions or that empractically accompany concrete actions– even though they will involve and move their listeners and readers emotionally.

(b) The events that we are dealing with in a narrative lie in the past– except for science fiction literature, where we make believe the plot is in a future past. A story is about a remembered and narrated world and not about the present or future world. Thus, the pressure to act in the present is suspended. The narrative’s basic illocutionary force is not a directive or demanding one.

(c) At their core, narratives consist of a sequence of assertions related to the recalled past. This core sequence of speech acts is usually formulated in the past tense and– in part – also in the plusquamperfect, and the evocation of past events can potentially be uttered in the historical present, in order to vivify the narrated past. Narrative assertions present past events as facts that have happened, not as potential events that could happen under specific conditions and circumstances. In addition to assertions, narra-tives may also contain all other basic types of speech acts (e.g. questions, directive speech acts, commissive speech acts, declarative speech acts, and expressive speech acts), but they are prototypically integrated into representations of direct speech in dia-logues or interactions. The assertions made in most of the narratives usually have a weaker validity claim of truth than, for example, scientific reconstructions of a reality, as they are made in the natural sciences and historical studies. Thus, fictionality is more probable in narratives than in scientific texts (e.g. of climate sciences).

(d) The weaker claim of truth has a lot to do with the fact that narratives are produced by a narrative subject who performs a subjectivized representation of experienced and remembered past events. A narrator is telling the narrative from her or his perspective. Scientific texts, on the other hand, have objectivity as their epistemological goal. They


try to achieve intersubjectively comprehensible representations of reality, even if an absolute objectivity will never be attainable. Scientific representations want to avoid strongly subjective views, and if they focus on subjective views, then they capture multiple subjectivities in a kaleidoscopic manner, e.g. in oral history, where subjective life realities and experiences are collected from individuals belonging to specific social groups.

(e) Whoever frames something to be a narrative connotes the moment of fictionality more strongly than someone who metalinguistically employs the concepts of descrip-tion and explanadescrip-tion. With a descripdescrip-tion and an explanadescrip-tion, the claim to represent reality in an iconic way is stronger. Narratologically oriented researchers tend to be anti-realists or stronger radical constructivists than researchers with a linguistically more differentiated perspective on the descriptive, explanatory, justificatory, instruc-tive and narrainstruc-tive features of a discourse (e.g. the discourse on climate change).

Allfive characteristics of a narrative resonate when the concept is used in disciplines such as sociology, politology and cultural studies. These disciplines seem not to be familiar with textlinguistic and pragmatic differentiations of basic generic patterns such as descrip-tion, argumentadescrip-tion, explanation and instruction– in addition to narration. Thus, they tend towards using a generalized concept of narration. Such a concept is not satisfying from a textlinguistic and pragmatic point of view.

Third example: My criticism applies even to the climate sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wherever the IPCC outlines model-based future scenarios of climate change based on very specific starting conditions, employing the concept of story-lines. In the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES), working group III of the IPCC dis-tinguishes between storylines, scenarios and scenario families. A storyline is considered to be‘a narrative description of a scenario (or a family of scenarios), highlighting the main scenario characteristics and dynamics, and the relationships between key driving forces’ (Nakićenović et al.,2000, p. 72). A scenario is‘a description of a potential future, based on a clear logic and a quantified storyline’ and a scenario family includes ‘scenarios that have a similar demographic, politico-societal, economic and technological storyline’ (Naki-ćenović et al.,2000, p. 72). On the basis of these three concepts, the IPCC made the follow-ing distinctions:

. A1 storyline and scenario family:‘a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies.’ (Nakićenović et al.,2000, p. 4)

. A2 storyline and scenario family:

a very heterogeneous world. The underlying theme is self-reliance and preservation of local identities. Fertility patterns across regions converge very slowly, which results in continuously increasing global population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change are more fragmented and slower than in other storylines. (Nakićenović et al.,2000, p. 5)

. B1 storyline and scenario family:

a convergent world with the same global population […] as in the A1 storyline, but with rapid changes in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in


material intensity, and the introduction of clean and resource-efficient technologies. (Nakiće-nović et al.,2000, p. 5)

