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Narrating the Business Landscape

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  • Jeff Nesteruk, professor of legal studies and chair of business, organizations and society

When the financial markets collapsed in September 2008, many investors reached for the nearest pain reliever of their choice. For some, that meant pulling up to a computer keyboard and letting their fingertips begin the healing process.

As Jeff Nesteruk explains, those who put their stories in writing have unveiled a dynamic process through which public viewpoints evolve against shifting cultural, political and legal landscapes. The professor of legal studies presented a paper titled "Corporate Theory and the Role of Narrative" at the Business Law and Narrative Symposium at Michigan State University last month. His essay on the subject will be published in a special issue of the university's Law Review.

"We tend to turn to storytellers in times of crisis, and we are having a financial crisis," says Nesteruk, chair of the Department of Business, Organizations & Society. "Through narratives, we get the big picture and the significance of what's happened. Movies do this and politicians do this, so why not those in business? We've had an unprecedented situation, and it's important to look at personal stories before we turn to legal issues."

In addition to examining the role of storytelling in the cultural understanding of business, the symposium at Michigan State explored whether narrative plays a role in corporate law. Nesteruk ponders a basic question: What does the conventional corporate law story leave out?

"Narratives conceal as well as reveal," he says. "By looking at what these stories push aside, you can see what the law pushes aside. The typical corporate law story emphasizes loyalty to shareholders and leaves out employees. We are often missing stories from and about people deeply affected by corporations. It's a way of bringing corporate theory down to earth."

Nesteruk provides several examples of business narratives, including one published in TIME in December 2008 titled "How I Got Screwed by Bernie Madoff." The author, Robert Chew, was a former Madoff investor who lost $1.2 million—a small sum compared to the $30 million lost by his wife's family in the same Ponzi scheme.

Human stories behind the financial losses give significance to the issue, Nesteruk says. "We all understand Law & Order because it deals with criminal law. An individual has done some concrete wrong, like murder or rape. When we shift to the corporate realm, it's difficult for the non-specialist to understand. Stories must be captivating, and I'm arguing that we need to listen to individuals when something concrete does affect them."

Although business narratives are not new, Nesteruk says scholars' attention to them is a recent development. They have helped analysts explore whether the financial crisis was the result of a few bad apples, broad human greed, inept government or a failure of markets.

"Bruce Springsteen will tell you that stories help you in times of crisis," Nesteruk says, noting that "BOS" is the name of his department at the College. "A lot of his older lyrics resonate today, with the main street jobs lost."

As legal scholars now recognize, personal narratives also resonate today in the understanding of business.