McAdams”s Life Stories and “The Making of the Self” - Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation

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

McAdams”s Life Stories and “The Making of the Self”
Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation

In his theoretical and research work McAdams explores extensively how identity as a life story develops from childhood through to the adolescent years and considers the issue of stability versus change in adulthood. Initially, McAdams proposed the following progression: by the age of two, most children have developed a primitive autobiographical self. They know that their lived experiences—the things they do and feel—belong to them, that they are part of their lives evolving over time. By the age of three or four they develop an ability to form and retain episodic memories. By kindergarten age, most children have become pretty good storytellers—they have developed cognitive capacities to recognize, understand and tell a story, and in addition they have been introduced to storytelling technique by adults who surround them and they have been able to practise storytelling themselves through play with their peers.

The emergence of fully elaborated narrative identity takes place from teenage years to early adulthood. Both developmental factors and social demands are implicated here, and McAdams”s observation is both instructive and delimiting:

There is no cultural or social need to put your life together into a narrative identity before you reach emerging adulthood. […] Questions about the meaning and purpose of life are too abstract to be appreciated and fully understood. Constructing a meaningful narrative identity involves weighing different hypothetical possibilities in life, choosing and mixing among alternative abstractions in a way that requires the full powers of abstract thought. The ability to weigh and balance hypotheticals — what some psychologists call formal operational thinking — is not usually seen before the teenage years. (McAdams 2006: 84)

In adult years, the issue of stability versus change is addressed within McAdams”s three-levels model of personality, which encompasses the level of dispositional traits, the level of personal concerns and the level of life narrative. Within this model, the two higher levels are more likely to demonstrate change. While accepting evidence for traits stability (Level I), McAdams did not consider such stability as a factor responsible for stability on other levels, such as the level of personal concerns (Level II) and life narratives (Level III), since there is no assumption of a deterministic relationship between levels. McAdams suggested that although data is sparse, there are indications of considerable personality changes on Level II (personal concerns) over a lifespan. Indeed, units such as personal strivings, current concerns, and developmentally linked preoccupations are very likely to change greatly in accordance with changing developmental demands and particular life circumstances. As an example, McAdams referred to the changes in the salience of the concern of generativity, which has been found to increase for older adults. He proposed that changes were not only possible, but inevitable, on Level III (life narrative). Such changes can be characterized as a psychological writing and rewriting of an individual”s personal story, which functions as an individual”s identity. Identity stability involves longitudinal consistency in a life story. Identity transformation—identity crisis, identity change—involves story revision. Such story revisions may range from minor editing of an obscure chapter to a complete rewriting of the text, embodying an altered plot, a different cast of characters, a transformed setting, new scenes and new themes (McAdams 1985: 18).

McAdams then further refined various features of his life story model and assigned a different degree of stability to them: “From the most stable (and most cognitively primitive) to the most changing (and most cognitively complex), a list might contain (a) tone, (b) image, (c) theme, (d) setting, (e) scene, (f) character, and (g) ending” (McAdams 1994: 307). The narrative tone of an identity is the emotional feel of the story, while the unique imagery of a story consists of the characteristic sights and sounds of the narrative, emotionally charged pictures, symbols, metaphors and the like, some of which may be traced back to early fantasy play. The themes are recurrent patterns of motivational content in stories, which McAdams narrows down to two superordinate motives: agency (power/achievement/autonomy) and communion (love/intimacy/belonging). The ideological setting of the story is the backdrop of beliefs and values that provide an ontological, epistemological and moral framework for the narrative against which nuclear episodes, representing symbolic high points, low points and turning points, stand out “in bold print”. The main protagonists in people”s life stories are personified projections of the self, such as “the good father” or the “loyal friend”, which McAdams calls “personal imagoes”. Finally, McAdams argues, all life stories require a satisfying ending, through which the self is able to leave a legacy that generates new beginnings.