. B2 storyline and scenario family:

a world in which the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social, and environmental sustainability. It is a world with continously increasing global population at a rate lower than A2, intermediate levels of economic development, and less rapid and more diverse tech-nological change than in theВ1 and A1 storylines. (Nakićenović et al.,2000, p. 70)

From a linguistic perspective, in this scientific context the term storylines is misleading, because the condition-dependent projections of the IPCC are not narratives or stories of possible future developments, but multimodal (verbal as well as visual) representations of deductively calculated possibilities based on inductive argumentation, i.e. supported by empirical data that have been fed into theoretical models. The data are gathered by direct measurement and indirect observation and are recorded by description that is inte-grated into explanations and argumentations. In short, the IPCC’s storylines involve a complex interplay of scientific argumentation based on description and explanation. They have hardly anything to do with stories.

Thus, the term storylines is misleading. Its relativizing connotations are taken up in the media in order to support climate change scepticism. So, for example, Sonja Mar-golina makes the claim in the magazine Cicero that climate change is the final big Western narrative that is being used to make irrational political decisions (Margolina,


Lest I be misunderstood. For me, narratives do have their places in the communication about climate change and the climate crisis, just as they do in narratological approaches to cultural studies and social sciences. However, they do not have their place where, in a complex interplay of description, explanation and justification, scientific statements are made about the existence, causes and consequences of dramatic climate change. Narra-tives are functional in the following respects, when it comes to communication about the climate crisis:

(1) First, they are helpful as biographical and anecdotal narratives (see Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker, 1997, pp. 123–126). Such narratives represent personal motives and biographical sequences of events experienced by climate researchers. They can have an informative, empathic, exemplary and mobilizing value for hearers and readers. If environmentally conscious scientists or people in general are narra-tively represented as role models, such narratives even assume the character of arguments from authority. The IPCC itself has recognized this and has rec-ommended its staff to tell a story about their own careers. In 2018, Corner, Shaw and Clarke published ‘A Handbook for IPCC authors’, which promotes six principles of effective communication for the IPCC. The fourth principle goes: ‘Tell a human story’. This principle is generally explained as follows: ‘Most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs, so aiming for a narrative structure and showing the human face behind the science when presenting information will help you tell a compelling story.’ (Corner et al.,


(2) Second, documentary narratives are reasonable, where the anthropogenic ‘fates’ of people, animals and plants are represented in an individualized way in times of the climate crisis. Such documentary storytelling refers to climate-related events of exemplary value, experienced and narrated by the author himself or herself, or it focusses on other people, on specific animals or on plants, which are threatened from extincton (e.g. polar bears, blue whales, coral reefs, spruce forests in countries like Austria, etc.).

(3) Third, narratives about the subjective experience of extreme weather events can move people towards solidarity. Such narratives revolve around memorable incidents caused by climate change. They can help to foster empathy with the victims of the climate crisis.

(4) Fourth, there already exist impressive narrative dystopias written by climate scientists and writers. Dystopian narratives imagine negative consequences of the climate change as if they had already occurred. Thus, they have an illustrative warning func-tion and may trigger concern. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway published an essayistic sciencefiction dystopia about an alleged great collapse of the Western civilization for the years between 2073 and 2093 (Oreskes & Conway, 2014). They imagine the coming of a ‘second Dark Age’. Bernd Sommer and Sebastian Wessels published two short narrative versions about the potential climate future in Germany in 2040 (Sommer & Wessels,2013, pp. 273–291). They tell their fictional stories in the historical present. One version tells of a catastrophic development resulting from the fact that too little was done politically in order to prevent negative consequences of the climate change. The other version tells that in 2040 the climate situation in Germany was a burden for many people, but that the development did not lead to a tragedy, because mitigation and adaptation measures had been taken in time.

(5) Utopia can also be a valuable narrative in a discourse about the climate crisis. The term utopia comes from Greek ou and topos, meaning nothing and place, i.e. nowhere. Thus utopian narratives tell us about a nice place that has not yet come into being, but that would be a desired alternative to the current situation. In our context, a utopian nar-rative is a counter-factual story that tells us about a positive development leading away from the problematic status quo of the climate crisis to a wonderful place with a high quality of life, to a locus amoenus. Such a story may also help to motivate people to change their lifestyles towards a way of life that puts more emphasis on the principles of a sustainabile development.

