Story Fields

by Tom Atlee

Written in 1995 and revised in 2007

A story field is

a psycho-social field of influence
generated by the resonance and interactions
among a culture’s many stories, events, roles, practices,
symbols, physical infrastructure, artifacts, cuisine, etc.

A story field shapes the awareness and behaviors
of the individuals and groups within its range.
It is the real-life field of influence associated with
a culture's Big Story, cultural Myth, or Metanarrative.

Our story field
frames what we think is real, acceptable, and possible,
and directly shapes our lives and our world,
often without our even being aware of it.
It shapes everything we see, think and do.

Change the story field of a culture
and we change what is real, acceptable, and possible...

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When I step back and take a look at stories -- both narratives and lived stories -- I see that there are huge constellations of them that reinforce each other. Each of these groupings paints a particular whole picture of how life is or should be. These story-pictures seem to have a lot of power over people.

Consider an example. Many people around the world have a powerful (although not always articulated) sense of THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE. Probably the vast majority of Americans are actually motivated by that sense. We could describe it in terms of principles -- like freedom, individualism, patriotism, progress, mobility, property rights, the pursuit of happiness, and so on. But to fathom the compelling nature of The American Way of Life, we need to step into the stories that generate it. See what comes up for you when you consider the following evocative images: Pioneers. Cowboys. The Declaration of Independence. Manifest Destiny. Rags to Riches. Technological Progress. The World's Only Superpower. The Career. The Work Ethic. The Wise Investment. The Safety Net. Family Values. The Melting Pot. The American Dream. The War on Terror.

Each of these images and metaphors echoes with a thousand stories, myths, scenarios, visions, heroes, incidents, and so on, that show up over and over again in books, newspapers, TV programs, movies, songs, speeches, advertisements, conversations in bars and within families, and embodied in the streets, homes, policies and lives of America. This ubiquitous field of socio-psychological-narrative magnetism pulls on all of us to act, think, believe and see in particular ways -- and not in other ways. It takes immense effort to resist it or change it. To the extent any person, group or activity does not live within this story-sea and move with its currents, they don't seem quite American. They are suspect and often feel quite marginalized.

Take a moment right now to consider several stories you know (fiction, news, personal histories) that are connected with any one of the American Way of Life images mentioned above. Can you see how they reinforce each other? Have they affected your life or people you know?

If you are not an "American," you can either do this exercise as written or make a comparable list of images related to your home culture, and work with that list.

I call these complex story-pictures and their power "story fields" because they are fields of influence, analogous to magnetic fields.

[NOTE: The word "field," as used in the term story field, refers to a field of influence, a pattern of dynamic potential that permeates a physical, social and/or psychological space. I borrowed the word from physics, where the term gravitational (or magnetic) field refers to a zone of dynamic potential that shapes the behavior of the physical phenomena within its range. Gravity provides some interesting metaphors to help us understand story fields. There are many ways to look at gravity. We can view a gravitational field as not so much a separate phenomenon from the objects within it as it is an extension of them. We could also say, with equal validity, that objects are cores or nodes of the gravitational field. Or one could also say that both the field and the objects within it are facets of some larger whole system, as the dancers and choreography are elements of the dance. Yet another way to put it is that objects and their gravitational fields are dynamic dimensions of each other. A similar intimate, ambiguous, co-creative, co-evocative relationship exists between story fields and the people who occupy and create them.]

Story fields exert tremendous influence on us, driving us and limiting -- or enlarging -- our sense of reality and possibility. Story fields that are more co-intelligent -- that arise out of and serve "the whole" and are therefore more wise, more wholesome, and more consciously co-creative -- make possible lives and cultures that are more co-intelligent.

A story field is

a particularly powerful field of influence
generated by a story or,
more often, by a coherent battery
of mutually-reinforcing stories
-- myths, news, soap operas, lives, memories, games --
and story elements
-- roles, plots, themes, metaphors, goals, images, events, archetypes --
that co-habit and resonate
within our individual and/or collective psyches.

A story field paints a particular picture of how life is or should be
and directly shapes our lives and our world,
often without our even being aware of its influence.

