Understanding Metanarrative Conflict through Five Key Values


Metanarrative is a story or narrative that overarches other types of stories and provides a kind of anchor for a culture or society’s belief systems and practices. Today’s dominant metanarrative, for example, is neoliberalism. That narrative tells us that the purpose of firms is to maximize shareholder wealth, that markets and trade are free, that individual liberties (including those of companies) are what count most, and that the best government is the least government. So inured are we to that message that we hardly even recognize it as a ‘story’ that we tell ourselves about how the world works.

The SDG Transformations Forum is allied with numerous initiatives that hope to shift that narrative towards something more life-affirming and, as the humanistic management approach suggests, all have dignity and wellbeing in a flourishing world. As I have been struggling with ideas around (meta-)narrative over the past few years, I have been particularly struck by the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who with Graham and others, has found that there are five core foundations in the world’s numerous value systems or moral foundations. These ‘psychological systems’ provide a foundation from which people understand the world, know how to respond to different experiences, and shape what their actions are. They function as memes—core units of culture—that shape the stories that we tell ourselves about how the world works and what things are like here, wherever ‘here’ might be.

Memes, as I have argued elsewhere, are incredibly powerful, though often overlooked, sources of belief systems, attitudes, and, ultimately practices that are vital in change and transformation processes. They are the units out of which metanarratives are shaped in different ways by different change agents and for different audiences. Yet they arguably need to remain consistent enough, as the neoliberal narrative has done, that they are recognizable as the same or similar set of ideas.

Haidt’s five value sets (i.e., core memes) are harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Interestingly, Haidt’s work with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek finds that progressive thinkers seem to gravitate towards issues of care and fairness most, while more conservative thinkers find values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity more compelling. Arguably, most people who want to shift the system significantly—to transform it in the notion of the SDG Transformation Forum—are likely to fall towards the progressive side of the spectrum of thinkers. Hence, they will likely gravitate towards issues of fairness and care for all. Thus, we see the language of diversity, equality or equity, and social justice, which tend to appeal to people with what Graham, Haidt and Nosek, building on the work of Shweder and Schwartz, among others, called individualizing foundations. The problem is that, these issues simply will not resonate as much as a narrative based on the whole panoply of value sets would with more conservative folks, whose orientation has what these authors call a binding or community-foundation.

Here’s the thing: when we think about shaping a ‘new narrative’ that affirms life, dignity, wellbeing, and flourishing or whatever set of values most people will find compelling, it strikes me that we need to pay attention not to just the first two sets of values. Those values appeal to progressives the most and do not resonate in the same way with more conservative thinkers. Somehow in thinking about constructing a new broadly appealing narrative, we need to find ways to build on all of the relevant value sets’ memes so that an emerging new metanarrative has the broadest possible appeal. That is particularly true because Graham, Haidt and Nosek’s work indicates that predominantly emphasizing values of care/harm and fairness will appeal most to ‘Western elites,’ whereas most people in the world live in more traditional communities that also value loyalty (ingroup loyalty), authority/respect, and sanctity/purity.

So, assuming that Haidt and his collaborators are correct, the core question for anyone concerned with shifting the dominant metanarrative in the world today is how to incorporate all five value sets as foundational memes underpinning a new narrative. Conservatives and progressives alike resonate to memes of care and fairness. It seems from Haidt’s work that conservatives resonate more strongly to memes around loyalty, authority, and sanctity than do progressives (who may not see these values as important.

Yet do we not all also care about our communities, our ‘tribes,’ families, and nations (loyalty/ingroup)? Do we not also care that our institutions, laws, and policies—and the public figures who represent them—be respected and respectful so that they retain their legitimacy (authority/respect)? Do we not all also care about the sanctity of our Mother Earth and her ability to support human existence, and, whatever our belief system, in the need to maintain high ethical standards (sanctity/purity)? How do we find new memes that incorporate all of these important values?

As we think about constructing a metanarrative in the service of life, dignity, wellbeing, and flourishing for all, we need to keep all of these value sets in mind.

Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. She is a member of the SDG Transformation Forum’s Council and Metanarrative Working Group. (waddock@bc.edu)

For Further Reading:

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.

Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values. In M.P. Zanna (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 25. New York: Acdemic Press, 1-65.

Schwartz, S.H. (2012). An overview of the Schwartz theory of basic values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, Unit 2: Theoretical and Methodological Issues, Subunit 1, Conceptual Issues in Psychology and Culture, Article 11. International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/orpc/vol2/iss1/11/.

Shweder, R.a., Muh, N.C., Mahaptra, M., & Park L. (1997) The “big three” of morality (automy, community, and divinity, and the “:big three” explanations of suffering. In A. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and Health. New York: Routledge, 119-169.

Waddock, S. (2015). Reflections: Intellectual Shamans, Sensemaking, and Memes in Large System Change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.

Waddock, S. (2016). Foundational Memes for a New Narrative about the Role of Business in Society. Humanistic Management Journal, 1: 91-105.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Metanarrative Conflict through Five Key Values”

  1. Sandra, thank you for such an informative, valuable, thoughtful post. Among many others, it struck me that our thinking about these issues in terms of “conservative” and “progressive”, and references to “Western elites” and “traditional societies”, is in itself a (meta)narrative about how societies work, or what defines them, that is essentially Western, is it not? Does it not in a way force us to think about such divisions in ways that also instinctively bring to the fore biases (e.g. “liberal” is better than “conservative” in the modern world; “Western elites” are more “advanced” than “traditional” societies). This would likely not at all reflect how Confucian philosophy would think about, or define such groupings – and the values will not at all be framed in the terms that these authors have done. So the bottom line is that this way of thinking is not universal. It reminds me of some of the discussions we are having in Africa about “decolonising the mind” in our professions. It will be excellent to have discussions with Japanese, Chinese, African, Maori, Native American, etc. specialists about how they would analyse the issues in the documents/books to which you refer.

  2. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night with a flash of inspiration. This time it was to read you article on Metanarrative with respect to SDG Transformation. I am going down a similar root but have chosen a set of five Core Vales (DNA) and five Core Virtues (RNA) to be the anchors for a new Metanarrative.
    Core Virtues – Compassion, Patience, Tolerance, Humility & Sharing
    Core Virtues – Safety, Trustworthiness, Joy, Respect & Responsibility
    These combined with a Vision that respects both the individual and the Community in which they exist provides the Vollition to achieve Self-sustainability. I believe a multi-intelligence approach (Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual) that form an Inner Journey of ‘listening’ and an Outer Journey of ‘interaction’. We have found that by integrating inputs in Health, Education and Enterprise it is possible to develop self-assembling dynamic networks to deliver longitudinal value for all. On a personal meme, I believe in acceptance of Universal Consciousness and that Unselfish Love is the path to Wisdom.

    1. Hi Royston,
      Interesting, and yes, a lovely set of values and virtues that really speak to a different narrative.

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