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About this book

This book challenges the widely-held belief that popular narratives about business are invariably critical. It develops a more nuanced analytic model of private sector narrative and applies it to 63 recent narrative texts (movies, histories, biographies) produced in the US dealing with three major industries: information technology, automobile manufacturing, and financial trading. It identifies recurring patterns to compare sectors and to analyze their implications. Negotiating Business Narratives appeals to academics and practitioners interested in business and society, strategic management, and contemporary literature and films about business.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Conceptual Framework and Methodology

Narratives circulating widely within popular culture provide templates for engaging with the actors and institutions they represent. Academics and critics generally assert that popular narratives about business (movies, novels, histories) are invariably critical. This monograph presents a more nuanced view. This chapter outlines an inductively derived structural matrix that is used to analyze 63 narrative texts produced in the US in the last 40 years dealing with three major industries: information technology (IT), automobile manufacturing, and financial trading. The matrix defines an eight-cell array of structuring fables ranging from Nirvana to Nightmare with six mixed or compound fables intervening between these extremes. Texts that cluster in one or a few related cells are defined as instantiating a dominant fable.

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

Chapter 2. Insanely Great: The Dominant IT Fable

This chapter outlines a dominant nirvana fable of the successful IT startup from the interrelated Microsoft and Apple origin stories to recent instantiations concerning Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Uber. The popularization of this fable has channeled the potentially disruptive ideology of digital innovation into the institutions of contemporary venture capitalism. The chapter also describes two counter-fables: the thrown-over original partner elbowed out of the business and the nightmare of the failed IT startup. The successful startup fable is now being challenged by narratives about the IT industry’s rampant underrepresentation and harassment of women, monopolization by the most successful firms, and the covert but widespread use of the Internet and social media for extremism.

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

Chapter 3. Cults of Personality: Fables of the Automobile Manufacturing Industry

Automobile manufacturing is a highly complex activity, particularly subject to external, macroeconomic, and geopolitical factors. Its narratives, however, center on transformative CEOs. It is a structure that dates back to the earliest years of the industry with the representation of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan as exemplary business leaders. This chapter analyzes turnaround and debacle texts to explore the function of leader-centered narratives. Using the construct of the attribution to leadership it charts the ways in which heroicized CEOs like Lee Iacocca, Allan Mulally, Elon Musk and, paradoxically, conspicuous failures like GM’s Roger Smith and Rick Wagoner, serve to reaffirm the agency of the individual in an increasingly impersonal, globalized, and corporatized world.

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

Chapter 4. “A Good Dose of Outrage”: Financial Trading Fables

In contrast to the IT industry’s dominant fable of the successful startup, the financial trading industry’s dominant fable almost invariably involves executive and/or corporate wrongdoing, sometimes criminality, with a detrimental impact on society. Financial trading’s corporate nightmare fable is often the result of pure fraud. A close analysis of texts about the Enron bankruptcy and the 2008 financial crisis (the book and movie The Big Short, the documentary Inside Job, and the movie Margin Call) reveals deep ambivalences and tensions regarding recent transformations of the American financial system, its foundational inequities, and the frequently compromised moral agency of the individuals participating in it.

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst

Chapter 5. Conclusion: Narrative Templates and Social Negotiations

The rationale for this study is that texts it considers and the narrative fables they instantiate have important social effects. By codifying genre conventions and expectations, these texts can influence the creation and reception of further narratives, reproducing certain tropes and norms, while potentially making it more difficult for counter-narratives to be developed or distributed. The narratives these texts repeatedly frame then become an important source of influence on how we understand, respond to, and engage with the industries they represent. Narratives circulating within popular culture actively, if unconsciously, influence our cognitive architecture, determining how we make sense of the agents, institutions, and events shaping our world. The analytic approach used in this monograph could be extended to texts from other countries and other industries.

Sandford Borins, Beth Herst


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