Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016


At the beginning of the twenty-first century narrative psychology has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on par with psychoanalytic, cognitive and family approaches. As a distinct field of inquiry, narrative psychology is characterized by the elaboration of models of personality and self based on narrative principles. Representing a reaction against the cognitive-behaviour paradigm with its strong focus on information-processing, which has dominated academic psychology for nearly half a century, narrative psychology puts self-experience at the core of inquiry and therapy. As such, the valorizing of self-experience by narrative psychology corresponds to the growing trend of theorizing explicitly the place of selfhood and identity within politics and culture. As Anthony Elliott notes in his critical monograph, Concepts of the Self: “In contemporary social theory the cultures and conflicts of identity loom large, with the fragilities of personal experience and the self viewed as central to critical conversation concerning social practice and political transformation” (Elliott 2005: 15).

Narrative psychology represents an extension into the domain of psychology proper of a “narrative turn” that took place in the human sciences over the course of the last 30 years. This trend has reflected a growing awareness and recognition of the fact that narrative represents “a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, process, and change—a strategy that contrasts with, but is in no way inferior to, “scientific” modes of explanation that characterize phenomena as instances of general covering laws” as Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory explains (Herman et al. 2005: ix). As a result, an interest in narrative as a mode of production and as an explanatory paradigm has become prominent in communication and media theory, pedagogy, sociology, ethnography, jurisprudence, politics and artificial intelligence studies.

Tangible results of this development can be seen in the appearance of interdisciplinary books, series of books,1 and internationally recognized journals2 devoted to narrative theory and research. Another manifestation of cross-disciplinary interest in narrative is a proliferation of societies and associations dedicated to the study of narrative (including the European Narratology Network (ENN), the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN) (formerly Society for the Study of Narrative Literature), the Centre for Narrative Research (CNR) at the University of East London, the Nordic Network of Narrative Studies (NNNS), and the Narrative Network in Australia), and a number of recent conferences intended to bring together humanistic and social-scientific approaches to narrative, such as “Narrative Matters”, an interdisciplinary conference on narrative research, perspectives and approaches across the humanities and social sciences.

As Vincent Hevern (2004) shows, since the 1980s psychology has witnessed an exponential growth of research and teaching activity centring on narrative. The intersection of narrative theory and psychology produced significant results regarding the narrative structuring of reality, the achievement of narrative intelligibility in conversation and the function of narrative in individual life experiences. It also led to the conceptualization of an array of “materials”—ranging from experimental protocols to therapeutic conversations—as “narratives”. Finally, this development culminated in the elaboration of models of personality and self based on narrative principles. In therapy, this move has been paralleled by a rapid growth in the popularity and acceptance of “narrative methods”.

The “narrative turn” in psychology has been taking place during the historical period variously characterized as the shift from modernity to post-industrial society, late capitalism or postmodernity. However, as Kenneth Gergen (2001) notes, psychology as a discipline has become notorious for its absence from the major cultural, political and philosophical debates of the second half of the twentieth century. Relying heavily on the ideals of positivism and empiricism, psychology strove to gain the status of a “real scientific discipline” and was preoccupied with perfecting research methodologies and firming disciplinary boundaries. The profession”s immense success in organizing itself as a discipline came at the expense of becoming “historically frozen and endangered by its isolation from major intellectual and global transformations of the past half century” (Gergen 2001: 803). Positivist assumptions of academic psychology have been rarely challenged (Henriques et al. 1984).

Philosophical discussions of self, identity and subjectivity, by way of contrast, have insisted on embedding such categories within a broader problematics of the human sciences, specifically, in relation to problems of the production of knowledge, objectivity and truth. Postmodern theory has questioned assumptions about the universal and timeless character of the categories of self, identity and subjectivity and provided compelling arguments for them to be seen as dependent on historically specific communicative acts, hermeneutic processes and power relations. The critique of a unified and coherent model of self in various quarters of the humanities, such as anthropology, feminism, history, social sciences and philosophy, has highlighted the historical and cultural relativity of the self. Such critique has also led to recognition of the way in which the self is fractured along the lines of gender, race and class. The parameters of primacy, unity and the giveness of the self crumbled under this analysis. Finally, with the advent of the postmodern period the central outlook in social and political thought has shifted to a view of the self as “flexible, fractured, fragmented, decentred and brittle” (Elliott 2005: 2).