(6) Whereas utopian narratives refer to an actually non-existent place, a heterotopia tells of a realized,‘concrete utopia’, i.e. a real place that already exists somewhere else, a different place or counterplace (Greek héteros means the other one) diverging from the place right here and now (see Foucault,2013, pp. 9–22). In our context, heteroto-pias may be examples of good practices that can be referred to, especially if somebody argues that such a place cannot be realised. A heterotopian narrative fulfils the argu-mentative function of a concrete illustrating example. In this way, a heterotopian nar-rative about the developments that let Copenhagen become a leading bicycle-friendly town in Europe can function as an inspiring example for many other European cities. In his book entitled Everything could be different (in German: Alles könnte anders sein), Harald Welzer makes reference to four heteropias of ‘car-free cities’ (Welzer, 2019, pp. 188–192). However, his ‘heterotopias’ are still rather utopian imaginations than


realisations. Heterotopian, utopian as well as dystopian narratives are closely linked to literary storytelling. Literary narratives mostly revolve around events within the frame-work of afictional world-construction (Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker,1997, p. 124). A dystopian mininarrative is told in the following poster (Figure 1). It was used on 15 March 2019, during one of the Fridays for Future climate demonstrations in Vienna. It reads:‘Grandpa? What’s a snowman?’ This condensed mininarrative tells in one sentence that global warming will have had such dramatic consequences that grandchildren will not know what a snowman is in the future, because there will have been no more snow in winter that they will have experienced personally. The example of this anecdotal mininarrative shows that narratives can fulfil an argumentative function. In the case of the poster we notice an extreme case argumentation intended as a warning: If we continue as before and now, our grandchildren will not be able to experience snow personally.

Narratives show a series of basic features (see also Hoffmann,2018). Narratives are the communicative products of the process of storytelling known as narration within linguis-tics. Narratives fulfil many different functions that are not mutally exclusive. They offer orientation by helping to order experienced events chronologically and to put them into a broader social and historical context. Narratives fulfil the purpose of informing and entertaining people. Further, they make it easier to construct personal and social iden-tities, to do identity work as well as face work and positive self-presentation. They help to give meaning to experiences, to cope with one’s own life and to constitute a dynamic nar-rative identity (Ricœur,1991, pp. 395–400; Viehöver,2012b, p. 67). With narratives, we can


represent our own involvement in an event and promote concern, identification, empathy, and solidarity. From a psychological and psychoanalytical point of view, narratives can support self-relief. Of course, narratives can also fulfil an argumentative function if they serve as illustrating examples. However, argumentation is not a necessary part of narration. Thus, narration should not be confused or even equated with argumentation.

Narrations are perspective-based stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. They are told by a narrator and deal with narrativefigures of anthropomorphic character who carry out purposeful actions (Fludernik,2006, p. 14). Two indispensable characteristics of the narrative pattern is (a) that they contain a chronological sequence of events and (b) that they refer to the past, i.e. to events or actions preceding the narrating time. It follows from these characteristics that a weather forecast is not a narrative. Rather, a weather forecast is a deductively calculated prognostic process description.

Labov and Waletzky (1967, pp. 27–37) have offered a classical linguistic account for the overall structure of narratives that is still useful. According to them, a narrative usually starts (a) with an orientation that indicates the situational context with respect to persons, places, times and other context features. Then, (b) typically a complicating action is representated as a chronology of events. This intricate action is discursively or tex-tually built as an exciting, fascinating, captivating or thrilling action. It seems to be unex-pected, to deviate from norms, expectations, and common habits. (c) The complication is resolved in a third step. Here, the narrativefigure comes to terms with the tricky situation successfully or tragically, by becoming a victim of the narrated constellation and events. This resolution can sometimes coincide with the evaluation. (d) Evaluation is that part of a narrative, in which the narrator reveals her or his attitude by indicating to the listeners or readers the relative importance of the specific narrative units (Labov & Waletzky,1967, p. 30, 32). (e) Finally, a coda can be an optional element. It leads back to the perspective of the present moment and situation of storytelling (Labov & Waletzky,1967, p. 35).

