The Maps of Narrative Practice - Narrative Methodology

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

The Maps of Narrative Practice
Narrative Methodology

Unlike Hermans and McAdams, many of the aspects of whose methodological approaches fit without problem into the existing methodological framework of academic psychology, White and Epston began their work by challenging the premises of mainstream psychology—the positivist assumption “that it is possible to have direct knowledge of the world” (White and Epston 1990: 4). For this they substituted the interpretative method based on the assumption “that any statement that postulates meaning is interpretive” (White and Epston 1990: 4). White and Epston stress that “these statements are the outcome of an inquiry that is determined by our maps or analogies” (White and Epston 1990: 5).

In a self-reflexive exercise designed to delineate their position with regard to the multiple analogies available to the social sciences, White and Epston (1990: 6) constructed a table of analogies (see Table 4.1).

Table 5.1

Analogies in social sciences (after White and Epston 1990: 6)

Analogies drawn from

Social organization constructed as

Problems constructed as

Solutions constructed in terms of

1. Positivist physical sciences

Elaborate machine, constituted by mechanics and hydraulics

Breakdown, reversal, insufficiency, damage

Isolating cause, precise analysis, repair, reconstruct, correct

2. Biological sciences


Symptomatic of underlying problem, serving a function, having utility

Identifying pathology, correct diagnosis, operating and excising pathology

3. Social sciences

3a. Game theory

Serious game

Strategies, moves

Contest, countermoves, strategizing

3b. Drama

Living room drama

Roles, scripts, performances

Revising roles, selecting alternative dramatic form

3c. Ritual process

Rite of passage

Transition—separation, betwixt and between, re-incorporation

Mapping, drawing distinctions around status 1 and status 2

3d. Text

Behavioural text

Performance of oppressive, dominant story or knowledge

Opening space for the authoring of alternative stories

White and Epston then illustrate the significance of the distinctions between different analogies, and identify the effects of the interpretations arrived at through recourse to these analogies through a number of typical problems that psychologists encounter in their practice, from individual crisis to family dysfunction. In the latter category they refer to the example of couples seeking therapy because they encounter problems in their relationship, after an initial relatively enjoyable and mutually satisfactory phase of relationship, to show how differently both the “problem” and solutions can be understood. If this problem is understood through a biological analogy, the initial unproblematic phase can be defined as a “honeymoon phase”, implying that it represented an inaccurate reflection of the relationship, while the second, problematic phase will be assumed to reveal the true state of affairs, the state that was always present in a latent form, lurking beneath the surface. This problematic condition can in turn be interpreted as a reflection of still deeper processes of dysfunction and associated psychopathology, deeper processes that are, however, understood to have a status of objective reality or truth. Experts will then apply procedures and operations to identify these deeper levels of objective reality, tracing the history of the dysfunction and psychopathology, perhaps down through the family of origins of both parties, and into the relationships of their respective parents. “This is a typical construction of the form of depth psychology that so saturates western culture”, note White and Epston (1990: 8).

If the text analogy is employed, however, “then what the biological model constitutes as levels can be turned through 90° and stood on their ends, to be considered alternative and competing stories” (White and Epston 1990: 8—9). By abandoning a hermeneutic imperative in search of the deeper structures as necessarily embodying true meaning, the “surface” elements can be validated as equally important and significant—the couple is then is free to choose that story they find most attractive for their life, which is, in White and Epston”s therapeutic experience, invariably the story of the first non-problematic phase. This story can then be examined for what it tells the partners about their resources, problem-solving abilities and resilience, empowering them to make this story the dominant one in the present and for their future. Thus, as White and Epston state:

[…] the text analogy advances the idea that the stories or narrative that persons live through determine their interaction and organization, and that the evolution of lives and relationships occurs through the performance of such stories or narratives. Thus, the text analogy is distinct from those analogies that would propose an underlying structure or pathology in families and persons that is constitutive or shaping of their lives and relationships. (White and Epston 1990: 12)

White and Epston thus question the very existence of the “outside of the text” as a separate “psychological reality” and reconceptualize such an outside as being a result of the work of stories themselves. Instead of aiming the vector of analysis at the supposed depth—and, by implication, the past—White and Epston remain on the textual surface; this surface, however, proves to be extraordinarily rich.

