Dan McAdams: Identity as a Life Story
The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology
In the US, the narrative approach was powerfully articulated and pursued by McAdams and his followers. Drawing on William James”s, Jerome Bruner”s, Theodore Sarbin”s and Erik Erikson”s work, McAdams (1985) proposed a life story model of identity, which implies that narrative accounts of people”s lives, constructed as evolving stories imbued with a sense of integrity and continuity, represent the core of personality. By the early 1990s McAdams (1993, 1994) had further developed his model to describe personality on three levels: the level of dispositional traits, the level of personal concerns and the level of life narrative. On the first level, personality is characterized through broad, non-conditional, relatively decontextualized, linear, and implicitly comparative constructs (traits). While acknowledging that this traits level is important in providing a dispositional signature in personality description, McAdams argues that such description does not tell much beyond a “psychology of the stranger”, and that to go beyond this level one should seek information that is conditional and contextualized. This kind of description can be obtained on a second level. Here, at the level of “personal concerns”, “personality description invokes personal striving, life tasks, defence mechanisms, coping strategies, domain-specific skills and values, and a wide assortment of other motivational, developmental, or strategic constructs that are conceptualized in terms of time, place, or role” (McAdams 1995: 365). However, as McAdams notes, although strivings and goals are indicative of what a person is trying to do, “they are not enough to tell the psychologist who a person is trying to be, or […] what person the person is trying to make” (1994: 306). Thus, the third level of personality concerns “the making of the self”. McAdams conceives this process of identity-making that lends a sense of meaning and unity to human lives as “an internalized and evolving story that integrates a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future into a coherent and vitalizing life myth” (1994: 306).
Over the following 15 years McAdams”s paradigm gave rise to many productive research projects and theorizing, including analyses of case studies, life histories, autobiography, psychobiography, ethnography and discourse analysis. The methods employed in these studies tended to privilege qualitative over quantitative analysis, hermeneutics over positivistic frames, idiographic over nomothetic approaches, and inductive over hypothetico-deductive strategies of inquiry. Beginning in the early 2000s, some of these researches were published in the edited series The Narrative Study of Lives, comprising 11 volumes. In the first volume, Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition, a range of narrative psychologists explored how significant transitions and turning points in the human life course — such as developing a sense of identity in adolescence, coping with divorce or overcoming addiction — were rendered in narrative (McAdams et al. 2001). It also featured an introduction by McAdams and Bowman that focused on life”s turning points theorized through the notions of redemption and contamination, the themes that would guide McAdams”s inquiry over the next few years. The second (Josselson et al. 2003) and third (Lieblich et al. 2004) volumes in the series focused on the teaching and learning of narrative research and the relationship between narrative and psychotherapy, respectively. The fourth volume, Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (McAdams et al. 2006), explored three major dilemmas in narrative research on identity: debates over the unity or multiplicity of self; the relative contributions to narrative identity of individual self-agency and the impact of society; and stability and continuity of self versus change and growth.
Several lines of McAdams”s inquiry culminated in his in-depth exploration of contemporary American identity, undertaken in the wake of September 11, 2001, and in response to a question he saw reverberating throughout American society: what does it mean to be an American today? (McAdams 2006). Pursuing his general insight that, if “American identity” lies anywhere, it lies in the stories that American people live by, McAdams focused on a particular kind of life story told, lived and imagined by many productive and caring American adults, men and women who scored highly on quantitative measures of generativity. Drawing on a wide range of sources from literature, history, politics and popular culture, McAdams outlined a particular type of story that he defined as the “redemptive self” and positioned it as characteristic of contemporary American identity. McAdams described the redemptive self as follows:
Here is a personal story — a biographical script of sorts — that many very productive and caring American adults see as their own: In the beginning, I learn that I am blessed, even as others suffer. When I am still very young, I come to believe in a set of simple core values to guide me through a dangerous life terrain. As I move forward in life, many bad things come my way — sin, sickness, abuse, addiction, injustice, poverty, stagnation. But bad things often lead to good outcomes — my suffering is redeemed. Redemption comes to me in the form of atonement, recovery, emancipation, enlightenment, upward social mobility, and/or the actualization of my good inner self. As the plot unfolds, I continue to grow and progress. I bear fruit; I give back; I offer a unique contribution. I will make a happy ending, even in a threatening world. (McAdams 2008b: 20)
The redemptive self study provides an impressive elaboration of McAdams”s thesis that self and culture come together through narrative. Rooted in rich cultural material, the study provides a detailed demonstration of how some themes that hold a powerful sway over the contemporary American imagination run through foundational myths and popular culture: from the Puritan myth, which centres on the idea of the chosen people, to the 12-step program, from Benjamin Franklin”s autobiography to the ubiquitous plot of upward mobility celebrated by Hollywood, from the stories of escaped American slaves to Oprah Winfrey”s productions, from the gospels to the inspirational speeches of business gurus. In addition, the study also demonstrates how the ideas that have guided McAdams”s work for nearly 25 years, such as Erik Erikson”s model of life cycle development and Jerome Bruner”s ideas on narrative, can be not only applied but also extended.