Narratives interrelate in complex ways with other basic generic patterns (such as description, argumentation, and explanation) and often include elements of these pat-terns. However, it is important not to confuse the various generic patterns, but to keep them theoretically as well as practically distinct.

There is not one butfive basic generic patterns

My main linguistic message for social scientists and scholars doing cultural studies is that we should– when studying discourses, including discourses on climate change and the climate crisis, or when intervening as applied Critical Discourse Analysts into these

Table 1.Five basic generic patterns and their pragmatic main functions.

Generic pattern Basic pragmatic function

Description Iconic representation of what is perceived by thefive human senses for listeners or hearers Explication Making facts, processes, the performance of actions and language comprehensible for listeners or


Argumentation Convincing listeners or hearers of a disputed claim of truth or claim of normative rightness by uttering arguments for or against the claim

Narration Recapitulating remembered event sequences of the past experienced by the narrator or someone else as a meaningful unity for listeners or hearers


discourses– recognize five main generic patterns and be aware that they fulfil different pragmatic (communicative as well as social) functions. These different functions cannot be understood adequately if we merely operate with a fuzzy notion of the narrative. As linguistic pragmaticians and text linguists, we can distinguish between description, expli-cation/explanation, argumentation, narration, and instruction. Their pragmatic main func-tions can be summarized as follows: (Table 1).


Descriptions attempt to render the sensually perceived internal or external reality iconic through a semiotic representation. They are based on observation and form the foun-dation of every empirical science. Linguistic descriptions consist of specific concatenations of assertive speech acts. Prototypically, they are uttered in the present tense, contain impersonal constructions (e.g. passive forms and nominalizations), copula verbs (i.e. be and have), perception verbs (as well as their nominalizations) and deictics referring to time, space, persons, objects, etc. (Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker,1997, p. 133). Everything that exists can be described, as long as it is perceptible and has a structure that can be represented (Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker,1997, p. 131). Depending on the purpose, pre-vious knowledge, interests of the describers and addressees, and the object properties, descriptions will be more or less detailed, accurate and complete (Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker,1997, p. 131).

Generally speaking, we can distinguish between descriptions of objects (in a wide sense) and descriptions of processes. Object descriptions include the representation of per-ceptible persons, animals, plants, things, pictures and many other things. These descrip-tions focus on general dimensions of features (shape, position in space and time, number, size, colour and other qualities) and on characteristic features of object parts and their relationships. Usually, the order of a descriptive representation corresponds to the order in which the neighbouring parts of an object are perceived by the describer. The perspective from which an object is described will change depending on procedures such as distancing, zooming, walking around, entering and so on. Process descriptions are iconic representations of perceptible developments or states, in particular of repeated pro-cesses and process sequences, e.g. natural propro-cesses such as weather changes, etc. (Zifonun, Hoffmann & Strecker, 1997, p. 131).

In climate science, a large number of objects and processes relating to climate are rep-resented by object and process descriptions. These descriptions often appear in explana-tory scientific texts. They have the function to record and grasp the data for climate research.2Climatologists gather these data either through direct observation and instru-mental measurement or through indirect observation. Direct gathering of descriptive data relies on a series of measurements at specific locations – measurements of tempera-ture, air pressure, precipitation, water level, etc. Indirect observation produces so-called proxy data, i.e. data functioning as indexical signs that can be read as traces of climate pro-cesses. These traces include organic, inorganic and cultural indexical signs. Organic signs relate to plant growth,flowering and ripening time, harvest time, harvest quantity, crop failure, sugar content of grapes, drought period, and the spreading or decline of plants and animals. Inorganic traces described by climate scientists are, among other things, carbon dioxide concentrations in the air and in ice cores,floodings, the sizes of glaciers,


snow covers and frequencies of snowfall and cover. Cultural signs consist of written and visual reports about prayer processions and migration movements, natural disasters, etc. (see Mauelshagen, 2010, pp. 40–42). Whatever processes are described in climate research, it is clear from a linguistic perspective that these descriptions are not narratives, but descriptions, even though they represent changes in the past.