While the text analogy provides a frame that allows White and Epston to consider a broader socio-political context in which the storied lives unfold, as understood through the intertextual metaphor, it also enables them to include a consideration of power in its operation and effects on lives and relationships. White and Epston note that, “This possibility is an important one, as the vista of power has been much overlooked in therapy literature generally, and especially in the benign view that we frequently take of our own practice” (White and Epston 1990: 18). In their analysis of power and its multiple effects White and Epston are guided by Foucault”s analysis of the power/knowledge nexus discussed in Chap. 3.

White and Epston maintain that as we are all caught up in a system of power/knowledge and that it is not possible to cut ourselves apart from this domain, we are simultaneously undergoing the effects of power and exercising this power in relation to others. However, they warn that this does not imply that all persons are equal in the exercise of power, nor that some do not suffer its subjugating effects more than others.

They further interrogate the notion of subjugated knowledge and the two classes of subjugated knowledge Foucault distinguished: “erudite” knowledge that has been “written out” through the ascendance of a more global and unitary knowledge, and “local popular” or “indigenous” knowledge that is currently in circulation but is denied recognition and status. White and Epston then unpack and outline the profound methodological implications of this cluster of ideas for the psychological practices in general and in particular for the elaboration of narrative therapy:

In accepting Foucault”s analysis of the rise of global and unitary knowledge (that is, the objective reality scientific knowledges that make global and unitary truth claims), we become wary of situating our practices in those “truth” discourses of the professional disciplines, those discourses that propose and assert objective reality accounts of the human condition. And since it is the isolation of these knowledges from knowledges at large, as well as their establishment in the hierarchy of scientificity, that endows them with their power, we challenge the isolation of the knowledges of the professional disciplines from the field of discontinuous knowledges. In addition, we challenge the scientism of the human sciences. (White and Epston 1990: 28)

They maintain further that if it is accepted that power and knowledge are inseparable and that we are simultaneously undergoing the effects of power and exercising power over others, the benign view of psychological practices will fail to hold. For White, as for Foucault before him, narrative practices and in particular stories that are implicated in identity formation are embedded within broader historically-specific regimes of subjectification. White is acutely aware of the role that psychology and therapy play in the functioning of such regimes. Consequently, he is highly conscious both of the position of therapist and the use of a particular discourse in his practice: for White, who is careful not to use the term “client”, the therapist should enter into collaborative relationships with “people who consult him”. His vocabulary is in tune with his basic belief that the therapeutic situation should not replicate the conditions under which people are objectified through the labels of client, disturbed or sick. For White, assigning the position of an expert to the therapist and the position of an ill-informed bearer of the problem to his counterpart would replicate the imbalance of power that exists in a society. White insists that everyone is “knowledged” and that they have both resources and knowledge to deal with their predicaments.

White and Epston further urge the therapist to adopt a critical and self-reflexive position:

[W]e would assume that we are always participating simultaneously in domains of power and knowledge. Thus, we would endeavour to establish conditions that encourage us to critique our own practices formed in this domain. We would work to identify the context of ideas in which our practices are situated and explore the history of these ideas. This would enable us to identify more readily the effects, dangers, and limitations of these ideas and of our own practices. And, instead of believing that therapy does not have anything to do with social control, we would assume that this was always a strong possibility. Thus, we would work to identify and critique those aspects of our work that might relate to the techniques of social control. (White and Epston 1990: 29)

White and Epston”s methodology follows this imperative consistently. Even though they do not conduct research as such, and instead engage in therapeutic relationships, these relationships presuppose the production and utilization of certain forms of knowledge with regard to how efficiently therapeutic intervention could be organized and with regard to what can be communicated to the people who consult them. The knowledge that White and Epston obtain in the process of their practice is communicated back to the people they are working with in order to be utilized constructively by these people—to effect changes in their self-understanding and behaviour, to be incorporated within their conceptual and emotional frameworks—but also to be communicated to therapists and researchers.

