Sustainability as Cognitive Friction: A narrative approach to understand moral dissonance of sustainability and harmonization strategies

Author: Franzisca Weder – University of Queensland, School of Communication and Arts, Australia


  • Stella Lemke – Lübeck University, Germany
  • Amornpan Tungarat – Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt, Austria

In increasingly global hyperconsumption cultures, sustainability is not only a wicked problem (Weder et al., 2019; Davis et al., 2018; Murphy, 2012) but also a welcome vehicle for corporations to communicate about the advantages of products and services, often in misleading (Cox, 2013, p. 289) and “greenwashing” ways (Elving et al., 2015). As well, in news reporting, sustainability is increasingly used as master frame, buzzword, or catchphrase (Weder et al., 2019) without explanation, direction, context of sustainability as transformation or, therefore, impact on individual behaviour.

Narratives represent storied ways of knowing and communicating, thus, have always been a key feature in media and communication research. In our contribution, a new version of a narrative inquiry is introduced to capture reflections on experiences of sustainability as well as individual assessments of (un)sustainable behavior over time. We perceive storytelling as an action, as act of problematization which uncovers cognitive dissonances that appear on an individual level dealing with sustainability as process of societal transformtion and related communication. Using Rory’s Story Cubes® (dice with pictograms), we stimulated 35 interviewees from various cultural backgrounds (Asian, European, Anglo-American) to “story” and tell sustainability related life events into order and meaning. Our evaluation of the interviews focused on the story as a whole, which was then linked to the individual biographical background to understand motives for and moral conflicts about (un)sustainable behavior. As well, it was possible to trace back the origin of the dissonances in the abovementioned lack of information and ‘overmoralization’ of sustainability in news reporting and marketing communication.

In this paper, we want to put the innovative form of a narrative inquiry up for discussion for scinece communication research in better understanding individual perceptions of sustainability and cognitive friction occurring in relation to sustainability related issues.

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Presentation type: Insight talk
Theme: Transformation