“How Psychology Makes Itself True — or False” - Narrative Methodology

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

“How Psychology Makes Itself True — or False”
Narrative Methodology

As has been discussed previously, the emergence and development of psychology as a scientific discipline was deeply intertwined with the culture of modernism. As Polkinghorne poignantly observes, “The story of academic psychology is a subplot within the story of modernism. Psychology as an academic discipline originated as a purposeful effort to apply the epistemological principles of Enlightenment science to the study of human beings” (Polkinghorne 1992: 146). This had significant implications for methodological issues in psychology, both for methodology as the theoretical underpinning of research on the one hand, and as methods and techniques employed to collect and analyse data on the other. The ideal of knowledge and the scientific character of the discipline have been closely bound up with the model of experimental science borrowed from the natural sciences. Despite the widespread revision of what constitutes knowledge that has taken place in the Humanities through poststructural and postmodern critiques, academic psychology has remained committed to some significant assumptions and maxims of modernism. Unlike many other scientific practices that have become consciously aware of their location within a historical paradigm, to a large degree as a result of incorporating Kuhn”s (1962) insight, psychology has been slow to acknowledge the situated character of knowledge. Gergen (2001) highlights several modern assumptions that continue to shape the understanding and practice of psychology: the centrality of individual knowledge, the assumption of the world as objectively given, and the understanding of language as a carrier of truth. These views are clearly discernible in academic psychology in the broadly shared assumptions that “(a) mental processes are available for objective study […], (b) mental processes are related in a causal manner to environment inputs on the one hand and to behavioural consequences on the other, and (c) the experimental method is superior to all others in capturing these causal relationships” (Gergen 2001: 805).

The critique of this position has been articulated most strongly from constructivist and social constructionist positions. The constructivist approach was introduced by George Kelly (1955), whose seminal work on personal construct psychology focuses on individual processes of constructing representations of self and world (Mahoney 1991). Social constructionist approaches emphasize the society rather than the individual, and focus on discursive practices within which individuals are embedded (Burr 1995). From this perspective, “what one takes to be real, what one believes to be transparently true about human functioning, is a by-product of communal construction”, which observation encompasses the concept of self and personality as well. As Gergen argues,

this conception of the person is an outgrowth of a particular tradition — including both its linguistic genre and the institutions in which they are embedded. This conception of the person cannot itself be verified or falsified through observation; rather, a linguistic forestructure is essential to direct and interpret whatever observations one does make. (Gergen 2001: 806—807)

What is at stake in this discussion is not only the status of psychological knowledge but the status of psychology as a discipline. As Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested in his deliberation on the occasion of the centenary of psychology as a science, psychology, unlike natural sciences and more than any other social science, operates not only in a descriptive mode, but also in a prescriptive one. The question of, “How psychology makes itself true — or false” is predicated on the fact that the “cultural impact of psychology is two-fold: it provides new models for self-knowledge and a partially new self for us to have knowledge of. […] Hence the self”s knowledge of itself and its making of itself are indeed two aspects of one and the same process” (MacIntyre 1985: 898). MacIntyre elaborates this point with particular emphasis on methodology: “the question may always arise of whether the account is true because of the accuracy of the methods of observation used by the psychologist who formulated it or whether it is true because the people in question embodied that psychologist”s account in their own intentions and thereby behaviour” (MacIntyre 1985: 898). The distinction between epistemology and ontology in psychology thus becomes blurred, as our ways of constructing knowledge impact on the nature of what is known.

In this context, narrative psychology, as an umbrella term, provides a unifying framework for a range of diverse approaches: while some developments within this broad approach are aligned with constructivist and social constructionist camps in their critique of the paradigm of positivism within which academic psychology largely operates today, other approaches remain closer to the existing “positivist” discourse of the discipline. This chapter first examines the methodological assumptions informing McAdams”s model, Hermans”s dialogical self theory, and Epston and White”s narrative therapy, and then examines closely research methods and practices associated with each of these perspectives.