Thus, we can distinguish two broad types of knowledge effectively used within White and Epston”s approach: the meta-knowledge about the procedures that encompass their practice; and the discursive formulations that they receive from people who consult them about their difficulties. Since White and Epston reject the interpretative imperative, the narratives that people who consult them share with them are acknowledged and addressed in therapy at face value, in a mode that Bruner defined as “folk-psychology”: the way in which ordinary people talk about, reflect and construe “how people tick”. It is of critical significance for White and Epston that this knowledge should be received, preserved and utilized in its idiosyncratic formulation, the narrative constructed by each individual person. Therefore, the therapeutic procedures that they follow are described and formulated in such a way as to protect the singularity of the individually generated knowledge they are dealing with. These procedures therefore also concern the modes and directions of the interventions, without defining their content in advance. White defines such procedures as “maps of narrative practice” and describes them in the following way:

The maps that I review in this book are, like any maps, constructions that can be referred to for guidance on our journeys — in this case, on our journeys with the people who consult us about the predicaments and problems of their lives. Like other maps, they can be employed to assist us in finding our way to destinations that could not have been specified ahead of the journey, via routes that could not have been predetermined. And, like other maps, the maps that I present in this book contribute to an awareness of the diversity of avenues that are available to preferred destinations, avenues that can be charted and rendered familiar. I have formulated these maps over the years principally in response to requests from others to render more transparent the therapeutic processes that I have developed. I will emphasize here that the maps of this book are not the maps of narrative practice or a “true” and “correct” guide to narrative practice, whatever narrative practice is taken to be. (White 2007: 5)

Thus, White”s “maps” provide meta-level knowledge about therapy—knowledge about structure, but not the content, knowledge that is akin to generative grammar—producing new meanings as it unfolds and addressing the poetics but not the aesthetics of discourse.

On the metatheoretical, self-reflexive level, White and Epston”s methodology encompasses three aspects: separating from unitary knowledge; challenging the techniques of power; and resurrecting subjugated knowledge. In pursuing these three broad goals White and Epston make the narrative, textual and discursive construction of experiences that have been labelled problematic their main focus and primary instrument. Their programme of intervention begins with the step that they define as the “externalization of the problem”. In essence, externalization of the problem is aimed at making their discursive and narrative construction visible (Roth and Epston 1996a, b). It seeks to expose the way the language employed to describe a problem in effect shapes and maintains that problem by, on the one hand, legitimizing and naturalizing it and on the other by objectification, “thingification” and disempowering the client. In doing so, White and Epston acknowledge that their actions as therapists have performative and constructive power. Their first radical intervention is the refusal to accept the labelling of the person who consults them as problematic, sick or dysfunctional. Through externalization, the problem is constructed as an entity separate from the person, thus fundamentally disrupting the unifying signification typically and casually imposed by mainstream psychology. The externalization of the problem also entails the mapping of the problem”s influence in a person”s life and relationship and the examining of the demands that the problem makes on the person. For example, working through the problem presentation of self-hate, White does not ask such questions as, “Why do you hate yourself?” or “What makes you experience self-hate?”, which by their structure and content reinforce the identification between the person and the problem, but rather explores “what self-hate told the client about herself and what it required her to do to her body”, and then identifies “self-hate”s agenda for the client”s life, its attitude towards her, and its [the problem”s] ways of speaking” and proceeds to questioning the requirements of self-hate (White 2007: 56). As such, narrative therapy explores the influence of the problem on the individual”s life through the prism of the nexus of power and knowledge. From White and Epston”s point of view, it is through particular discursive practices that “problems” acquire power and compel people to treat themselves and others in a particular way. Power, therefore, is understood by White and Epston not only to be part of a larger socio-political context, but also to be located at the very core of problematic relationships.