McAdams believes that changes are most characteristic of the core aspect of personality—identity as a life story—although this level presents the greatest challenges for researchers, as “here data are virtually nonexistent”. He suggests, however, that it might be worthwhile to make some educated guesses about this process, which he summarizes as follows: “the model of change in identity over time is a process of continual fashioning and refashioning narrative in the direction of good form” (McAdams 1994: 307).

In line with his move towards broader integrative models of self, identity and culture, McAdams (2015) recently re-conceptualized the development of narrative identity by introducing a tripartite model of the psychological self as actor, agent and author. This model construes the psychological self as a reflexive arrangement of the subjective I and the constructed Me, evolving and expanding over the human life course. This trajectory is underpinned by the question “What might the I see and know when it reflexively encounters the Me?” McAdams contends that human selves come to know themselves from three different psychological perspectives: first as social actors who perform on a social stage, then as motivated agents who set forth an agenda for the future, and finally as autobiographical authors engaged in producing meaning-making self-reflexive narratives. Each of the three corresponds thus “to three developmental layers of psychological selfhood, emerging at different points in ontogeny and following their own respective developmental trajectories over the human life course” (McAdams 2013: 273).

McAdams contends that the self first enters the stage as a social actor, aiming to regulate itself in order to perform in the here and now, shortly before or around the second birthday. The knowledge that the I acquires about the Me at this stage encompasses semantic representation of traits, social roles and other features of the self implicated in social performances. As the person moves into middle childhood individual agency begins to be magnified and refined. The self as motivated agent focuses on goals and other anticipated end states and works towards their accomplishments. Gradually the I starts to perceive the Me as forward looking and future orientated, characterized by motives, values, hopes and fears. In late adolescence and adulthood, an autobiographical author emerges as the I now aims to create a story about the Me, that would make meaning of the reconstructed past, experienced present and anticipated future:

[T]he autobiographical author works to formulate a meaningful narrative for life, integrating the reconstructed episodic past, and the imagined episodic future in such a way as to explain, for the self and for others, why the actor does what it does, why the agent wants what it wants, and who the self was, is, and will be as a developing person in time. (McAdams 2013: 273)

The emergence of the autobiographical author relies on the developing skills of autobiographical reasoning, as outlined by Habermas and Bluck (2000)—a wide set of semantic operations that people use to interpret autobiographical memories and connect them with their present and their future. These skills begin to emerge in late childhood and continue to grow through the adolescent years. McAdams reviews evidence regarding research on autobiographical reasoning and concludes that young adults possess skills of mature self-authorship evident in (a) deriving organizing themes in their life stories; (b) sequencing memories of the events into causal chains in order to explain their development; (c) articulating the theme of personal growth over time; (d) formulating clear beginnings and endings in their life narrative accounts; and (e) incorporating foreshadowing and reflection on the past.

McAdams conceives his new tripartite model as a broad conceptual scheme “that reorganizes many different strands of research and theory of the psychological self under the three rubrics of the self as actor, agent, and author” (McAdams 2013: 289). It makes possible the addressing of some key issues in the area of human selfhood, including three perennial problems: self-regulation, self-esteem and self-continuity. McAdams suggests that there is a developmental logic for these three problems of selfhood that can be productively mapped onto the development of the self as actor, agent and author. McAdams notes that the problem of self-regulation emerges as the first and most pressing problem for the self during early childhood years, corresponding to the emergence of the self as social actor, although it continues to be relevant for authorship and agency as well. The issue of self-esteem becomes salient in middle childhood; it corresponds to the emergence of the self as motivated agent and is deeply linked to the I”s appraisal of its performance with respect to important goals, projects and motives. Self-continuity becomes the central problem in late adolescence and young adulthood and is tackled by the autobiographical author who on an ongoing basis must address the question: “how did the self of yesterday become the self of today, and how will that lead to the anticipated self of tomorrow?” (McAdams 2013: 274). As McAdams notes, as the three main issues of selfhood—self-regulation, self-esteem and self-continuity—are closely intertwined and interdependent, so is the work of self as actor, agent and author. Self-authorship continues through the course of adult life, while the I continues to understand the Me in terms of its traits and roles as a social actor, and the goals, plans and values of the motivated agent. However, McAdams insists that the efforts of all three components of selfhood are determined by one overarching agenda: “Put simply, the I seeks to enhance the Me—to make it bigger, stronger, and more excellent. The I also seeks to make the Me consistent, understandable, and predictable” (McAdams 2013: 290). Within the complex interplay of actor, agent and author the perspective of the latter seems to McAdams to be “especially germane for the I”s efforts to enhance the Me and to construct a Me that seems consistent and verifiable” (McAdams 2013: 291). Thus, just as coherence represents the central vector and value in McAdams”s understanding of the narrative subject, continuity represents the central vector of the development of narrative identity.

