“Narrative Identity Empiricized”: Protocols for Narrating the Self
For McAdams the advantage of narrative methodology relates to its promise to reconcile the demands of formal scientific methods with the realm of human individuality, or nomothetic and idiographic knowledge.
While idiographic approaches concentrate on one or more individuals in whom various characteristics occur, nomothetic approaches focus on the distribution and correlations of characteristics across a population. According to McAdams, reconciling the different demands of analytic, quantitative and nomothetic studies on the one hand and synthetic, qualitative and idiographic inquiries on the other has been a central conundrum for personality psychology since Wilhelm Wundt laid the foundations of psychology as a formal and experimental science. In this context narrative approaches offer a way to integrate knowledge about the individual with statistics describing groups and means (McAdams 2006b).
However, for McAdams, adopting a narrative approach does not require a reconsideration of the underlying tenets of mainstream psychology; it is yet another model that can be incorporated without questioning the major assumptions of how science gets done—such as that the object exists independently of knowledge, that narrative methods can reveal a consistent and coherent representation of reality that is independent of the methods themselves, and that the researcher can stay neutral in the process of acquiring knowledge about it.
The methodology developed by McAdams to conduct research on narrative identity starts with collecting stories. However, the collection of stories for McAdams is a guided, controlled and structured process. At the start of the interview interviewees are introduced to the very idea of life as story and are told about the expectations of the researcher:
This is an interview about the story of your life. We are asking you to play the role of storyteller about your own life — to construct for us the story of your own past, present, and what you see as your own future. People”s lives vary tremendously, and people make sense of their own lives in a tremendous variety of ways. As social scientists, our goal is to collect as many different life stories as we can in order to begin the process of making sense of how people make sense of their own lives. Therefore, we are collecting and analyzing life stories of “normal” adults from all walks of life, and we are looking for significant commonalities and significant differences in those life stories that people tell us.1
A more specific suggestion is then made to organize a life story according to narrative conventions, including chapters, scenes, plots and characters:
We would like you to begin by thinking about your life as a story. All stories have characters, scenes, plots, and so forth. There are high points and low points in the story, good times and bad times, heroes and villains, and so on. A long story may even have chapters. Think about your life story as having at least a few different chapters. What might those chapters be? I would like you to describe for me each of the main chapters of your life story. You may have as many or as few chapters as you like, but I would suggest dividing your story into at least two or three chapters and at most about seven. If you can, give each chapter a name and describe briefly the overall contents in each chapter. As a storyteller here, think of yourself as giving a plot summary for each chapter. This first part of the interview can expand forever, so I would like you to keep it relatively brief, say, within 20—25 minutes. Therefore, you don”t want to tell me “the whole story” now. Just give me a sense of the story”s outline — the major chapters in your life.2
The interview then proceeds to develop detailed accounts of (a) a life story high point, (b) a low point, (c) a turning point, (d) the earliest memory, (e) a significant childhood scene, (f) a significant adolescent scene, and (g) one other significant scene of the narrator”s choosing. The third part of the interview focuses on life challenges, while the fourth explores positive and negative characters in the story. The fifth part is dedicated to the description of a future script (including positive and negative versions), while the sixth encompasses the domain of ideology—personal beliefs and values. Finally, the subjects are asked to identify the central theme in their life story: “Looking back over your entire life story as a story with chapters and scenes, extending into the past as well as the imagined future, can you discern a central theme, message, or idea that runs throughout the story? What is the major theme of your life story? Explain.”3
Such types of interviews are defined as semi-structured in experimental psychology and depart from more rigorously controlled procedures in that they don”t provide their subjects with a standard set of closed questions, but allow some freedom of expression. As can be seen, the instructions in the interview also provide training for the participants with regard to what actually constitutes a story and how they should structure their experience to adequately present them to the researcher.
Significantly, though, McAdams”s assumptions about a story”s structure, plot development and “genre” are in line with structuralist frameworks of literary and linguistic analysis. William Labov”s seminal work is often credited as a model of a linguistic approach to the study of narrative, and significant parallels can be discerned between his and McAdams”s approaches to narrative analysis. Drawing on Propp”s ideas, Labov elaborated a model of narrative structure comprised of six interrelated clauses: the abstract provides a summary of the narrative; the orientation introduces the general scene; the complication represents the main body of narrative and is terminated by a result; the evaluation accompanies the narrative and indicates to the listener the relative importance of the narrated events; and the coda or afterword contains a reflection on the whole narrative (Labov 1982; Labov and Waletzky 1967). Similar assumptions regarding narrative structure inform McAdams”s description of life story. As such, McAdams”s approach not only adopts a narrative perspective but also a particular structuralist understanding of narrative as coherent, singular and linear.
However, recent scholarship on narrative draws attention to the limitations of the Labovian approach, and this critique can be extended to its appropriation by McAdams. In his analysis of narrative analytical techniques Michael Murray warns that “the very interview process may encourage a certain structure for those accounts”, and highlights the problematic status of narrative coherence (Murray 2003: 104). Murray further argues that striving for coherence, linearity, seamlessness and homogeneity can be seen as an effect of dominant Western assumptions about the unitary subject, the linear unfolding of human lives and the centrality of the author of the story on subjectivity. Wendy Patterson draws attention to another limitation of the Labovian approach, pointing out that “within a strictly Labovian analysis, there is no allowance made for the inevitably partial and constructed nature of any account of personal experience” (Patterson 2008: 30).
