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  • Inside Story: How Narratives Drive Mass Harm by Lois Presser
  • Saran Ghatak
Inside Story: How Narratives Drive Mass Harm
By Lois Presser, 2018.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 200 pages.

Over the last few years, there have been numerous incidents of assault and lynching of Muslim citizens in India by vigilante mobs led by militant Hindu nationalists. These were often inspired by rumors of alleged religious and social transgressions that later proved to be almost entirely false. This is not unique to that nation. The intensification of political intolerance has been influenced by rumors and stories manufactured and transmitted through social media and internet chat rooms, as evidenced in the rising number of incidents of hate crimes in the US and other parts of the world.

Lois Presser's timely book highlights an overlooked aspect of criminological theory in investigating the role of narratives in the perpetration of "mass harm." Presser admirably weaves insights from philosophy and ethics, social movement studies, sociological theory, semiotics, criminology, as well as ancient Sanskrit aesthetics. She argues that narratives have the capacity to influence and excite collective cognitive and emotive processes to the extent of driving people to commit atrocities or tolerate odious inequities. This is related to either processes of framing and weaving reality and belief that influence action or through the processes of dramaturgical performance where social action attempts to recreate a narrative truth. Narratives harness symbolic power that dramatizes real life events through evocation, metaphors and figurative language that provide the impetus for harmful actions. These discursive devices might result in the normalization and legitimation of violence against specific targets. This occurs through the processes of moral disengagement for the actors who find discursive justification for atrocities that occur in reality. Narratives construct a temporal ordering of causality to explain the existing reality, which simultaneously arouses emotions that spark action of mass harm and provide the justification of such action.

Presser specifically focuses on the emotive functions of narratives that shape the course of action. Narratives integrate meanings that provide coherence of experience, identity, and moral justification for the actor. Yet cultural narratives involve a certain amount of ambiguity that invites active engagement for constructing moral meanings and directions for action. She makes an interesting case about narratives regarding underdogs that encapsulate a stirring mixture of moral indignation for their travails, and optimism regarding their overcoming of obstacles in the path to victory. This is often highlighted by political extremists who use a narrative of victimhood as a tool of mobilization. Indeed, the tropes of victimhood and eventual triumph through struggle have figured large in civil wars, insurgencies, and other forms of collective violence. Presser also highlights cultural processes of symbolic violence that morally justify marginalization or oppression of a group by constructing a narrative that makes that group responsible for its misfortune. This is demonstrated by a study of criminological theories about "antisociality" that Presser argues has resulted in the reification of certain ideas about social-psychological pathologies leading to criminal behavior. Indeed, the history of the twentieth century is full of examples of the tragic consequences of pathologizing the behavior of minority groups that made people either indifferent to or supportive of repressive measures of social control.

The concluding chapter highlights the theoretical implications of the analysis. She makes a distinction between bounded (actual existing texts) and notional or more free-floating narratives that allow for thematic adaptations in different contexts. The latter might lack the materiality of bounded narratives, but is potentially more powerful as it allows for creative interpretation. Both kinds of narratives stir people to action by drawing a clear picture about the causes and the consequences of the present state of affairs, identity of the protagonists, and the moral boundaries between contending groups that often render powerful emotional appeals to action to believers.

The book is a welcome addition to the literature. In highlighting the role of narratives in "mass harm" she identifies an important area of research that has been relatively ignored in criminological theory. Given the salience of narratives in war crimes, atrocities, genocides, terrorism, as well as everyday forms of collective...


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