Storytelling and Education in the Digital Age

Experiences and Criticisms

by Matteo Stocchetti (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 192 Pages
Open Access


While the importance of the role of storytelling can hardly be overestimated, the impact of digitalization on this role is more ambivalent. In this second book-length publication of the programme Media and Education in the Digital Age – MEDA, the authors take a critical stance towards the alleged emancipative affordances of digital storytelling in education. The collection is inspired by the effort of making professional educators aware of the risks of the digital turn in educational storytelling but also of the opportunities and the conditions for critical engagements. Based on their research and field experience, fifteen scholars discuss in nine chapters these risks and opportunities, providing ideas, evidence, references and inspiration to educators and researchers.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Notes on the Contributors
  • Table of Contents
  • The Politics of Education and the Digital Turn in Storytelling: A Critical Introduction
  • Children’s Storytelling in Virtual Worlds: A Critique
  • The Digital Turn in Storytelling and Creative Industries in China: A Report
  • Story-Telling and Narrative Inquiry as a Gateway to Methodology
  • Digital Storytelling, Book Trailers and Literary Competence in Initial Teacher Education
  • An Interdisciplinary Approach for the Digital Media Landscape of the 21st Century: Storytelling as an Instrument in Design Education
  • Personal Stories and the Visual Turn: Exploring Digital Stories as Identity Representation
  • From Storytelling to Storymaking to Create Academic Contents. Creative Industries Through the Perspective of Students
  • Social Media Storytelling as a Method for Teaching Literature
  • Index

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Matteo Stocchetti

The Politics of Education and the Digital Turn in Storytelling: A Critical Introduction

Abstract Storytelling is an activity with important social and political functions. The digital turn in education affects the educational functions of storytelling in ambivalent ways. While the emancipative affordances of this turn are given much visibility in academic and corporate discourse, the risks are neglected. Education and storytelling are influential practices in the social construction of reality. The uncritical endorsement of the digital turn in storytelling, however, makes education vulnerable to the influence of technocentrism and its myths. The ideas that images “have power”, that digital community can compensate for the isolation of the individual and that the digital “revolution” brings about the “end of history” and politics are influential manifestations of these myths. The possibility for the digital turn in education and storytelling to open up emancipative opportunities depends on the extent to which educators are aware of and able to develop countermeasures against the oppressive tendencies associated with technocentrism and its myth. The chapters in this collection aim at supporting the efforts in this direction.

1. The Politics of Education, the Functions of Storytelling and the Problem of Control

The politics of education is a key dimension in the competition for control over the future of society. For the actors participating in this competition, mastering the functions of storytelling is both crucial and elusive. It is crucial because storytelling is the activity through which the meaning of the world and the social world itself are created. It is elusive because storytelling is everywhere, present in numerous forms and shapes, public and private, and mediated and non-mediated communication.

The dual and perhaps contradicting nature of storytelling functions poses a very practical problem for those forces in society that are in apprehension of the intrinsic capacity of storytelling’s meaning-generation ability to subvert existing relations of power. The political ambivalence of this capacity reflects the broader ambivalence of education: necessary but dangerous. The question of control is rooted in this ambivalence and in the efforts to resolve the uncertainty it generates in one direction or another.

In much of the relevant literature, digital storytelling is credited with all the functions of traditional storytelling in addition to the alleged virtues of digital ← 13 | 14 → technology. The potential of this combination seems to exceed the mere sum of its parts. In this chapter I discuss the power of storytelling and the implications of the “digital turn” separately, in order to avoid confusing the two. Clarifying this confusion is especially important because it helps to avoid the intrinsic attribution of the emancipative properties of storytelling to digital technology while disclosing the ideological implications of the digital turn in the politics of education.

By changing the rituals associated with the practices of storytelling, the digital turn frames the role of storytelling in education within the myths associated with digital technology and, in doing so, enforces the performative control of digital institutions on the subversive potential of the culture, if not the content, of storytelling itself.

It may be a good idea to start by discussing the power of storytelling, its fundamental ambivalence and the problem of control that it implies. Among the most effective and, in a sense, most radical cases for the power of storytelling is still that made by Jerome Bruner when he claimed that reality itself is constituted through narrative form (Bruner, 1991: 5). All other functions commonly attributed to storytelling, including its pedagogical functions, are in fact included in the idea that narratives are the tools through which reality itself, as accessible to humans, is constructed.

If the idea of the “narrative construction of reality” sounds too generic to underscore the problem of control, one should consider that most of the relevant practices to establish, reproduce or subvert relations of power are based on and are intelligible through storytelling of some sort.

The broad notion that storytelling is essentially about sense-making points, for example, to a variety of communicative practices with important political implications such as the legitimisation of political power, the construction and manipulation of the symbols of collective identity, the interpretation of history and collective memory, the social construction of truth etc.

Justification, for example, is a particular form of sense-making through storytelling: an explanation with strong moral elements that perform important emotional and cognitive functions at individual and collective levels. Painful personal experiences need to be made sense of to deal with their emotional implications but also with the rational need to control the possibility of their occurrence in the future. At the collective level, events that can seriously undermine the integrity of the community also need justification. The best examples that come to my mind are the narratives of war casualties, especially in the Great War, and the narratives of economic “austerity” deployed in Western Europe since 2008. The justification of war casualties usually contains the idea that the sacrifice of so many young lives has not been in vain. This is obviously easier for the societies of those states that ← 14 | 15 → won the war. But the idea of sacrifice in these narratives also contains normative values that stretch into the future: from the sacrifice of the past into the lives of the present and the possibility of their sacrifice in the future (Mosse, 1990). More recently, the economic crisis triggered by the financial speculation in the US has been made sense of through narratives of sacrifice similar to those used in war, but ones in which democracy seems to be the first casualty: a luxury that the European citizen may not be able to afford anymore (Silva & Escorihuela, 2013: 1–8).