Explanations or explications fulfil the function of making something understandable to lis-teners or readers, e.g. the different meanings of words such as climate and weather, which are repeatedly confused in public discourses on climate change – and this not only by Donald Trump. Any linguistic action aimed at explicating, elucidating or clarifying some-thing is an explanation. Explanations consist of two parts: the object (in a wide sense) that has to be explained (explanandum) and the verbal or visual utterance that explains the object (explanans). Explanations are made of assertive speech acts, frequently uttered in (timeless) present tense. Three important forms are (a) meta-linguistic expla-nations illuminating the meaning of a word, concept or text, (b) instructive explaexpla-nations making clear how the addressee can or should act, for example, how she or he can operate an object or device, and (c) causal explanations enlightening causal links, i.e. making clear the connections between causes and effects, or means and ends (IPCC texts comprise a lot of this form of explanations).

Explanations, particularly causal explanations, are often confused with argumentation, since both can be an answer to a why-question. The central difference is that in an

Figure 2.Schematic view of the components of the climate system, their processes and interactions (IPCC,2007, p. 104).


explanation, the initial assertion about a causal relationship is not disputed, whereas an argumentation grows from a claim that seems to be doubtful or has been questioned and should thus be justified by arguments. Only if an explanation is disputed – this happens again and again in scientific texts – does argumentation begin, given that a pro-tagonist wants to maintain the claim that is questioned (see Ecker,2006, pp. 29–30).

The IPCC Assessment Reports of thefirst working group, which deal with the physical foundations of climate change, are full of explanations of causal relationships. These expla-nations are integrated into complex climate models. To adequately convey the highly differentiated models in media discourses is a major journalistic challenge. The difficult task can, of course, be accomplished more easily through multimodal communication, which also includes images, than through purely verbal explanations. The IPCC has already tried to draft years ago simplified multimodal representations of the climate system, which contain descriptive and explanatory elements. Among them is the following one published in 2007 (Figure 2). Although the title of thefigure tells us that it also rep-resents the interactions between the components of the climate system, not all inter-actions among the various components become clear enough. Especially the human influences – simply represented by one single factory with a chimney, one single wind turbine, one very small single-family house and one solitary car– are not represented in a very iconic manner.


The instructive pattern is of crucial importance in the current phase of communication on climate change and the resulting climate crisis. If practitioners, including Critical Discourse Scholars interested in a practical relevance of their research on discourses about climate change, want to motivate people to act in a more climate-sensitive manner, they will or should attach particular importance to the generic patterns of instruction. The main func-tion of instrucfunc-tions is to offer verbal or multimodal guidance to people in order to enable them to act in a specific way. As a basic generic pattern, instructions prepare for and accompany action (Ehlich et al.,1994; Ballstaedt,2019, pp. 255–262). Instruction often inte-grates elements of explanation and description. Its guiding function is realised by directive speech acts combined with the grammatical imperative mood. Typical additional linguistic features are enumerative sequences presented in a list style that contains specifications of successive steps, cardinal and ordinal numbers (such as one, two, three andfirst, second, third), and deictic temporal sequencing (first, then). Furthermore, instructions often include a direct deictic addressing of persons (you), deontic verbs, also in the subjunctive, and nominal ellipses (see also Werlich,1979, p. 37). Furthermore, they frequently contain if–then-constructions.

Instructive communication formats employed in the discourse about the climate crisis are based on breaking down the problem of climate change into topical sub-areas such as mobility, housing, nutrition, energy policy, and sustainable consumption. Thus, the complex problem of causing and mitigating global warming and of adapting oneself to it is approached from different angles and many different fields of social – individual as well as collective – action. Numerous instructions on saving energy, avoiding waste, climate-friendly nutrition and sustainable consumption deal with the climate problem in a very practical manner.



