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A metanarrative (also meta-narrative and grand narrative; French: métarécit) in critical theory—and particularly in postmodernism—is a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience, or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealized) master idea.[1][2][3]


"Meta" is Greek for "beyond"; "narrative" is a story that is characterized by its telling (it is communicated somehow).[4]

Although first used earlier in the 20th century, the term was brought into prominence by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979, with his claim that the postmodern was characterised precisely by a mistrust of the "grand narratives" (Progress, Enlightenment, Emancipation, Marxism) that had formed an essential part of modernity.[5]

Post-structuralist skepticism[edit]

In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Lyotard highlights the increasing skepticism of the postmodern condition toward the totalizing nature of metanarratives and their reliance on some form of "transcendent and universal truth":[6]

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. ... The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language ... Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

Lyotard and other poststructuralist thinkers (like Foucault)[7] view this as a broadly positive development for a number of reasons. First, attempts to construct grand theories tend to unduly dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe, the power of the individual event.[8]

Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives[edit]

Lyotard proposed that metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and "localized" narratives, which can ''throw off" the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event.[9] Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse",[10] Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics, grounded in the cohabitation of a whole range of diverse and always locally legitimated language-games.[11]

Postmodernists attempt to replace metanarratives by focusing on specific local contexts as well as on the diversity of human experience. They argue for the existence of a "multiplicity of theoretical standpoints"[12] rather than for grand, all-encompassing theories.

Narratology and communication[edit]

According to John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, a metanarrative "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience"[13] – a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other "little stories" within conceptual models that assemble the "little stories" into a whole. Postmodern narratives will often deliberately disturb the formulaic expectations such cultural codes provide,[14] pointing thereby to a possible revision of the social code.[15]

In communication and strategic communication, a master narrative (or metanarrative) is a "transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture".[16] A master narrative is therefore a particular type of narrative, which is defined as a "coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations according to the known trajectories of its literary and rhetorical form".[16]

The Consortium for Strategic Communication also maintains a website on master narratives.[17]

Others have related metanarratives to masterplots, “recurrent skeletal stories, belonging to cultures and individuals that play a powerful role in questions of identity, values, and the understanding of life.”[18]

Criticism of Lyotard[edit]

It is unclear whether Lyotard is describing a global condition of skepticism towards metanarratives in postmodernity, or prescribing such skepticism. His critics point out the awkward fact that meta-narratives clearly continue to play a major role in the current postmodern world.[19]

Critics have also argued that, in so far as one of Lyotard's targets was science, he was mistaken in thinking science relies on a grand narrative for social and epistemic validation, rather than upon the accumulation of many lesser narrative successes.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentzi eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 186
  2. ^ R. Appignanesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) pp. 102–3
  3. ^ Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children (1992) p. 29
  4. ^ The Meta-Narrative. "Lesson 1: What is a Meta-Narrative?". YouTube. October 11, 2013.
  5. ^ Childers pp. 166–7
  6. ^ Lyotard, Jean-François. Introduction:The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge," 1979: xxiv–xxv. Archived 2007-06-10 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2007) p. 36
  8. ^ C. Nouvet et al eds., Minima Moralia (2007) pp. xii–iv
  9. ^ Nouvet, p. xvi
  10. ^ Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, 1995, p124. ISBN 0-415-06011-7
  11. ^ Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend (1988) p. 151-161
  12. ^ Michael A. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p7. ISBN 0-7425-0987-7
  13. ^ Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum. (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. ISBN 0-8153-1298-9.
  14. ^ J. W. Bertens/D. Fokkema, International Postmodernism (1997) p. 186
  15. ^ E. D. Ermath, Sequel to History (1992) p. 156
  16. ^ a b Halverson, Jeffry R., H.L. Goodall Jr. and Steven R. Corman. Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. p. 14
  17. ^ "CSC Center for Strategic Communication |". Archived from the original on 2012-04-27. Retrieved 2016-06-02.
  18. ^ H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed, Cambridge Introductions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 236.
  19. ^ "Metanarratives". Archived from the original on 2012-07-01. Retrieved 2012-08-28.
  20. ^ J. W. Bertens/D. Fokkema, International Postmodernism (1997) p. 94


Further reading[edit]

  • David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Indiana UP, 1986)
  • Geoffrey Bennington, Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988)

External links[edit]