The most recent stage of McAdams”s career has also been characterized by the growing tendency to “take stock” of his research and elaborate broader integrative models accounting for personality functioning from a narrative perspective. Reflecting on a quarter century of his own research and the work of other psychologists who study life stories, McAdams (2008a) has identified six common principles in the narrative study of lives. According to principle 1, the self is storied. Drawing on Antonio Damasio”s (1999) argument that consciousness is inextricably linked with the brain”s power to tell stories and Bruner”s contention that human beings are storytellers by nature, McAdams insists that “the self is both the storyteller and the stories that are told” (McAdams 2008a: 244).
Principle 2 maintains that stories integrate lives. While stories do many things — entertain, educate, inspire, motivate — among their most important functions is synthesis: stories bring elements of lived experience and mental processing that were previously separate into a coherent and understandable whole. Principle 3 underscores that stories are told in social relationships and as such represent social phenomena, guided by societal expectations and norms. Principle 4 emphasizes that stories change over time. While autobiographical memory is notoriously unstable, the life story is also subject to more profound changes over time, reflecting shifts in how a person comes to terms with the social world across the lifespan. Principle 5 asserts that stories are cultural texts. As McAdams had argued previously, stories live in and mirror the culture wherein the story is created and told. Principle 6 addresses the ethical dimension of narrative identity and suggests that some stories are “better” than others. Reiterating Alasdair MacIntyre”s contention that a life story always suggests a moral perspective, McAdams further suggests that stories themselves can be evaluated as relatively good or bad from a psychological standpoint, though such evaluations are also embedded within particular moral perspectives of the society in which the story is evaluated.
Taking the task of constructing an overarching methodological paradigm one step further, McAdams and Pals (2006) suggest locating narrative identity within an integrative conceptual framework for personality functioning that they polemically dub “The New Big Five”. In doing so McAdams and Pals refer to a highly influential model in personality psychology in the 1990s called the “Big Five” that provided a description of personality in terms of traits. McAdams and Pals explicitly contrast their “New Big Five” with the “Big Five” factors model advanced previously by authors such as Costa and McCrae, Goldberg, and others who proposed the analysis of personality along five factor-analytically-derived categories: extraversion (vs. introversion), neuroticism (negative affectivity), conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience (Costa and McCrae 1989, 1994; McCrae and Costa 1997). Underlying the model were also a number of assumptions regarding personality traits, such as that individual differences in self-reported traits are consistent with particular types of behaviour or that traits are powerful predictors of important life outcomes, such as mental health or marital satisfaction.
By contrast, “The New Big Five” encompasses five broad and interrelated concepts that include but are not reducible to traits; they are: evolution, traits, adaptations, life narratives and culture. This framework conceives of personality as “(1) an individual”s unique variation on the general evolutionary design for human nature, expressed as a developing pattern of (2) dispositional traits, (3) characteristic adaptations, and (4) self-defining life narratives, complexly and differentially situated in (5) culture and social contexts” (McAdams 2008a: 248). This model reflects a growing trend in psychological theorizing towards integrative approaches that cut across interdisciplinary and methodological divides and address the principal subject of psychological research — the living human being — in a holistic and comprehensive manner (McAdams and Pals 2006; Sheldon 2004; Singer 2005).
In his latest monograph, The Art and Science of Personality Development, McAdams (2015) continues to define personality as a developing complex of traits, goals and stories, set within culture and context, evolving from infancy through old age. Yet he also introduces a new model of personality organization consisting of three distinct layers — the social actor who expresses emotional and behavioural traits, the motivated agent who pursues goals and values, and the autobiographical author who constructs a personal story for life. He proposes that these layers appear at different developmental stages and serve different functions, and traces how personality evolves throughout a lifetime. The book builds on research in personality and developmental psychology that McAdams has been conducting over the last 30 years and introduces not only a new integrating logic, but also an innovative reference to the “artfulness” of human life. In McAdams”s words, “The “art” of personality refers to the idea that every human life is like a unique work of art — a never-to-be-repeated variation on human nature, developing over time. The “science” comes in when we notice regular patterns or trajectories of the developing person — regularities that can be observed, measured and predicted” (cited in Sherman 2015).
