Community Observer Roles§

Imagine a scenario in which there is a large group of people living in an opening in a forest. It’s a small community of people living together, somewhat in isolation from the rest of the world. If it helps, imagine it’s a few hundred people, a tribe living over ten thousand years ago.

Within this tribe, each person has a role. There are hunters, fishermen, farmers, cooks, healers, and many other roles. There are two roles in particular that I’d like you to consider: an external and an internal observer.

External Observer

One day, something happens away from where the tribe lives. Perhaps it’s a fire that cannot be seen, but there is a smell of smoke in the air. Maybe there is the sound of large animal movements, a herd of buffaloes. Or there might be sounds of people fighting in the far distance, a battle between two neighboring tribes. Whatever has happened, whatever the signs, no one in the community is sure, but they’re curious and concerned.

Imagine further that there is a person within the community who is curious and daring enough to investigate what has happened. So she ventures out to get the details. After a few hours, she returns and reports what she has discovered. Everyone is fascinated. They discuss it and decide a course of action in response.

The community thanks this daring person and they praise her. They encourage her to go get more information on the occurrence, or to learn about other things that are happening away from the group. So she does this. If the community is large enough, she also tells them about events that have happened amongst them, but of which not everyone is aware — perhaps the birth of a child, the success of hunters, a fight between two people. Finding information and reporting on occurrences outside and within the tribe becomes her primary role in the community.

She is appreciated generally, but occasionally she brings disturbing stories to the tribe that they refuse to believe are true. When this happens, she is attacked verbally. Regardless of whether she learns of pleasing or disturbing occurrences, she continues to perform this role. She does this because she believes it’s important that her tribe know the truth and she enjoys telling them. We call this person a journalist.

Internal Observer

Now consider another type of person in the same community, similar to the journalist. Instead of investigating things outside the community or public activities within the community, he is curious about how people feel emotionally. He’s interested in how they treat each other on a private and personal level.

For example, suppose he notices someone who looks sad or whose feelings have been hurt repeatedly by another in the group. He might observe such a victim and watch how others interact with them. He might ask questions of the victim to understand better their feelings, and interview discretely those who know the victim. He researches the background of those involved and the events that led to the difficulties in the life of the victim.

When he feels satisfied that he knows the victim well, when he has uncovered all of the elements related to the sad or hurtful experiences of the person at the center of the story he is investigating, he organizes his thoughts so that he can tell that person’s story to the community. But to protect the victim and others, he changes the names of everyone — he uses fake names. He also changes the story a little to make it more interesting or to fill in gaps in the information he has accumulated. To be sure to keep people listening and to emphasize the points he wants to make, he merges similar stories of multiple victims together into one rich story. He even includes some of his personal experiences—he can’t help doing this.

Now that he is prepared, he tells the tribe the story. They enjoy listening to him. They find the story interesting and moving. They don’t recognize the names of the people in the story; they realize they are fake. They wonder if the story is partly about anyone they know. They see similarities of the characters with people they know. They become sad when they realize how they are treating each other. They decide to change their ways for the better. Some listeners, though, identify with the victim in the story. These people realize they’re not alone. They then find the courage to tell their abusers that they don’t want to be hurt anymore and they want to be treated better. All of this makes the person who investigated and told this personal, inner story feel content. We call this person a novelist.


Although we know about the occupations of journalists and novelists, not all of us realize what their roles are essentially in our community. It helps to consider these roles in their simpler form, in a simple setting, as I have shown here.