Moreover, as has been shown in Chap. 4, McAdams maintains that storytelling encompasses two levels, surface and deep, and that it is on the latter that the “true meaning” of the story resides—and this is what is valuable from the point of view of the psychologist. The earlier stages of McAdams”s work were devoted to a search for significant themes as a reflection of basic motives. McAdams defined themes as recurrent patterns of motivational content in stories, which he narrowed down to two superordinate motives: agency (power/achievement/autonomy) and communion (love/intimacy/belonging). The methodology employed at this stage was within the classical experimental paradigm and the use of reductionist statistical procedures. McAdams”s own concern with regards to methodology was connected to the issue of balancing nomothetic and idiographic modes of research.
McAdams”s focus then moved to an analysis of the dominant recurring themes in stories, not as a reflection of underlying motives but as a combination of the work of social myths, mass culture, everyday beliefs and personal aspirations. As has been discussed previously, in the wake of the cultural shock of September 11, 2001, McAdams put forward the idea that a substantial proportion of American adults share a common construction of the self, one which he defined as “redemptive”. While the concept, features and origin of the “redemptive self” were described in the previous chapters, it is worth reconsidering them now from a methodological point of view. The very notion of the “basic structure of the storied self” is analogous to the search for a basic structure in myths, fairytales and other literary genres that informed narratological research in the heyday of structuralism, while its “content” resonates with several important modern themes. For example, Ken Plummer (1995) proposed five basic plots of modernist fiction: (1) taking a journey, (2) engaging in a contest, (3) enduring suffering, (4) pursuing consummation and (5) establishing a home. He further suggested that these tales share the common elements of (a) suffering that gives tension to the narrative, (b) a crisis or turning point or epiphany and (c) a transformation. This underlying structure bears a remarkable resemblance to the sequence of components in the redemptive self model, which reveals its fundamental affinity with a modern perspective.
However, what requires even more critical attention is the unproblematic adoption by McAdams of the structuralist model of the relationship between surface and deep structures. In the light of poststructural critique, as outlined in Chap. 4, this model has been reconsidered and challenged. The paradoxes and limitations of the notion of the hypothetical basic story are not taken into account in McAdams”s model of the storied self. Furthermore, McAdams acknowledges, but only to a limited degree, the impact of social-learning factors as contributing to the emergence of a common “basic story”. These factors, as Smith observes, include
(1) the similarity of our individual prior experiences of particular individual telling of a particular story; (2) the similarity of the particular ways in which almost all of us have learned to talk about stories generally; and (3) the fact that all of us, in attempting to construct a plot or summary in this particular context and in connection with these particular issues, would be responding to similar conditions and constraints. (Smith 1980: 212)
Another aspect of McAdams”s methodology worth noting is that, while the demographic characteristics of his respondents receive due acknowledgement (McAdams states that he conducts his research with middle-aged adults of both sexes), no consideration is given to the characteristics of the interviewers. This issue has already been recognized in ethnography, anthropology and research on oral biography. David Dunaway formulates this point succinctly in addressing method and theory in oral biography:
Interviewers should reflect on the cultural roles they assume, their personality, and other facts concerning their function in the society studied. This problem is familiar to the director of any large oral history programme: should interviewers be chosen by sex, age, race? If so, should these duplicate, complement, or contrast with the interviewee”s background? The point here is that the interviewer—interviewee interaction cannot be taken for granted in designing or recording oral history. (Dunaway 2006: 244)
Moreover, many scholars argue that the interviewer becomes a party contributing to the co-authoring of the story and treats the interview as a co-constructive research method (Kvale 1996). Murray highlights the significance of social context more generally, arguing that, “This question regarding the relative contribution of the different participants in shaping a narrative is an ongoing challenge facing the narrative researcher in collecting and analyzing narrative accounts” (Murray 2003: 99).
But to acknowledge the contextual variables and the unique way in which each story is plotted and told is to break the very foundation of the paradigm within which McAdams is working: namely, the logic of positivism, in which, in order to acquire the status of “true” and “significant”, knowledge must adhere to the criteria of confirmability, generalizability, reliability and empathic neutrality. McAdams, a social scientist by trade and cognitive psychologist by training, recognizes this tension as a tension between idiographic and nomothetic research in psychology. For him, a model of the self as a life story provides a conceptual and methodological bridge between these two modes: “It may be through the narrative approach that personality psychology will eventually make significant headway in reconciling its historical divide between nomothetic and idiographic ways of understanding persons” (McAdams 2006b: 14).
The insistence on uncovering a generalized knowledge, a “true picture of self”, is in accord with another significant feature of McAdams”s approach—his essentialist treatment of self. The self is understood by McAdams as a given that should be revealed in the process of analysis. Even though McAdams appears to be willing to acknowledge the contribution of culture to the construction of self, all of his interests—the mythology of American life, the preoccupation with mass culture and the contemporary configurations of self—constitute ontological realities rather than “constructions” in his view. While acknowledging that individuals are introduced to certain cultural codes that bear on their construction of self, all components of this process are no more than steps in the uncovering of a basic or final truth that both the culture and the individual self contain at their core. The ideological component that is at work in the cultural production remains bracketed as well.
Moreover, it can be argued that McAdams”s theory operates in as much a prescriptive as a descriptive mode, making a substantial contribution to the further colonization of the “common” American psyche with the idea of the redemptive self. The last sentence in his panegyric to narrative identity, speculating about a particular person”s story—“I bet it will be a story of redemption” (McAdams 2006c: 298)—encapsulates the powerful performative injunction the book delivers. Much more a tour de force of rhetoric than an exercise in cultural criticism, McAdams”s Redemptive Self, addressed to a broad range of readers—“psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and historians, but also [to] just about anyone who would like to know what it is that distinguishes Americans from others in the rest of the world” (Sternberg 2008)—represents as much an important act of constructing this hypothetical American identity as of articulating it.