The Ethics of Narrative Therapy
The focus of Michael White”s Maps of Narrative Practice has a particular added significance in the context of discussing the ethical aspects of the narrative approach in psychology. Narrative therapy is a system that departs most deliberately and radically from a normative definition of the subject, theoretical assumptions about psychic nature and rules, norms and standards that could, by implication, define an ethical position. Rejecting diagnostic categories and symptomatic labelling of clients, narrative therapy is grounded in people”s unique and individual stories and unfolds as a conversation between two equal partners, a therapist and a person who consults him or her, in the process of which stories can change. As such, it would appear that narrative therapy operates on a groundless terrain, a terrain that must be mapped every time a therapist enters into contact with a client. It is from within this groundlessness, however, that the most articulate and advanced commitment to and the most systematic realization of the potential inherent in the narrative approach with regards to ethics emerges.
Contrary to McAdams”s approach, which as discussed earlier is at risk of reducing the variety of personal stories to one underlying myth, White works towards “amplifying” the uniqueness of narrated personal experience. If McAdams looks for the general, White is searching for the particular. If McAdams circumscribes the individual within the common, White is committed to the irreducible singularity of the story. The principal therapeutic tool used to achieve this in narrative therapy, as discussed previously, is a “thick description” through which more detailed, nuanced and specific accounts emerge. However, in the context of narrative therapy, “thick description” has ethical implications: it works against totalizing conceptualization. White defines “totalizing” descriptions as encompassing both unidirectional and negative characteristics of the conceptualization of experience:
This totalizing of the problem is founded upon the dualistic, either/or habits of thought that have become quite pervasive in Western culture, and it can require special effort on behalf of therapists to remain conscious of such thinking, and its associated hazards. This consciousness is important because totalizing can obscure the broader context of the problems that people bring to therapy and can invalidate what people give value to and what might be sustaining. (White 2007: 35)
White insists that on the contrary, what needs to be achieved from the very beginning of the therapeutic engagement is a particular “experience-near” definition of the problem. The predicaments for which people seek therapy should be richly characterized, and through this characterization “experience-distant” and “global” definitions should be rendered “experience-near” and “particular”:
An “experience-near” description of the problem is one that uses the parlance of the people seeking therapy and that is based on their understanding of life (developed in the culture of their family or community and influenced by their immediate history). In using the word particular, I am acknowledging the fact that no problem or predicament is perceived or received in identical ways by different people, or in identical ways at different times in a person”s life. No predicament or problem is a direct replica of any other predicament or problem, and no predicament or problem of the present is a carbon copy of the predicament or problem it was in the past. (White 2007: 40)
As discussed earlier, narrative therapeutic intervention moves from a “thick description” of the problem to the identification of “unique outcomes” or exceptions. The insistence on the identification of unique outcomes as a major resource reveals the extent of White”s commitment to the singularity of people”s experience.
White explicitly rejects an evaluative or expert position on the side of the therapist—the therapist”s engagement is not about making judgements, giving opinions or advice, or theorizing, but this does not mean that he undermines the ethical dimension of therapy. This ethical dimension, however, is not informed by substantive principles, norms or rules; rather, it resonates with the notion of quest, as introduced by MacIntyre. As a conversational partner, a therapist is able to ask questions that promote and expand a rich understanding of the lived experience of the client, including his or her basis for making particular value judgements. This is achieved through the use of a particular type of “why” questions. Against the “bad publicity” that “why” questions have received in counselling and the fields of psychotherapy, White defends their usefulness, and in fact, their necessity:
These “why” questions play a profoundly significant role in helping people to give voice to and further develop important conceptions of living, including their intentional understanding about life (for example, understanding their purposes, aspirations, goals, quests, and commitments), their understanding about what they value in life, their knowledge about life and life skills, and their prized learnings and realizations. (White 2007: 49)
Narrative therapy, in White”s view, therefore encompasses two dimensions: the questioning of dominant stories in people”s lives and questioning of the basis of value on which they form their decisions regarding what is “good” for them, and thus the questioning of the notion of “good” itself.