McAdams”s model of identity as life story can be critiqued in terms of its dealing with the issue of stability and change from various positions: philosophical, literary studies and psychological research. First and foremost, the exploration of how narrative is connected to psychological stability and change has to acknowledge the powerful connection between narrative and temporality. Paul Ricœur, one of the most influential scholars to tackle this issue, argues that narrative serves as a means of arranging human experience in time. Yet, he also suggests that the histories that human beings construct do not represent the “objective” records of events occurring across time; rather they utilize the same principles as literature does, serving as creative means of exploring and describing realities. In constructing such histories, human agents follow narrative principles of “emplotment”: they strive to generate intelligibility by organizing past, present and future into a meaningful pattern. For Ricœur, time and narrativity principles are also closely intertwined in the construction of individual, autobiographical stories. Ricœur”s work highlights how assumptions about time may condition narrative forms, how multiple temporalities can be at play in a single text and how the process of reading inflects textual practices. This complexity of temporal dimensions in autobiographical construction is bracketed in McAdams”s theorizing and divorced from his exploration of change, which arguably leads to the following limitations.

The notion of change in McAdams”s model is linked with developmental progression through stages. McAdams makes this link explicit by mapping James”s model of “I” as an author and “Me” as actors onto the Eriksonian model of adult development. In this model, eight stages follow each other in a particular order; none of them can be skipped and no others can be added. While a temporal dimension is present in both Erikson”s and McAdams”s models, it is a particular temporality that can best be described as a chronology, similar to chronology in Propp”s Morphology of the Folktale, where functions are supposed to follow each other in a particular order. Other researchers working within the life story paradigm similarly embrace the perspective outlined by the formalists and perfected by structuralist literary scholars. For example, Gary S. Gregg argues that, “identity is organized simultaneously as (a) a deep structure underlying a set of homologous binary oppositions, as proposed by Lévi-Strauss in his studies of myth and (b) articulated in a formulaic plot-episode structure, as defined by Propp, Lord, and Raglan in their studies of folktale and oral epics” (Gregg 2007: 64). Such understanding of identity has profound implications for the temporal dimension. In his analysis of Propp”s model, Ricœur demonstrates that while the axis of time is present in this model, it is a particular temporality—as Ricœur defines it, achronic—divorced from the real contingency and incalculability of time. Consequently, McAdams”s model relies on the understanding of time as achronic and in principle closed.

Such understating of time is also evident in the way McAdams”s model deals with the issue of resolution or ending in adapting the notion of a story as a metaphor for human life. Whether in terms of the achievement of Eriksonian stage eight or a redemptive state of self, McAdams”s model seems to presuppose an “in-built” finalization of life and is governed by strong teleological logic. But, as Roland Barthes poignantly notes, autobiographies cannot be completed: “What I write about myself is never the last word. […] What right does my present have to speak of my past? Has my present some advantage over my past? What “grace” might have enlightened me?” (Barthes 1997: 120—121). Narrowing the definition of a story and structuring it as incorporating distinct consecutive stages encompassed by a particular teleology has the result of locating narrative not in the realm of open-ended time and potentiality but in the realm of finalized and circumscribed actuality.