Dozens, or even thousands of story fields are all around us and within us. Story fields permeate and shape our thoughts, feelings, awareness, behavior, culture and many other dimensions of our lives.

Think of some more stories associated with the story field you explored in the previous exercise. Sense their combined impact. Can you imagine that impact as coming from a force field, within which you and thousands of other people are immersed, which influences all of you in specific ways?


Story fields, as part of their power, tend to evoke new stories that replicate or complement the stories already generating that story field. The-American-Way-of-Life story field, for example, generated a new pioneer-cowboy-successful entrepreneur exemplar in the form of multi-billionaire Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. His story now reinforces the dominant story field imagery that sculpts the imaginations of everyone from high tech industry moguls to street kids in Bombay.

Even stories that react to or fight the story field can end up fueling it because they exist primarily in relationship to it, and thereby reinforce its existence. The anti-establishment, anti-adult rhetoric of many youth sub-cultures (hippies, punks) inspire the defenders of the status quo to oppose or co-opt them, thereby strengthening the dominant story field. Furthermore, when those sub-cultures have not provided truly viable alternatives, even their youthful advocates slowly drift into the once-despised mainstream as they come up against the demands of economic survival and parenthood.


Not all story fields originate in human culture. Consider this one:

THE NATURE'S-WAY STORY FIELD: Immersed in nature, indigenous tribal cultures have been shaped by the story fields of the natural world. The cycles of the seasons, the intricately interwoven lived stories of specific plants and animals around them, the great dances of the sky and the earth, the wind and the trees, the sun and the moon and the stars. Not only have native peoples generated narratives about these things, but these great lived stories in which tribal cultures have been embedded have filled their days with ritual and actual participation in those lived stories. Native Americans of the Great Plains called their Nature's-Way story field The Medicine Wheel, the wheel of life, the cyclic pattern that molded their thoughts, perceptions, language, behavior and entire culture in its image.

Some story fields exist within other story fields:

THE PATRIARCHAL-FEMININITY STORY FIELD: A story field that overlaps The-American-Way-of-Life (and the Way-of-Life in many other cultures) is Patriarchy-Femininity. Decades after the modern feminist movement launched, we still find such mutually-reinforcing stories as (in the U.S.) Barbie Doll, Lose Weight, Wear Heels, Look-Good-Play-Dumb-and-Succeed, Breast Implants, Mom, The Good Girl, The Bad Girl, The Good Wife, A Woman Without A Man Is Lost, Virtuous Helplessness, Women's Work, and so on. Millions of girls and women (and boys and men) have been bombarded with these and similar mutually-reinforcing story-images for decades, even centuries. A high proportion of women in history have marched to some similar drumbeat, or wished they had the resources to march to it more effectively, or resented every minute of it, or rebelled against it -- but, until recently, rare was the woman (or man) who simply built their life outside of it.

Think of some other story fields you live in. (If you can't, consider the consumer story field. Think of all the ads that have people buying things and getting benefits from that. Think of all your friends and associates who buy things or have things they've bought. Think about news stories about how important the consumer price index, consumer confidence and retail sales are to the economy. Think of the popular sayings that contain the words 'go shopping'. Do all these fit together into some mega-story within which you are living?) If you are feeling ambitions, try listing five of them, or a dozen. Sense their impact on yourself and those around you.


The good news is that the inhabitants of such story fields are not helpless. A story field is co-generated by those who inhabit it, including past and present (and perhaps even future) inhabitants. The field, in turn, influences those who continually create it. So a story field can be changed by its inhabitants, just as a dance can be changed by the dancers, no matter the measure of the music or the commands of the choreography. Visionary leadership (from outside, from within, or from the fringes of a story field) can inspire those who are co-creating their story field to create new, more functional story fields within which to dance.

In the feminist movement of the 1970s, women got together in consciousness-raising groups and shared their stories -- narratives about what it was like to be a woman. As they did so, they noticed among themselves collectively certain experiences they had previously thought of as purely personal -- experiences that formed a consistent pattern, which they came to call patriarchy and sexism. Their personal story-sharing brought into consciousness the previously unconscious life-shaping power of the Patriarchy-Femininity story field, which they could then take action to change.

