Exploring Narrative Legitimation Politics

Frank Gadinger and Christopher Smith Ochoa discuss a new methodological concept related to an upcoming workshop and the Centre's research agenda

Legitimation brings into focus a domain of the Centre's research that is well studied with regard to the governance of institutions and states. But legitimacy claims are made by quite different actors, citizens, movements, and transnational networks. The tools and speed of contemporary information societies multiply those claims almost in real-time inside and outside of established institutions. Current research is challenged by fluid, speedy and volatile disputes among claimants and legitimation politics is a fascinating, dynamic field.

A case is provided by the Edward Snowden controversy and the many twists of legitimation strategies by quite different actors over time. Can social science research cope with contemporary events? Frank Gadinger, research group leader at the Centre, and Christopher Smith Ochoa, NRW School of Governance, have tried to do just that. In their recently published 'Surveillance under dispute: Conceptualising narrative legitimation politics', with co-author Taylan Yildiz, they take a closer look at the Snowden controversy and develop a conceptual framework, based on Luc Boltanski's pragmatic sociology, an approach interested in legitimation as a non-linear interplay between critique and justification in the everyday. Out of the methodological toolbox, narratology complements Boltanski's pragmatic approach, giving way to an interest in roles and episodes. But what is the advantage of introducing the narrative angle?

Christopher Smith Ochoa recalls how they did a lot of research and found a gap in the security research on legitimacy. 

It was a gap in terms of other scholars not really being able to explain how legitimacy is created in an increasingly fragile and complex world. We see narrative analysis as a tool to understand actors and how actors use their practices to create legitimacy on various levels.

Storytelling is used by researchers like a prism or a view into how actors in controversial situations justify their positions. Smith Ochoa hints at another advantage of this approach. Legitimacy is always in the making. Actors constantly intervene. Actors criticize or justify their positions. Narrative analysis captures this fluidity and constant spatial-temporal shift well. An analysis of storytelling practices enables also structural observations. Frank Gadinger explains how patterns of legitimation or delegitimation practices can shift from one political sphere to another.

For example, the executive justifications at the beginning, when Snowden was criticized by many political actors as a traitor. Then, after one or two years, it was clear that in the intelligence services there really was some overreaching in the domain of security and surveillance. And then these justificatory practices from the rather radical critical side came into the parliament and into the more mainstream discourse.

Legitimation strategies and narratives depend on institutional settings and social strata. It makes a difference whether legitimacy is claimed by the representative of a state, by a party in parliament or off-Broadway. In Boltanski’s system legitimation strategies (confirmation, critique, refusal) are established for three test levels (truth, reality, existential). The sphere of debate and deliberation (critique) is somewhat in the middle. But times of crisis are hard times for this sphere of debate. Frank Gadinger reflects on conflict theory in Sociology. Theorists like Georg Simmel or Ralf Dahrendorf frame conflict as something that can be productive in a society. But the literature shows something else as well:

We observed, especially in IR research on legitimacy, that delegitimation is often something that is regarded more as a problem. Delegitimation, or critique in general is still something which is often seen as something which is permissible at a certain level, but it’s also seen as something we need to manage, as something unnatural in our lives, particularly in institutionalist literature.

Snowden is seen as an example of a productive existential narrative, exiting institutional affiliations altogether but subsequently being acknowledged by some federal constitutional courts in the United States as a whistle-blower and with parliamentarians who over time were supportive of his arguments, which is true for the U.S. and Germany alike.

One of the most interesting observations in the article is called “Manichean Struggle”, a conceptual illustration of the dynamic relationship of good and evil when reestablishing or rejecting order. In a polarization of narrative legitimation practices, actors in the first (the state executive) and third levels (heroic figure) are sometimes quite similar in how they justify their position. Smith Ochoa explains

On the one hand, the state tries to represent itself as a force of good, an heroic figure fighting against those people who wish to cause the nation harm by releasing its secrets. On the other hand, you have Snowden and his supporters portraying him as a force of good in society and that it’s the government and the corporations that wish to spy on us that are evil, malevolent forces.

Frank Gadinger hints at structural similarities in the narrative on climate change and Greta Thunberg as the heroic individual. But polarization between admiration and harsh critique was transformed or at least complemented by a transformation, where

After a few months of “Friday’s for Future” protests, these more radical critiques turned into more mainstream discourse, and many parties and politicians adopted these critical points.

The Snowden study is a first step. Gadinger and Smith Ochoa want to provide a methodological toolbox for further policy fields—climate change, migration—and a better understanding of legitimation as constantly in the making. A group of a researchers is engaged in this endeavour to apply methodological tools in more flexible and appropriate ways to contemporary social dynamics. Praxiography is a term Frank Gadinger developed with his colleague Christian Bueger in a study that is already considered a foundational work in practice theory.

Practice-oriented work is always in between conceptual thinking and empirical work. It doesn’t start from a fixed theory but is always working in an interpretive tradition where you are working in a dynamic relationship between your empirical field and your concepts—this also affects how you develop your research techniques.

The term praxiography borrows and inherits meaning and experience from ethnographic methodology and fieldwork. Here, the field is less 'out there' but 'next door', 'in the world interior of capital' (Sloterdijk). It's also related to interpretive methodology. Dvora Yanow, who is a former fellow at the Centre, calls this a sort of more abductive reasoning, oscillating from theory to empirics, looking at other cases and then going back to case study—looking at your material and then going back to the theory.

How could we understand this relationship between legitimation and delegitimation better? Because where you have one of them, you always have both. And in the Centre's research agenda, as Gadinger explains, they seem to be put together.

Maybe it sounds a bit surprising, but in current research in legitimacy, it’s often treated very separately. In IR research, you have a lot of attempts to focus on self-legitimation, for example by international organizations, but it’s rather disconnected from the delegitimation side. In IR research there was a long tradition to have this box of social movements, that was a different research field and was rather unconnected to legitimacy issues. They argued in completely separate ways. To put it simply, I think that the major aim of our research stream is to treat both of these sides equally, both conceptually and methodologically, and to focus on this dynamic relationship. I would say, and this comes again from Boltanski, you cannot have one side without the other, so the practice of justification always involves critique. It’s also a dialectical relationship: justification doesn’t make sense if there is no critique. There’s always a connection between them.