Another feature of White”s use of the concept of narrative that has important implications for ethics is his insistence on the open-ended and provisional character of life stories. Any dominant story is always complemented by alternative ones, and even when they become dominant they remain open to revision. Experience can be narrated, but it should remain unfinalizable, vis-à-vis the unfolding life of a person, open to new challenges and choices. Narrative is a means that people utilize to formulate what is good for them in life and also to achieve a greater agentic control of their lives, but they are not ends in themselves, storied definitions of self or identity. Unpredictability is accorded a significant position in anyone”s life development and provision is thus made for this in therapy: stories that people construct remain utterly unpredictable for the therapist. For White, it is only from this position that therapy can contribute to the “foundations of new possibilities in people”s lives” (White 2007: 261).
It is of critical importance that the therapist is positioned as a collaborative partner and not as an expert or a sympathetic friend. It is equally unproductive and, from an ethical point of view, questionable either to theorize the experience narrated by the client or to move to a position of empathy, as has been advocated by many psychological approaches, perhaps most famously by humanistic psychology. For White, as for Bakhtin before him, neither theorization nor empathy promote dialogical conversation, conversation that can only take place when there is a commitment to the multivoicedness of communication.
Moreover, the one-to-one interaction in narrative practice is typically complemented by the engagement of the broader community members. White describes such engagement as definitional ceremonies. Drawing on the work of anthropologist and filmmaker Barbara Myerhoff with elderly displaced Jewish communities, White developed rituals for engaging “outsider-witnesses” in narrative therapeutic practice. These witnesses facilitate therapy by allowing people who consult a therapist to reappear on their own terms in the eyes of community members, experience an acknowledgement of the identity claims expressed in their stories, and experience the authentication of these identity claims—in the words of Myerhoff, “garnering witnesses to one”s worth, vitality, and being” (Myerhoff quoted in White 2007: 183—184).
Epston recalls that the notion of witnessing became increasingly important for White in the latest stages of his work, precisely in terms of its ethical implications. Epston refers to White”s intense engagement with the writing of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist who insisted on the primacy of the ethical dimension in anthropological inquiry. Quoting Scheper-Hughes”s paper at length, Epston changes the author”s term “anthropologist” to “therapist”, as in his view Scheper-Hughes”s lines perfectly summarize his understanding of the ethical position of narrative practice:
The therapist [formerly anthropologist] can view her subjects as unspeakably other, belonging to another time, another world altogether. If it is to be in the nature of an ethical project, the work of therapy [anthropology] requires a different set of relationships. In minimalist terms, this might be described as the difference between the therapist [anthropologist] as “spectator” and the therapist [anthropologist] as “witness”.
If observation links the therapist [anthropologist] to the natural sciences, “witnessing” links therapy [anthropology] to moral philosophy. Observation, the therapist [anthropologist] as “fearless spectator”, is a passive act which positions the therapist [anthropologist] above and outside human events as a “neutral” and “objective” [i.e. uncommitted] seeing I/eye. Witnessing, the therapist [anthropologist] as companheira, is the active voice, and it positions the therapist [anthropologist] inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally committed being, one who will “take sides” and make judgments, though this flies in the face of therapeutic [anthropological] non-engagement with either ethics or politics. Of course, non-involvement was, in itself, an “ethical” and moral position.2
Just as a client remains the Other for the therapist, the therapist remains the Other for the client, responding to him from his unique—and engaged—position. White further characterizes this position of a therapist as decentred, implying that it is the client who in many important ways “leads” the therapy. However, this is not equivalent to a free-floating process—the therapist is endowed with power and responsibility, and a significant part of this responsibility relates precisely to the understanding of the role that power plays in the therapeutic relationship and the world at large outside the therapeutic room. However, White”s understanding of power differs substantially from Hermans”s emphasis on power as dominance that determines social relationships and the structure of the self.