What they did can be taken as a model for story field activists. Feminist anthropologists and "herstorians" uncovered a previously unacknowledged female face of our collective past, which had survived in such story media as diaries and tribal symbols. Feminist authors created new stories -- fiction, biography, poetry -- of women living outside (or growing out of) the Patriarchy-Femininity story field. And some women banded together to co-create alternative lived stories, starting businesses or climbing mountains. Together all these mutually-reinforcing stories added up to a new story-field called feminism, which has grown in scope and power to shape the lives of millions of men and women. It coexists with the patriarchy story field, ebbing and flowing with the tides of social evolution.

Another example: For several decades Gandhi inspired millions of poor Indians to step out of their story field of victimhood into a new story field that cast them as heroic nonviolent architects of their own fate -- a story field that was reinforced with new stories generated by each victory in their unique campaign for independence.

Brilliant leadership can even recast seeming failures into meaningful parts of the story, as Winston Churchill did during the Battle of Britain and the rescue at Dunkirk during World War II -- and as we each can do by reframing our immediate problems into lessons and opportunities in the larger stories of our lives. In a dramatic and symbolic fictional recasting of a story field, the young protagonist in The Tin Drum used his tin drum, played from under a bandstand, to transform a rigid local Nazi rally into a chaotic, joyful festival.

On the dark side, much of the conquest of cultures is carried on with story fields. Authors like Jerry Mander ( In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Sierra Club, 1991) and Helena Norberg-Hodge (Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, Sierra Club, 1991) have documented how the enticing story fields of mass-consumer culture are infecting and destroying some of the few remaining indigenous Nature's-Way cultures -- largely through the media of television, advertising and Western education, all of which glorify the American-Way-of-Life and its related story fields.


Story is natural to us, deeply engrained in our sense-making awareness. Story-perception, story-thinking, and story-response are hardwired into our relationship to life. This phenomenon is described more fully in "The Power of Story."

I believe we all live in stories (story realities, lived stories and story fields) much more -- and much more readily -- than we live in concepts. Stories (and even individual parts of stories) have a resonant, alchemical relationship with the way we experience life. A narrative or a role-model, for example, can act as a magnet aligning our awareness, beliefs or lives into congruence with its pattern.

When Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he reportedly greeted her with, "So here's the little woman who started the big war." Millions of people changed overnight as they entered her narrative about the lives of slaves. Her contemporaries felt that they had experienced, through her work, what slavery was like from the inside. Similarly, billions of people have been transformed, mobilized and shaped by the stories (the visions, myths, and heroes, more than the concepts and facts) of Christianity, Democracy, Socialism, Capitalism, Hinduism and even Progress.

Generalized concepts and principles don't have the same dramatic, contextualized, motivating power that stories do. We may be able to follow principles, but we can't enter them, live them, breathe them -- except for the stories that live within their field, or the stories that carry them out into the world in their most infectious form, from news reports and scientific journals to morality plays and online multi-player games.

For example, we can apply the principle of justice mechanically, as a computer would, weighing out pros and cons. But the approach is cold; we can't bring real justice to life that way. If we want to live a principle, we need to translate it into story form. Our efforts to live by the principle of justice draw us into fables, history, role models and other story phenomena -- the story of Solomon deciding who is the real mother of the baby, the image of Gandhi fasting until the Hindus and Muslims stop fighting, the role model of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in the front of the bus. Then, in our own lives, we play out our own small versions of these stories. Research into the cognitive processes of moral deliberation shows how heavily we rely on stories and mental scenario-building to put our moral principles into practice. Jesus, Christian missionaries, Jewish prophets, Buddha, and hundreds of zen masters and meditation teachers have spoken in parables to weave their principles into the living story-fabric of their audiences' minds.

At the societal level, a story field can seem almost synonymous with culture. Actually it is the narrative dimension of culture.