While McAdams”s work overall generated a considerable following and a rich stream of research, it has been critiqued on several grounds. Polkinghorne (1996) outlined three important sets of concerns that would prove to be the major points of debate throughout later developments of McAdams”s theorizing. First, Polkinghorne questions what kind of relationship is intended among the levels postulated in McAdams”s model. Second, he raises the question of historical situatedness of the kind of narrative identity that McAdams proposes. Finally, Polkinghorne highlights potential limitations of an identity model being reduced to story, to the exclusion of non-verbal realities of psychological experience.
Polkinghorne notes that the relationship between different levels within McAdams”s model — traits, situational responses (goals and struggles), and narrative identity — is not clearly specified. Polkinghorne observes that McAdams”s position can be read in three different ways. First, McAdams”s ideas can be thought of as advocating “equal partnership type of relationship” between the three domains of traits, life struggles and goals, and narrative identity. But in this case Polkinghorne argues that the framework McAdams proposes “is simply an enlargement of the personality psychology circle to encompass the recent developments in narrative psychology” (1996: 364). Polkinghorne further points out that McAdams also employs a second way of conceptualizing the relationship between the levels, where they are depicted as partially overlapping, with the narrative approach privileged over situational and trait approaches because of its capacity to serve as a higher order discourse. From this position, it is through inclusion in narrative that traits and situations become invested with meaning and integrated “into the unfolding drama by which people understand who they are” (Polkinghorne 1996: 364). In this model the narrative approach provides a lens through which researchers can view personality, rendering its elements (such as traits) parts of an integrated story. Finally, in Polkinghorne”s reading, the ranking scheme and labelling levels with numbers employed by McAdams implies a hierarchical relationship between the levels, where narrative identity, placed at Level III, is privileged over the other two.
In his late reflection on the issue McAdams admits that throughout his research career he has used the notion of level “in many different and inconsistent ways” (McAdams and Manczak 2011: 41). He acknowledges that there is a tension between the use of the concept of level within the three levels scheme depending on which question he mobilizes it to address: “Can personality change?” or “What do we know when we know a person?” Yet, he insists that the relationship between different levels has always been understood as non-hierarchical. He further asserts that he currently sees a developmental logic articulated in his latest model of the self (as an actor, an agent and an author) “as providing the most intellectually satisfying understanding of the relations between dispositional traits, motives and goals (and related constructs), and life stories” (McAdams and Manczak 2011: 42).
The second set of concerns that Polkinghorne outlines tackles the issue of the historical situatedness of McAdams”s model of identity as a life story. Polkinghorne notes that it appears that this model is proposed as a universal explanatory paradigm, presenting narrative identity as “a necessary component of personality for all humans” regardless of historical, geographical and cultural differences between human societies. From Polkinghorne”s perspective, the narrative identity formation that McAdams outlines is not necessary in pre-industrial societies, where “a relatively authoritative and consistent set of answers to people”s identity concerns” was provided. This created the requisite conditions for “unproblematic” “assimilation of and incorporation of the culture”s storied answers to [people”s] questions of identity” (Polkinghorne 1996: 364). Polkinghorne argues that the pressing need to construct identity and to use narrative resources for doing this arises with the move into the post-industrial Western period, a period of transition, presenting people with multiple and conflicting stories as a resource for their identity building rather than a unified set of identity scenarios. McAdams responded to this set of questions by firmly linking his model of identity as a life story with modernity and pitting it against the postmodern understanding of self and identity.
The third set of concerns raised by Polkinghorne relates to the linguistic reductionism and disembodied character of McAdams”s narrative identity model. Polkinghorne argues that the emphasis on narrative implies that identity can be transparently translated into language. For Polkinghorne, however, “There are significant differences between the identity story as it is lived and the story as it is told” (Polkinghorne 1996: 365). He suggests that the identity formation process is guided not by the rational Cartesian subject, but rather by Merleau-Ponty”s “body-subject”, which represents not a substance but an integrated, embodied activity. Its manner of operation is holistic, emotionally informed, metaphorical and analogical. Polkinghorne draws on Ricœur”s contention that the fullness of a person”s operating identity story is not accessible to him or herself through (phenomenological) reflection. When experiential meaning of identity is expressed in language it is converted into literary forms and affected by the audiences to whom these are communicated. Polkinghorne insists that it is important to differentiate the life stories gathered through narrative research and experientially functioning identity stories, which are conflated in McAdams”s writings.
The tension detected by Polkinghorne between McAdams”s essentialism insisting on the universal character of narrative identity and McAdams”s commitment to the imperatives of modernism will serve as a point of departure for my analysis which seeks to historicize and problematize McAdams”s writings.