This view simultaneously articulates the postmodern condition and presents a major challenge to psychology: namely, how can this decentred, fragmented, contradictory self account for the meaning and purpose in human life—or are such ideas obsolete? Should they be forsaken by psychology and philosophy altogether? This is the challenge to which narrative psychology rises. The emergence of narrative psychology can be understood as part of a larger cultural development in the postmodern context where the work of decentring, fragmentation and alienation have put meaning in jeopardy, and the task of making intelligible individuals” lives and their experience of their personal journeys has acquired a heightened urgency. The central question that guides my analysis in this book is, “Why do we need narrative psychology now?” What challenges can a narrative elaboration of subjectivity, self and identity help humanity to face in the twenty-first century?

This book focuses on three important strands of contemporary narrative psychology, centring on pioneering figures advocating the narrative approach in three different locations: North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand. In the US, an approach to self and identity as a life story has been developed during the last 2 decades by Dan McAdams and his followers. The collaborative efforts of Michael White in Australia and David Epston in New Zealand helped to launch the narrative movement in therapy in the late 1980s. At the same time, Hubert Hermans”s research activity on the dialogical self in the Netherlands has made the University of Nijmegen a centre of dialogical research in psychology in Europe, culminating in the International Conference on Dialogical Self. These conferences have become a major forum for psychologists from different countries and continents sharing a common interest in dialogism.

McAdams”s narrative identity, Hermans”s dialogical self theory and White and Epston”s narrative therapy evidence certain clear commonalities: all of them address meaning and intention in human lives; all three are rooted not only in psychological discourse but also in philosophy and interdisciplinary cultural theory; all of them borrow key metaphors from literary studies and literature; all of them encompass theoretical issues, research methods and therapeutic intervention simultaneously. Importantly, all three also engage with political debates. There are, however, some substantial differences particularly evident in the respective treatment of such issues as coherence of the self versus its decentred character; stability and continuity of self versus malleability, fluidity and change; and, last but not least, value judgements on whether some stories are better than others. This last raises an important issue of ethics in psychological theorizing and practice.

To a large extent, the differences between the three approaches can be attributed to their respective positions along a continuum that ranges from modern to postmodern views (Neimeyer and Raskin 2000). In this book I investigate how narrative is mobilized by each of the approaches, how fully the heuristic power of the construct of narrative is unpacked by each, and what aspects of the concept as yet remain untapped. Specifically, I explore the conceptualization of the subject, the issue of psychological transformation, and the methodology offered by each of the approaches, concluding with an analysis of the ethical implications of each of the perspectives. If the narrative approach is often described as a critique of dominant trends in contemporary psychology, both theoretical and applied, the present project also assesses how far such critique goes and how it can be expanded further.

This analysis begins in Chap. 2 by outlining major features of the “narrative turn” in psychology. Building on the previous exploration of the broader “narrative turn” in the human sciences, this chapter situates narrative psychology as a distinct development within this historical and theoretical context. It argues that while constituting a new and original development, narrative psychology is constructed in both relation and opposition to a number of developments within psychology, philosophy and literary criticism, as key figures in narrative psychology note. McAdams acknowledges his indebtedness to both psychodynamic and cognitive models, Hermans draws on such diverse sources as symbolic interactionism and dialogism, while White and Epston are influenced by ethnographic modes of inquiry and political philosophy. All of these thinkers borrow many of their critical terms, such as narrative, story, plot, text and context, from literary criticism. Chapter 2 further provides a critical exposition of the three approaches under consideration: Don McAdams”s model of identity as a life story, Hubert Hermans”s dialogical self theory and White and Epston”s narrative therapy. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the scope and applicability of the narrative approach.

Chapter 3 raises the following questions: what are the links between stories and selves, and how might we theorize a “narrative subject”? In this chapter I offer a critical analysis of how the subject and subjectivity are understood within the three approaches under consideration and how, precisely, these approaches utilize narrative in their proposed models of self and identity. If identity is defined as a life story in McAdams”s model—as “a coherent and vitalizing life myth” (McAdams 1994: 306) that humans “naturally construct”—what presuppositions about subjectivity underpin this explanation of identity? Similarly, what conception of the subject underpins Hermans”s dialogical self theory, which utilizes the metaphor of a “society of mind”, populated by a multiplicity of “self-positions” that are capable of entertaining dialogical relationships with each other? Do Epston and White offer any models of the subject and self to ground narrative therapy at all? I further investigate how these approaches are positioned with regard to the essentialist understanding of self; how these approaches are located on a continuum from modern to postmodern views of self; and whether they tend to construct self as coherent and bounded or gravitate towards multiple and decentred models of subjectivity.