In order for people to change their perspective and thus also their way of life towards a more energy-saving and decarbonized lifestyle, they must be convinced that a change of their habitus and behaviour is good for them, their environment and the whole ecosys-tem. In order to convince them, argumentation is needed. Argumentation can be seen as a linguistic or multimodal as well as cognitive pattern of problem-solving that manifests itself in a sequence of speech acts which form a complex network of statements or utter-ances (Kopperschmidt,2000, pp. 59–60; Reisigl,2014, p. 70). Argumentation has the func-tion to challenge or justify validity claims such as truth and normative rightness, to convince listeners or hearers that an assertive claim is true or that a directive demand is appropriate and acceptable. The validity claim of truth connects with epistemic, theoreti-cal and knowledge-related issues, the claim of normative rightness with questions of ethics and right action.

Sound argumentation is often exclusively linked to rationality and opposed to emotions. Such a view reproduces the millennia-old misconception that reason and emotion are mutually exclusive. This is not the case. Though rationality is a necessary con-dition for sound argumentation, there is no rational argumentation without emotion. Those who are aware of the emotional foundation of argumentation will be more likely to successfully apply the rhetorical principle of tua res agitur, which is central to communi-cation on climate change. This principle requires the communicator to convey to the addressee that it concerns her or him directly. If the addressees have been convinced that their cause is at stake, they are more likely to change their lives towards a more sus-tainable lifestyle.

Arguments are used to substantiate the claim of a human-made climate crisis and to justify claims on causes and consequences of the climate change, but also to justify claims about causal relationships in the areas of mitigation and adaptation. On the other hand, claims of normative rightness refer to questions of what should be done or avoided in the current climate crisis. Such practical reasoning takes place where questions of mitigation and adaptation are at stake.

Arguments of climate scientists do not always reach media users. In the commentary forums of digital newspapers, there is a surprisingly high number of climate change deniers trying to spread doubts about certain aspects of climate change, e.g. with the fal-lacies of uncertainty, naturalness or an alleged dissent in climate science (see Reisigl & Wodak, 2016). Climatologists have to deal with these fallacies by countering them with their expert knowledge.

Fallacious argumentation was also involved in the controversy about an alleged global warming pause falsely assumed for the years between 1998 and 2013. For some time, cli-matologists have widely neglected to refute the metaphorical claim of the global warming pause in mass-mediated public discourses. As a consequence, the media coverage on the issue was quite confusing. The climate change sceptical claim was disproved in media dis-courses on the basis of scientific arguments only slowly. A central scientific argumentation against the claim of the global warming pause can formally be representated as follows (Figure 3) – the representation uses Toulmin’s six functional concepts of claim (either of truth or normative rightness), qualifier, data, warrant or conclusion rule, backing and rebuttal (see Toulmin,2003, pp. 89–100):


As you can see, such an argumentation deals with chronological and causal develop-ments in the past, but has nothing to do with a narrative. Yet we are repeatedly con-fronted with the confusion of argumentation and narration with respect to similar subjects.

One last astonishing instance ought to be mentioned in addition to the three examples already criticized in the second section of this article. In his keynote given at the second K3 Congress on Climate Change, Communication and Society in Karlsruhe on 24 September 2019 (, George Marshall, the founder of Climate Outreach (, the organization that has elaborated the communication guidelines for the IPCC mentioned above, also mistakes argumentation for narration. He names various alleged narratives in an inflationary manner, these being the ‘Optimal Carbon Pricing Narrative’, the ‘Sustainable Develop-ment Narrative for Wales’, the ‘Indian Narratives’, the ‘Alberta Narratives’ and the ‘Arabic Narratives’ (Marshall, 2019). It is a pity that Marshall overstreches the concept since it is not difficult to see that his so-called narratives relate much more to argumen-tation than to narration. This becomes immediately manifest when his first supposed narrative, the so-called Optimal Carbon Pricing Narrative, is considered. It reads: ‘Carbon pricing is a fair way to share responsibility for the carbon pollution that causes climate change and to reward the companies that are most efficient and pollute less.’ Obviously, this utterance has nothing to do with narration. It combines two content-related argumentation patterns: the topos of justice – stricly speaking: the topos of distributive justice– with the topos of responsibility. The topos of distribu-tive justice says: If you want to be fair, you have to take care that those companies which cause more carbon pollution and thus contribute more to the unwanted global warming pay more and that those which emit less carbon dioxide pay less. The related topos of responsibilty goes: If you cause more environmental damage, then you are also responsible for paying more for this greater damage. There are no narrative elements in these two argumentation patterns. They have the basic function to convince their listeners and readers, not to offer them a good story. To name them narratives is a category


