Conclusion - Narrative Methodology

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

Narrative Methodology

As the analysis in this chapter demonstrates, McAdams”s, Hermans”s, and White and Epston”s methodological positions are significantly different. One way of accounting for these differences is provided by Murray”s (2000) model of narrative analysis, comprised of four levels: personal, interpersonal, positional and ideological. The personal level of narrative analysis explores the individual, idiosyncratic and phenomenological, and encompasses the themes and structure of the main narrative in the person”s life. On the interpersonal level, narrative is thought of in terms of a communication process and is concerned with its addressees—whether in the local research context or broader social interaction. On the positional level of analysis, the interpersonal is extended to include the differences in social positioning resulting from cultural and institutional prescriptions that shape and delimit the construction of personal identities. The ideological level is concerned with the effect of power on individuals” narratives and subjectivities. Adopting this frame of analysis, it can be seen that while McAdams”s methodology addresses the personal level, Hermans”s engages with personal, the interpersonal and positional levels. Only in White and Epston”s work, however, are the challenges of the ideological level met squarely.

From another perspective, the differences between McAdams”s, Hermans”s, and White and Epston”s methodological positions seem to confirm the distinction between the dominant modern epistemology of academic psychology and the postmodern epistemology of practice-based knowledge outlined by Polkinghorne:

The tacit assumptions of this epistemology of practice are: (a) there is no epistemological ground on which the indubitable truth of knowledge statements can be established; (b) a body of knowledge consists of fragments of understanding, not a system of logically integrated statements; (c) knowledge is a construction built out of cognitive schemes and embodied interactions with the environment; and (d) the test of a knowledge statement is its pragmatic usefulness in accomplishing a task, not its derivation from an approved set of methodological rules. (Polkinghorne 1992: 147)

While both McAdams”s and Hermans”s models have been developed primarily as explanatory paradigms corresponding to the requirements of scientific theory, Epston and White”s narrative therapy was developed in response to the pressing practical issues that its authors encountered in the consulting room. While for McAdams and Hermans the criteria of solid methodology were validity, reproducibility, ability to generalize the findings, elimination of internal contradictions and greater explanatory power—all of which conform to the postulates of a modern epistemology—for White and Epston the criteria are shifted towards the overall usefulness of their practice (which encompasses a much more heterogeneous body of knowledge), emphasis on the singularity of occurrence of psychological events, the idiosyncratic fit between an intervention and presented problem and, overall, a recognition of the constructed character of knowledge.

Furthermore, the narrative methods elaborated by McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston reveal the different ontological and epistemological assumptions of their underlying methodology. The specific ways of approaching narrative analysis proposed initially by Derek Edwards (1997) and developed further by Mary Horton-Salway (2001) can help to compare and contrast further the three methodologies under investigation. The first way is based on “a realist ontology” assumption, according to which narrative reflects an independent reality; the second way stresses the constructive role of a narrative”s author; and the third way draws on a discursive approach where the self is not revealed through narrative, but produced performatively. As such, narrative becomes a social action embedded in a particular interactive context.

Such ways of approaching narrative thus form a continuum stretching from “a realist ontology” and essentialist epistemological assumptions towards a postmodern view in which “the social world is assumed to consist of multiple, fragmented, and conflicting realities and the ways of seeing and knowing that construct them” (Goodbody and Burns 2011: 186). McAdams”s, Hermans”s, and White and Epston”s methodologies can readily be positioned along such a continuum. While McAdams”s can be aligned with a realist ontology, implying that narrative reflects the independent reality, Hermans”s methodology can be located between the essentialist and relativist, sharing the view that narratives are cognitively constructed. White and Epston”s work leans towards the relativistic, or postmodern, pole. As such, the three approaches under consideration in the present study demonstrate increasing diversification of methods in psychology as well as the growing tension between the search for new methodological paradigms and the commitment to the traditional positivistic assumptions of mainstream psychology.

Overall, this analysis raises the question of the possibility of the integration of diverse methodologies in narrative psychology. This issue is currently hotly debated, as demonstrated by the divergence in scholarly opinions about plurality of methods in narrative psychology. Two influential manuals on narrative methods exemplify such contrasting positions. On the one hand, Andrews et al. (2008: 3) argue against the integration of narrative approaches on the basis of their representing logically incommensurable positions due to “theoretical fault lines” and historical contradictions. Such contradictions stem from adopting either modern or postmodern epistemological and ontological perspectives, and treating first-person narratives either as a reflection of bounded, masterful, unitary identities or as social constructs, shaped by power relationships and critically implicated in the production of multiple, fluid subjectivities. They also emphasize the internal incommensurability in the current syntheses of the two positions, which often involve “maintenance of a humanist conception of a singular, unified subject, at the same time as the promotion of an idea of narrative as always multiple, socially constructed and constructing, reinterpreted and reinterpretable” (Andrews et al. 2008: 4).

On the other hand, Riessman, who describes narrative research methods as a family that is made up of various, sometimes conflicting, approaches, encourages the crossing of boundaries between methods and disciplines. Riessman points out, “Research in the human sciences has several recognized epistemologies and methodologies, and in narrative research there is added diversity” (Riessman 2008: 200). In this context, she argues that, “Narrative research can only grow stronger as we form connections across disciplinary boundaries, identify our own exemplars, build on them, and gain support and constructive criticism for our inquiries” (Riessman 2008: 200).

This call corresponds to a growing tendency in psychology more generally towards pluralism in qualitative research methods. Defined as the philosophical positions that argue against homogeneity and unity and that valorize diversity, pluralism emerged as a reaction against the dominance of mono-theoretical and mono-methodological paradigms (Tashakkori and Teddlie 2003). Over recent years, psychology has witnessed the proliferation and intensification of discussion of such methodological positions as “bricolage”, mixed method models, multiple operationalism and triangulation (Denzin 1989a, b; Kincheloe 2001, 2005).

In its turn, the possibility of methodological pluralism raises a critical issue of the evaluation of truth claims, which by necessity brings in the consideration of the pivotal relationship between truth and ethics. As Parker argues, “the fact that we can relativise phenomena does not mean that all explanations or moral positions are equally valid or equally useless” (Parker 1997: 295). Kvale also highlights that “[t]he validity of psychological knowledge relates to the ethical value of this knowledge” (Kvale 1992: 52). The next chapter therefore addresses the issue of ethics in narrative theory and practice.