[NOTE: The term story field is closely related to the postmodernist concept of metanarrative -- a grand, all-encompassing story that provides people with a framework upon which to make sense of their experience. However, the term metanarrative suggests that one can and should summarize such a story to understand and communicate it, and the term is a critical term often applied to ideologies, like Christianity, Marxism, Freudianism, etc. The term story field, in contrast, suggests an energetic narrative space made up of many resonant stories which is basically indescribable, inevitable (in some form or another), and can only be alluded to by reference to its constituent stories. Postmodernists seek transformation by freeing themselves from metanarratives. Story field activists seek transformation by becoming conscious of the power of stories and the fields they generate and by telling a different set of stories together, to generate new narrative fields.]

Just as there are sub-cultures, youth cultures, and organizational cultures, all contained (more or less) within a larger national culture, so our national story field contains thousands of overlapping story fields, some of which reinforce the national one and some of which attempt to replace it.


I believe that every emerging culture or movement for social transformation gains its power, above all, through a compelling story field of its own. However, as mentioned above, insofar as the alternative story field is created against the dominant story field, it tends to lend power to the field it is resisting.

For example, the peace movement -- in which I was involved for decades -- has hobbled itself to the extent it has failed to articulate a compelling vision of peace -- a true alternative to war. As an anti-war activist in the 60s and 80s, I came to realize I was trapped in a dance with militarism, a dance that would never end as long as I danced it. Our protests against war were simply used by advocates of war to polarize popular opinion into more militant patriotism. When we succeeded in dousing one war, another war would get fired up and we'd race over to protest it. We were trapped not only by the capacity of war-makers to make war, but by our own stimulus-response reactivity. It took me years to realize that peace activism could never actually produce peace without a positive vision of peace. That realization triggered the inquiry that has resulted in my co-intelligence work. Co-intelligent peace activism, I now believe, would invest a lot of attention in the co-creation of a "Peaceful-Culture" story field. And that story field would inevitably involve the advocacy of justice, environmental sanity, real democracy, and all the other "issues'' that must be addressed if there is to be real peace. Such integrated activism is emerging in many places today, although it has not yet given priority to co-creating a new story field to embrace and empower all its facets.

I believe that compelling, viable alternatives must grow naturally from an inner logic of their own. They can't be sustained by oppositional energy alone. As long as the status quo stands, the opposition feeds it power; when it falls, the opposition falls with it. When the communist establishment collapsed in Czechoslovakia, the grassroots anti-communist movement fell into fractious disarray. To the extent they could be united, they rallied around their most visionary leader, Vaclav Havel, the dissident prisoner who became president. But they didn't have a story field strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the global consumerist story field.

When social change movements are motivated primarily by fear, by hatred for perpetrators, or by sympathy for those subjected to the horror, injustice and suffering in the world, it is hard for them to make sustainable progress. If, on the other hand, they arise from a truly positive vision, they stand in contrast to but not primarily in opposition to the status quo. Thus they do little to empower that status quo, while at the same time inviting those who are ready for change, into the new story field.

The question that remains for any movement is how to translate its positive visions into positive story fields capable of shaping a new culture. Among the strategies available are:



To put “story field” in context, compare it to these similar concepts

    1. A “Big Story” or “cultural narrative” loosely connotes the commonly-held big picture story that most people in a culture use — consciously or unconsciously — to explain their lives and legitimize their assumptions. It is the narrative manifestation of a culture’s worldview.
    2. A cultural myth can be a Big Story or some aspect of it — i.e., one of its component stories that explains or teaches — especially if it involves archetypal images, characters, or events that embody core truths about life. Myths are often held to be sacred. In this sense, the word “myth” does not carry the connotation of being false, as it often does elsewhere.
    3. A “metanarrative” connotes an articulable big-picture story that often claims to be universally true. Sometimes metanarratives are associated with ideology (”the Marxist metanarrative”) and domination, and are therefore seen as something to be asserted or resisted.


Here are some examples of articulated Big Stories and metanarratives. Many of them resonate with each other, but each has a unique flavor and "center of gravity."


"The Great Turning"

The Great Story of Evolution (Becoming Conscious of Itself)

Humankind Surviving through Alliances with Animals and Plants

We seek more concisely articulated resources for this metanarrative, but these will serve as place-holders for now.


Illustration credit: Dana Lynne Andersen, in
From Lava to Life: the Universe Tells our Earth Story by Jennifer Morgan -- Courtesy of Dawn Publications