Externalization of the problem allows them to move to the next phase in their therapeutic process: challenging the techniques of power. In this case, White and Epston address the effect of power on an inter-individual level of operation, the power that the problem itself exerts over the person through its discursive formulation, defining it as “the requirements for the problem”s survival” (White and Epston 1990: 30). White and Epston”s aim in this stage is to explore the way in which the problem appears to compel persons to treat themselves and others in a certain way. White and Epston argue that it is always possible to find “unique outcomes” with regard to the oppressive work of any psychological problem. “Unique outcomes” represent moments when a person could have subjected him or herself or others to the techniques of power utilized by the problem but refused to do so. “Unique outcomes” thus demonstrate the resilience of the person and become a starting point for generating alternative stories, which represent the third phase of therapeutic intervention.

Identification of “unique outcomes” relies on mobilization of “thick description”, the methodological procedure that was inspired by Geertz”s work and poststructuralist critique of the dichotomy of deep structure versus surface manifestation more generally. As Colebrook (1997) demonstrates, the critical potential of the notion of “thick description” relates to its powerful anti-hermeneutic assumption: the rejection of explanation in favour of description. As Colebrook explains, “Through his concept of “thick description” Geertz suggests that a symbol or an action is not immediately coherent; but this is not because there is some deeper hidden meaning. Thickness is simply all that is presupposed by, and coexistive with, the exchange of a symbol” (Colebrook 1997: 74). As Colebrook further notes, “thick description” urges researchers to go beyond isolated observation of an event and acknowledge and incorporate in the description the heterogeneity and complexities coexistent with the event. “Thick description” does not begin with a general narrative but creates a number of dynamic narratives from particulars. “Thick description” as a method of cultural analysis implies a particular kind of understanding, which aims to avoid an imposition of general narrative and simultaneously tries to make visible those facets of experience that, although already present in the picture, are pushed into the background.

Making such facets of experience visible through thick description allows people to formulate alternative stories. Alternative stories begin to incorporate vital and previously neglected aspects of people”s lived experience, and thus challenge the “truths” that specify their lives and protest their subjugation to unitary knowledge. White and Epston note that in such a way local, popular or indigenous knowledges become available to be performed. Thus, their methodology binds the acknowledgement of the operation of the power/knowledge nexus with the emphasis on the performative mode of alternative knowledge generated through therapy:

Insofar as the desirable outcome of therapy is the generation of alternative stories that incorporate vital and previously neglected aspects of lived experience, and insofar as these stories incorporate alternative knowledges, it can be argued that the identification of and provision of the space for the performance of these knowledges is a central focus of the therapeutic endeavour. (White and Epston 1990: 31)

To this end, White and Epston developed a broad repertoire of specific therapeutic techniques, which they define not as “interventions” but as “conversations”, acknowledging their intention to build relationships with “people who come to consult them” as equals. These include “Re-Authoring Conversations”, “Re-Membering Conversations”, “Conversations that Highlight Unique Outcomes” and “Definitional Ceremonies”. The therapeutic effect in all of these techniques is derived from the constructive use of the potential of narrative—the potential to generate alternative stories and facilitate the articulation and performance of new meaning. While working predominantly in the oral mode, White and Epston also incorporate some techniques that rely on the written format in their therapy: these include the writing of letters and issuing “counter documents”. The letters, written by therapists or people who consult them, can be on the subject of redundancy (of the problem), prediction, counter-referral or reference, while “counter documents” can include certificates, declarations and self-certification.

To summarize: White and Epston”s approach strives to unpack the potential inherent in narrative by developing a broadly constructivist methodology. Careful attention to the discursive properties of narrative—from the point of view both of conceptual loading and of implementation of power techniques—allows for its most productive use, turning it into an instrument of liberation from the tyranny of problems and the pressure of society.