Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Structural Complexity of Popular Science Narratives of Discovery as an Indicator of Reader-Awareness: A Labov-Inspired Approach

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Structural Complexity of Popular Science Narratives of Discovery as an Indicator of Reader-Awareness: A Labov-Inspired Approach

Article excerpt


Narrative is a popular form of knowledge dissemination. In fact, some scholars (see, for example, Schank 1990; Gjedde 2000; Boyd 2009; Herman 2009) suggest that it is the preferred method for humans to acquire and process new information. It is no wonder that in recent decades such disciplines as communication of science to the public, philosophy of science, and science as culture have been paying increased attention to narratives and their ability to transfer complex scientific concepts to lay audiences. Narrative analysis of popular science contributes to the exploration of the language of popular science as a discourse category. Just as the languages of individual scientific disciplines can be seen as separate discourse categories (see, for example, Mackinnon 2010 for a discussion of the language of classical physics) or as the unified language of science, the language of popular science can be parsed into several discourses or analyzed as one. This study treats the language of popular science as a subsuming discourse category and suggests that the underlying narrative structure explored here is suitable for popularization of a variety of scientific disciplines.

Recent studies (see, for example, Reitsma 2010; Blanchard et al. 2015; Hermwille 2016) demonstrate that the explanatory and contextualizing abilities of popular science narratives appeal not only to the science-minded laymen but also to the decision-making social power structures such as grant-providing agencies or policy-creating institutions. In that, popular science narratives have helped popular science to cross the boundaries of intellectual entertainment and become vital pieces of the technological and socio-economic spheres.

While the awareness of the importance of narrative in communication of science is obvious, the linguistic insight into the structure of such narratives remains somewhat underdeveloped. Those who investigate popular science from the point of view of linguistics (see, for example, Moirand 2003; Myers 2003; Turney 2004; De Oliveira and Pagano 2006; Fu and Hyland 2014) tend to address either broad issues such as explanatory properties (see, for example, Turney 2004) or the general structure and effectiveness of a message (see, for example, Moirand 2003; Myers 2003). Others take a very narrow approach that addresses one specific linguistic issue (see, for example, De Oliveira and Pagano 2006 or Urbanova 2012 for analyses of discourse presentation; Fu and Hyland 2014 for exploration of interactional metadiscourse). General narratology usually regards scientific and popular scientific discourses as a side note (see, for example, Herman 2009).

It might be tempting, in the circumstances, to propose a structural system that could account for and explicate popular science narratives and in the process introduce specific steps that successful narratives follow. Such a system would be equally useful for writers and for analysts who have to evaluate popular science narratives in order to make public policy decisions. However, as this article shows, there is no need to invent a new framework.

In 1967, Labov and Waletzky introduced a structural framework for analyzing oral narratives of personal experience. In 1972, through a casestudy, Labov perfected this model. Since then numerous studies proved the applicability of the model to narratives other than those relating personal experiences. In fact, Labov's (1972) model (with modifications) has served as a springboard for structural analyses of literary narratives, narratives of children, and several types of personal narratives not examined by Labov (for example, see Peterson and McCabe 1983, Plum 1988, Berman 1997, Fleischman 1997, Baerger and McAdam 1999). So far, the value of the model has been in its universality; it is capable of exposing the underlying narrative structure of multiple text types. However, Labov's (1972) framework for narrative analysis can do more. …

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