The challenging issue of personality stability versus change is addressed in Chap. 4. Beginning by outlining the range of views in academic psychology on the issue of stability and change, which stretch from the “set like plaster” view of personality traits to the notion of “the protean self”, I stress that the answer to the question, “Can personality change?” depends on how personality is conceptualized, on how change is measured and on the context—from childhood and adult development to therapy—in which the change is addressed. Accordingly, the chapter provides detailed analyses of how McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston, respectively, define change itself, understand development in relation to time, and explain the role of narrative in identity-change. This chapter also engages with an idea of narrative as contingent and evolving, socially constructed and constructing, reinterpreted and reinterpretable. While Chap. 3 emphasizes how decentred, disunified subjectivities rather than a singular, unified subject are involved in the production and understanding of narratives, Chap. 4 highlights how narrative fluidity and contradiction can provide resources for psychological transformation.

Chapter 5 explores the techniques and methodologies developed and employed by McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston in their research and clinical practice. This analysis aims to assess how their key concepts are operationalized and what epistemological significance is attached to narrative. In this context, the chapter examines in detail the Life Story Interview Protocol developed by McAdams and his collaborators, Hermans”s Self-Confrontation Method designed to explore the dialogical self, and White and Epston”s methods of narrative therapy. Specifically, I investigate the following aspects of narrative methodologies: how stories are elicited and recorded; which structural features of the discourse are analysed; and whether the co-production of narratives through the dialogic exchange between interviewer and participant is taken into account. I further outline the implications of these methodological positions for therapeutic practice, focusing particularly on how the acknowledgement of multiple, contradictory life narratives can become a resource for therapy. I demonstrate that there is considerable variation in how McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston employ the concept of personal narrative and, relatedly, in their methodological assumptions and strategies of analysis and clinical practice. I further offer critical discussion of the advantages and limitations of the methodologies in each particular perspective drawing on the general critique of knowledge articulated over the last 25 years from poststructuralist and postmodern positions.

Chapter 6 explores the intersections between the domain of storied selves and that of moral values. It seeks to analyse the concrete articulations of ethics in McAdams”s model of identity as a life story, Hermans”s dialogical self theory, and White and Epston”s narrative therapy. This provides a way to grapple with the potential and the limitations of the narrative approach to ethics at the intersection with the real professional system and psychological practice. I further critically assess whether such models as the redemptive self, dialogical self theory and narrative therapy share assumptions of a prescriptive ethics, formulated in terms of substantive principles, concrete values, and virtue-as-duty principles, or do they treat moral values as an integral part of stories and storytelling because narratives themselves implicitly or explicitly ask the question about the good life? The chapter reaches a conclusion that if the appropriation of the notion of narrative proves to be constructive with regards to such crucial issues for psychology as the conceptualization of the subject, an understanding of stability and change, and research methodology, its greatest potential indubitably lies in foregrounding an ethical dimension in all of the above-mentioned areas.


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Henriques, J., W. Hollway, C. Urwin, C. Venn, and V. Walkerdine. 1984. Changing the Subject. Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity. London: Methuen & Co.

Herman, D., M. Jahn, and M.-L. Ryan (eds.). 2005. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hevern, V.W. 2004. “Introduction and General Overview. Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide”, March, Le Moyne College,; viewed 30 September 2009.

McAdams, D.P. 1994. Can Personality Change? Levels of Stability and Change Across the Life Span. In Can Personality Change? ed. T.F. Heatherton and J.L. Weinberger, 299—314. Washington: American Psychological Association.CrossRef

Neimeyer, R.A., and J.D. Raskin. 2000. On Practicing Postmodern Therapy in Modern Times. In Constructions of Disorder: Meaning-making Frameworks for Psychotherapy, ed. R.A. Neimeyer and J.D. Raskin, 3—14. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRef



See, e.g., Studies in Narrative, published by John Benjamins, Theory and Interpretation of Narrative published by the Ohio State University Press, Narratologia, published by Walter de Gruyter.


See, e.g., Image (&) Narrative, Journal of Narrative Theory, Narrative, Narrative Inquiry.