The Emergence of Narrative Psychology - The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

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

The Emergence of Narrative Psychology
The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

The history of narrative psychology can be construed in different ways. Given that psychologists conduct their research most often through language—by either interacting with their subjects in experimental conditions or as clients in therapy — narrative accounts can be identified within many psychological schools and practices. Some scholars draw attention to the role of narrative in psychoanalysis and share Donald Polkinghorne”s (1988: 120) view that “Sigmund Freud made an important contribution to narrative theory”, while Mark Freeman (1993), Jens Brockmeier (1997), Michele Crossley (2000) and some others (e.g. Ammaniti and Stern 1994) question Freud”s methodology and theoretical assumptions about narrative. They highlight the danger of naturalization of phenomena and structures that Freud described and emphasize the necessity to approach Freud”s work historically. These researches allow us to outline both the continuity and influences of psychoanalysis on modern narrative psychology and the latter”s radical difference from the former.

Indeed, for Freud, who is often described as the inventor of the “talking cure”, the investigation of life histories and, in particular, of autobiographical narratives was crucial to both psychology and psychopathology. However, as Brockmeier (1997) highlights, Freud”s interest was specifically focused on psychological illness stories — the formation and development of certain clusters of symptoms that originate in early childhood and manifest themselves in the neurotic clinical picture presented by the patients who consulted him in later years. The process of psychoanalysis consisted of questioning patients or analysands and interpreting their answers in an attempt to organize their experiences, fantasies and dreams within a narrative form, paying attention simultaneously to the micro analysis of language and to the overriding “life plot”. In this Freud emphasized the role of family dynamics, which were, for him, critical not only for the tracing of ontogenetic lines within specific case histories — for example, in “Dora”, the “Wolf man”, the “Rat man”, and “little Hans” — but also served as the theoretical foundations of many basic psychoanalytic concepts: the stages of psychosexual development, the theory of traumata, the emergence and the resolution of the Oedipus complex, the formation of individual energy and the etiology of character formation. These concepts were subsequently incorporated and to various degrees organized within Freud”s overarching model of the psyche, which he first described as the “topographic model” that divided the mind into Unconscious, Preconscious and Conscious, and which was later reformulated as a second tripartite model consisting of Id, Ego and Super-ego.

Arguing for fundamental continuity between psychoanalysis and contemporary narrative research, Roy Schafer (1992) points out that the Freudian approach utilizes narrative as the preferred mode of explanation. He describes the process of psychoanalysis as concerned essentially with eliciting and reshaping narratives. In Schaffer”s view, psychoanalysts are “people who listen to the narrations of analysands and help them to transform these narrations into others that are more complete, coherent, convincing, and adaptively useful than those they have been accustomed to constructing” (Schafer 1992: 240). Similarly, Donald Spence (1982, 1987) argues extensively for the narrative understanding of psychoanalysis. While acknowledging Schafer”s and Spence”s contributions to the rethinking of narrative, particularly as means “of refusal of the classical paradigm of historical truth within psychoanalysis”, scholars who have introduced narrative psychology as a distinct field of inquiry point to substantial differences between their approach and a narrative reinterpretation of psychoanalysis (Epston et al. 1992: 99). From their position, Schafer and Spence presented a narrative reading of psychoanalysis rather than arguments for the narrative nature of the psychoanalytic approach. Thus, McAdams (2008a: 243) outlines the principal difference between the psychological approaches that utilize narrative as a means in their inquiries and specifically narrative psychological approaches that make narrative their key explanatory principle:

Freud (1990/1953) wrote about dream narratives; Jung (1936/1969) explored universal life myths; A. Adler (1927) examined narrative accounts of earliest memories; Murray (1938) identified recurrent themes in the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) stories and autobiographical accounts. But none of these classic personality theories from the first half of the 20th century explicitly imagined human beings as storytellers and human lives as stories to be told.

For those scholars who identify themselves as modern narrative psychologists, the key factor seems to be that narrative is positioned not at the periphery of the model but in its very centre; for them, narrative represents not a feature but a nature of psychological functioning. From these positions, the pre-history of the narrativist turn in psychology is described somewhat differently, and refers to different key thinkers: William James, Theodore Sarbin and Jerome Bruner.

In The Principles of Psychology James (1890) proposed the concept of self as being directly implicated in behavioural, motivational and cognitive processes and, thus, central for personality functioning. James introduced an important distinction regarding the self, namely a distinction between self as subject, or I, and self as an object, or Me. James also referred to these constructs as the self as knower and the self as known. James further introduced a conception of empirical self as consisting of the material self, social self and spiritual self.

James”s I—Me dichotomy was reconceived by Sarbin (1986) in narrative terms. Sarbin suggested that the uttered pronoun, I, stands for the author, while the Me becomes the actor or narrative figure. Therefore, the self as author, the I, can imaginatively construct a story in which the Me is the protagonist. Suggesting that people in the process of self-reflection order their experience in a story-like fashion, Sarbin introduced narrative as a root metaphor for psychology. Narrative construction serves as a means of organizing episodes and actions into coherent wholes and is instrumental in the assessment of the significance of actions. Sarbin”s proposal of narrative as a root metaphor for psychology has become an important point of reference for psychologists developing narrative models of self and identity.

A more general contribution to the development of narrative psychology was made by Jerome Bruner. In his influential studies Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Bruner 1986c) and Acts of Meaning (1990) Bruner posited narrative as a privileged mode in the “proper study of man” that should be concerned first and foremost with the issue of “meaning and the processes and transactions involved in the construction of meanings” (1990: 33). Bruner addressed a number of key issues of psychological functioning from a narrative perspective. He suggested that human beings are storytellers by nature and provided evolutionary arguments to support the view that the human brain is specifically designed for storytelling.

Taking inspiration from James, Bruner distinguished two fundamentally different forms of human knowing: paradigmatic, concerned with scientific and rational discourse, and narrative, which serves to convey and explain human conduct. The paradigmatic, or logico-scientific mode, “leads to good theory, tight analysis, methodological proof, and empirical discovery guided by reasonable hypothesis”, while the narrative mode “leads to good stories, gripping drama [and] a believable […] historical account” (Bruner 1986b: 13). Bruner not only reiterated the distinction between the logico-scientific mode of knowledge and narrative knowledge but also insisted that the latter should be positioned alongside the former, both being complementary but irreducible to one another and serving essential, although different, functions.

Even more pertinent to psychology, the narrative mode addresses the issue of agency as it “deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course” (Bruner 1986b: 13). Furthermore, the narrative mode pays attention to the particularities of experience and singularity of occurrence, while “the paradigmatic mode, by contrast, seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned” (Bruner 1986b: 13).

Bruner outlined a difference between “objective reality” and “psychological reality” and suggested that folk psychology operates as an instrument of culture in producing individuality and meaning. Taken together, these ideas were supported by Bruner”s powerful conviction that culture and not biology is pivotal in shaping human psychological functioning on many levels:

[…] it is culture, not biology, that shapes human life and the human mind, that gives meaning to action by situating its underlying intentional states in an interpretative system. It does this by imposing the patterns inherent in the culture”s symbolic systems — its language and discourse modes, the forms of logical and narrative explication, and the patterns of mutually dependent communal life. (Bruner 1990: 34)

Bruner”s work laid the ground for much of the later narrative inquiry in psychology, not only by elaborating propositions but also by raising questions. Following Bruner”s intervention, the basic narrative analogy became an overarching paradigm for a number of narrative models of self, personality and identity elaborated in the 1980s and 1990s, each of them engaging with the issues that Bruner raised from different angles.