The redemptive self model that McAdams posits as normative for generative American adults demonstrates the dangers of such simplistic treatment of the issue of transformation and time. Within this model the self can almost be said to know only two options: either to become a redemptive self or to fail, and both outcomes are outlined from the beginning. As such, the redemptive self starts to lose processual quality in favour of static, product-like features. Moreover, the achievement of a redemptive self closely resembles a utopian project in the sense that it promises the resolution of all issues, guarantees a positive outcome to any misfortune, and is simultaneously located in the future and in the present; one aspires to redemption, but also lives a redemptive self on a day to day basis. As Frederic Jameson (2005) reminds us, utopia brings with it closure in space and time. It can be argued that as a utopian model the redemptive self represents a finally determined model in which there is no room for real human choice and decision; the rules of such decision-making are outlined from the beginning, as an algorithm of redemption. Furthermore, any ambivalence and contradictions are forced out of the self. When all the contradictions are evacuated, the self is reduced to the overarching dynamics of redemption. Thus, “generative” identity becomes, paradoxically, deprived of its generative potential. As with any utopian model, it suffers from stagnation and closure, from the impossibility of development. As Morson notes with regard to the most profound feature of utopian theorizing, it depicts the world of perfect product, and in “the world of the perfect product, real process — process that entails eventness and uncertainty — is obsolete” (Morson 1994: 13).

McAdams”s privileging of schematic developmental sequences—such as the redemptive self—over the contingent, specific and situational is open to criticism from the perspective of psychological research as well. McLean, Pasupathi and Pals note that within McAdams”s model of narrative identity “the specific processes by which the life story develops remain underexamined” (McLean et al. 2007: 263). These scholars link the potential of narrative as an engine for self-development with the irreducible singularity of autobiographical accounts, that they define as the situated stories. Situated stories represent “any narrative account of personal memory that is created within a specific situation, by particular individuals, for particular audiences, and to fulfil particular goals” (McLean et al. 2007: 263). The notion of situated stories provides an important link between the day to day operation of a person, the context of his or her life, the audiences that he or she is addressing, and both the stability and change of personal identity over the life course. Situated stories serve as a means of incremental narratively induced changes in the extended life story, potentially facilitating changes in self concept.

Similar refocusing of attention on small non-canonical stories and their interactional features has recently occurred in literary studies, as evident in the work of Alexandra Georgakopoulou on narrative constructions of self. She insists that a shift is necessary, from the question “what does narrative tell us about constructions of self?” to “how do we do self (and other) in narrative genres in a variety of sites of engagement?” (Georgakopoulou 2006: 125). Small stories—“an umbrella-term that covers a gamut of under-represented narrative activities, such as tellings of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events, shared (known) events, but also allusions to tellings, deferrals of tellings, and refusals to tell”—serve as a vehicle to enable such a shift. She argues that

In the context of a longstanding privileging of a certain kind of subjectivity, a certain kind of self and a certain type of narrative data through which to explore self, this shift can be seen as a new narrative turn, one that does not prioritise a unified, coherent, autonomous, reflected upon and rehearsed self. […] Instead, one that allows for, indeed sees the need for a scrutiny of fleeting, contingent, fragmented and multiple selves. (Georgakopoulou 2006: 125)

Michael Bamberg (2010) supports Georgakopoulou”s contention that “small story” research can solve a number of problems and shortcomings of more traditional “big story” research—a direction to which McAdams”s work undoubtedly belongs.

Broadly speaking, it can be argued that McAdams is concerned with macrostructures and deep semantic structures of life stories that serve as a basis of an identity formation and as such his theorizing corresponds to the “classical” phase of narratology. Just like classical narratologists, McAdams privileges the study of narrative in general over the interpretation of individual texts. From a specifically psychological perspective, McAdams”s model of redemptive self can be viewed as one of master narratives—the term coined to address how people engage in discourse using the repertoire of norms and expectations of a given culture (Bamberg 2004). This “big narrative” is encompassed by the assumption of psychological continuity and stability, which complements an assumption about narrative coherence within the model of identity as a life story.