When wars or other dramatic events occur that may undermine social cohesion, institutions may engage in “authoritative sensemaking” through forms of storytelling that reduce public anxiety but also reassert the integrity of social institutions that the crisis may undermine, through myths that depoliticise the crisis (Brown, 2004: 95–112).

The concept of legitimisation usually describes the form of justification involved when political power is at stake. The legitimisation of the forms of authority described by Max Weber – traditional, charismatic and legal-rational – is grounded in narratives of one form or another. It is through these narratives that traditions, charisma and law itself become influential in the daily lives of people. In practice, to legitimise the power of some individuals, groups or institutions means to justify their power but also, and maybe this is the distinctive content of this concept, to issue an implicit claim about the rightfulness of the concrete manifestations of this power in the future.

In the critical tradition, Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the importance of storytelling and the politics of truth are probably among the most influential in contemporary research. Narges Erami, for example, uses Benjamin’s essay The Storyteller to deploy a metaphorical linkage between carpet making and storytelling in support of the case for the ethnographic and “experiential” significance of the latter (Erami, 2015).

Inspired by the same essay, in addition to the works of Kierkegaard, Jung, Heidegger, Bruner and others, Patrick J. Lewis juxtaposes research and storytelling in a passionate plaidoyer for the value of the latter in human life in general and teaching in particular (Lewis, 2011: 505–510).

Annabel Herzog argues that Hannah Arendt’s ideas about political storytelling and the “redemptive power of narrative” (Benhabib, 1990) were inspired by Benjamin’s notion of storytelling as interpretation and the relation that, through this notion, connects history to those who experience it (a collective) through storytelling (Herzog, 2002: 89). The emancipative function of storytelling emerges quite clearly in both Benjamin and Arendt’s endorsement of the idea that the truth that can be passed on by the storytellers is the ← 15 | 16 →

In this account the power of storytelling consists in the recovery of a “destructive standpoint” which “dissociates the linearity of the victors’ commemoration and wrecks conformist historical narrative” (Herzog, 2000: 15).

If storytelling is the activity that can recover the truth of those who are denied the power of objectivity, one may appreciate with a certain dose of irony, the idea that even the authority of science needs narrative support.

Jean-Françoise Lyotard famously argued about the importance of narrative legitimisation of truth in the practices of scientific enquiry to ground its thesis about the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that, in his view, is the distinctive trait of the “postmodern condition” (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: xxiv). In relation to our discussion, I would argue that this “condition” is not one in which storytelling has lost its power but rather one in which performativity or “legitimization by power” (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: 45–48) signal a fundamental change in the nature of the dominant “grand narrative”: a new story in which “truth” is replaced by “operativity” as the leading criterion inspiring the quest for reliable knowledge (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: xxv). From the perspective of Benjamin and Arendt’s notion of political storytelling, one may therefore argue that, in the postmodern condition, storytelling may constitute the “destructive standpoint” from which modern science can resist performativity and legitimation by power – a point that unfortunately I cannot address in this chapter.

In sum, all forms of political power need the support of storytelling: the process through which the grounds, values and beliefs on which these forms are based are established and re-actualised in the community. There is no engagement with storytelling that is not directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly associated with relations of power. However, storytelling is also the activity through which all forms of power can be challenged, or delegitimised and the ‘magic’ of storytelling can work in different ways. Whether we like it or not, to deal with storytelling is to deal with an important process in the establishment, preservation, challenging and subversion of relations of power. And it is because of this intrinsic ambivalence that the discussion about the political functions of storytelling is always, in one way or another, a discussion about the control of these functions. The ambivalence intrinsic in the affordances of storytelling constitutes the problem of control as the fundamental problem associated with this activity because it is the very power and ambivalence of storytelling that prompts the effort to control this form of communication. If we restrict the discussion about the virtues of storytelling in education ← 16 | 17 → to the power of storytelling, without looking at the forces that inside and outside the educational arena are competing to control this power, we make ourselves, educators and learners vulnerable to these forces. If scientific research is incapable or unwilling to broaden the scope of its attention to capture this dimension and to make a credible case about the nature of the risks involved, it will fail its mission.

In a critical perspective, the main goal in educational storytelling is first of all to make people aware of the fact that the ambivalent nature of the power of storytelling supports influential efforts to control its subversive potential in education and elsewhere. Other critical competences, such as recognising the moral and social implications of alternative stories, assessing the impact of particular stories on particular relations of power, and even the capacity to create stories that can effectively support a more emancipative social order, depend on this awareness.

2. The Digital Turn

If the emancipative or subversive potential of storytelling is already, albeit ambivalently, embedded in storytelling, and this very potential is at stake in the politics of education and, more broadly, in the competition for the control over the distribution of values in society, what is the impact of the digital turn on this state of affairs? My suggestion here is that this ‘turn’ can be interpreted in relation to the problem of controlling the productive capacity of storytelling through the repression of its radical potential. This is where digital technology enters our story.

Biographical notes

Matteo Stocchetti (Volume editor)

Matteo Stocchetti is Docent in Political Communication at Åbo Academy, Docent in Media and Communication at the University of Helsinki and Principal Lecturer in Critical Media Analysis at Arcada University of Applied Sciences. He is the initiator and main coordinator of the programme Media and Education in the Digital Age (MEDA).


Title: Storytelling and Education in the Digital Age