mistake that neglects the crucial pragmatic point of the concrete argumentative topoi that can be identified here: the interpersonal appealing goal of convincing the listeners and readers that carbon pricing is a fair and responsible energy-political measure. If we recognize that this is not a narrative, but an argumentation, then this will make it easier to elaborate on the argumentation, for instance by adding a rebuttal from a critical per-spective: Carbon pricing can be a fair and responsible measure, unless it leads to a sale of indulgences which does not help to reduce human global carbon emissions.


Narrative and narration have become trendy concepts in social sciences and cultural studies. The main purpose of my paper has been to invite those scholars who overstrech the terms to rethink and specify them from a linguistic point of view, in order not to miss several basic pragmatic functions of communicative action patterns. I hope to have shown that it is important, both theoretically and practically, to distinguish betweenfive basic generic patterns, i.e. description, explanation, argumentation, narration and instruction. In practical terms, it is easier to design suitable communication formats that appeal to people and to motivate them to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, if we do this against the background of a careful linguistic distinction of thefive basic communication patterns. These patterns are integrated into the genres that form the communicative resources and abstract semiotic basis for the specific texts, conversations and interactions a concrete dis-course is composed of – discourse understood as a communicative and interactional macro-unit that evolves in time and space around a specific social issue and controversial macro-topic.

There is the danger, for those who work with a blurred and wide concept of the narra-tive in social sciences and cultural studies, to support relativizations, trivializations and a laid-back attitude, where people should rather be convinced to act and and instructed to change their habitus and social practices (e.g. in discourses on global warming). On the one hand, the weakening of the strength of theoretical and practical validity claims is due to the concept of the narrative itself. On the other hand, the decision to use the concept may partly be due to a relativistic epistemic position of some researchers. From a linguistic point of view, we miss both the epistemic and ethical points at stake if we over-strech the concepts of narration and narrative.

It is no matter what basic generic pattern is used by climate scientists, journalists and practitioners, whether they describe, justify, explain, narrate or instruct when talking about the climate crisis. They reach, motivate, inspire and move people best if they follow the time-honoured rhetorical principle of tua res agitur. The followers of Fridays for Future have already understood that it is their future that is at stake. However, many have not yet understood that‘climate change’ is about their cause. They must receive more and careful attention by those who communicate about the climate crisis, including Critical Discourse Scholars concerned with the issue.


1. The commentary was entitled Between Apocalypse and Serenity (Zwischen Apokalypse und Gelassenheit). Müller-Funk’s strong preference for the umbrella term narrative also becomes


manifest in his essay“What is your narrative? [Was ist dein Narrativ?])” published on 6 April 2019 in the same Austrian newspaper (Müller-Funk,2019a, p. A3).

2. Among other things, descriptions can also be expected in the orientation stage of a narrative.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributor

Martin Reisigl is Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Vienna. His research interests include (critical) discourse studies, text linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, politolinguistics, ecolinguistics, rhetoric, language and history, linguistics and literature, argumenta-tion analysis and semiotics. Recent co-edited publicaargumenta-tions include‘Diskursanalyse und Kritik [Dis-course Analysis and Critique]’ (with Antje Langer and Martin Nonhoff, 2019), ‘Discursive Representations of Controversial Issues in Medicine and Health’ (with Giuliana Elena Garzone and Maria Cristina Paganoni, 2019),‘Sprache und Geschlecht. Band 1: Sprachpolitiken und Grammatik. Band 2: Empirische Studien [Language and Gender: Volume 1: Language Policies and Grammar. Volume 2: Empirical Studies]’ (with Constanze Spieß, 2017), and ‘Diskurs – semiotisch. Aspekte multi-formaler Diskurskodierung [Discourse– semiotically. Aspects of multiformal discourse coding]’ (with Ernest W. B. Hess-Lüttich, Heidrun Kämper & Ingo H. Warnke, 2017).


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