Storytelling in ‘post-conflict’ times: narrative, subjectivity and experience in community-based peacebuilding

Research output: Other contribution


This chapter takes its lead from John Paul Lederach’s (2005) observation that peacebuilders ‘know more about how to end something painful and damaging … but less about how to build something desired’. Conflict transformation entails the imagining of ‘new futures’, but also requires a more complex understanding of temporality itself, to replace ‘neat chronological categorizations’ that consign conflict to ‘the past’, and obscure the need for ‘multiple processes’ of ‘longer-term … constructive social change over time’. For Lederach, effecting change at this deeper level depends upon the constituting of effective grassroots agency and voice rooted in the lived, temporal experience of a conflict zone. To initiate and sustain long-term practices of peacebuilding on this basis, Lederach advocates the creation of dynamic ‘transformative platform(s): ongoing social and relational spaces’ of popular participation, engagement and mutual interchange in the public sphere. In this chapter, the experiential storytelling and archiving projects that have flourished in the North of Ireland during the peace process are understood as transformative platforms in Lederach’s sense. From the life-writing initiative, An Crann/The Tree, established shortly after the ceasefires of 1994, to the inception of the cultural organisation Healing Through Remembering in 2001, to the launch of the Accounts of the Conflict website in 2014, diverse community-based projects have promoted practices of experiential storytelling derived from personal memory as a mode of social reflection and dialogue on the historical experience and polarising legacies of the Northern Irish Troubles, in spaces that create new kinds of social relationship. This work has also impacted on policy-making within the State and political arena, leading to the proposal in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 to create an official archive containing oral narratives of conflict experience. With particular reference to the work of Healing Through Remembering and The Stories Network (2002, 2005, 2009, 2015), the chapter traces the evolution of debates promoting the value of these practices to peacebuilding, develops a critique of their central claims, and argues that the full potential of subjective storytelling ­– as distinct from objectively-oriented testimony – has yet to be fully articulated in the Northern Irish context. Informed by critical perspectives from cultural studies (Dawson 1994, Plummer 1997, McQuaid 2016), anthropology (Cruikshank 1998) and oral- and life-history research (Summerfield 2004, Roper 2009, Thomson 2013), it advocates giving detailed consideration to the narrative ‘composure’ of subjectivity, experience and memory as this changes over time and affects the social meanings of past events; to the question of how stories produced by formal projects are related to ‘storied lives’ and the fluid, dialogic existence of stories, and silences, in lived culture; and to the interpretation and use of recorded stories by various ‘interpretive communities’. With reference to particular stories from a range of projects, the chapter proposes new methods of subjective source analysis in the making of histories of the conflict from below, to enhance the contribution of experiential storytelling to the culture of conflict transformation. It concludes by calling for closer, reimagined collaboration between academic researchers and the community-based practitioners whose work is central to developments in storytelling practice as a transformative platform in the Northern Irish conflict.
Original languageEnglish
TypeInternet archive
Media of outputOnline
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022


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