As has been discussed earlier, White”s understanding of power is derived from the works of Foucault and particularly emphasizes the “positive” or constitutive aspect of power. Unlike “negative” power that is “repressive in its operations and its effects”, and “principally disqualifies, limits, denies, and contains”, “positive” power is “constitutive or shaping of persons” lives”. Following Foucault, White acknowledges that through “positive” power persons are subject to normalizing “truths” that shape their lives and relationships. White refers to the following passage from Discipline and Punish:
We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms; it “excludes”, it “represses”, it “censors”, it “abstracts”, it “masks”, it “conceals”. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domain of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained from him belong to this production. (Foucault 1979: 194)
For White, the constitutive character of power, which implies a potential for resistance at every point where power is applied, is of crucial importance as it is at this juncture that White locates the most important resource of therapy. White defines narrative practice as “counter-practices to cultural practices that are objectifying of persons and their bodies”. The critical importance of these practices lies in the fact that “[t]hese counter-practices open space for persons to re-author or constitute themselves, each other, and their relationships, according to alternative stories or knowledge” (White and Epston 1990: 75). In this way, according to White, narrative means can lead to therapeutic and liberating ends.
White”s framework, incorporating narrative principles alongside a Foucauldian definition of the power/knowledge nexus, can be seen as problematic in terms of its implications for ethics, however. Such prominent proponents of the narrative paradigm as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre have expressed concerns about the “destructiveness” of Foucault”s thought with regards to the notion of moral order. On the other hand, Réal Fillion (2005) defends the logic and specificity of Foucault”s ethical stand. Fillion shows how Foucault”s appeal to Greek ethical practices was driven by the latter”s concern “with living one”s life as one”s own”, implying the need “to be ethical without appealing to a moral order” (Fillion 2005: 56). Foucault”s model of ethics implies an individual”s shaping of his or her life in an aesthetic way, in a sense of giving it a shape comparable to a work of art. As Fillion explains: “The ethical self, as opposed to the moral self, needs to work on itself not in order to counter something […] but in order to give that self a kind of shape that, recognized as admirable or worthy, can then truly be called one”s own (in the sense of being distinct from others)” (Fillion 2005: 56). And if in modernity, as Fillion notes, this process takes place inside a normative space within which institutions and practices are self-imposed, Foucault also allows us to envisage the permanent possibility of contestation of the effective limits that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as agentic subjects of our thoughts and deeds, through the very process of self-actualization in those events. As Fillion further explains, “Ethics in such a context consists of facing or “living-up” to that which in those configurations allows us to be self-critical (i.e., mature) and to foster such an ethos of self-critique that for Foucault consists in “a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, through a historical ontology of ourselves”” (Fillion 2005: 59—60).
The point of Foucault”s intervention, Fillion highlights, is to loosen the hold that our discursive regimes have upon us sufficiently to enable us to examine their necessities in specific, historically determinable circumstances. Fillion concludes that Foucault”s work decisively places the possibility of free action at the heart of ethics and helps us to recognize and test this possibility in more than theoretical terms.
Foucault”s legacy has been taken up by professionals in various practices—educators, social workers, health-care workers, activists—who, in dealing with institutional “necessities” that confront them, are enabled by Foucault”s approach to see the possibilities for free action that nevertheless remain open. White”s narrative practice certainly belongs to this tradition. Within this broad commitment, what has uniquely characterized White”s approach as a therapist and theoretician has been his attendance to what David Denborough (2009) defines as a “politics of experience”. Denborough writes:
[T]ime and again we witnessed Michael working in ways to resurrect subjugated knowledges, and to provide possibilities to those whose identities had been marginalised to “reclaim their stories and reclaim their lives”. Michael”s dedication to question the power of professionals and deconstruct expert knowledge shone through. […] Within Michael”s work there was an attendance to the politics of experience that, to me, is one of his most profound legacies. (Denborough 2009: 96)
Overall, narrative practice as elaborated by White, Epston and their followers is fundamentally concerned with using narrative for liberation, understood both in terms of political liberation, as liberation from the oppressive effects of power, and in the therapeutic dimension, as liberation from the tyranny of problems and predicaments that people face, where the former and the latter are intertwined in a complex, overdetermined way. The growth of narrative practice around the globe, and the success of this approach in dealing with issues in varied situations—from community work with aboriginal people to documenting testimonies of trauma of the survivors of genocide in Rwanda, from the victims of bushfire in Australia to the victims of torture in South Africa, from people diagnosed with mental illness to “difficult” children and teenagers—demonstrates that therapy anchored in the principle of the unique, irreducible specificity of personal narrative can become a powerful force in the twenty-first century. However, to take the ethical potential of narrative approach to its sustained realization, it must engage in a broader dialogue with philosophy, especially with those developments that directly address the relationships between narrative, dialogue and ethics.