Michael White and David Epston: Narrative Therapy - The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

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

Michael White and David Epston: Narrative Therapy
The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

While both McAdams”s and Hermans”s works have had important implications for therapy, initially their models were formulated in response to pressing theoretical, rather than practical, questions of the time. For White and Epston, the primary impulse to engage with the narrative paradigm came from therapeutic work itself. Working in Australia and New Zealand, and initially without any awareness of parallel developments in Europe and the US, over the 1980s and 1990s White and Epston came to formulate and refine methods of narrative therapy. It has subsequently become the therapeutic school currently growing most rapidly in popularity. White and Epston”s approach is in accord with the shift of attention in the narrative study of human life from narrative as an object towards narrativity as a process. It reflects a growing understanding that both the process (narration) and its result (narrative) are crucially implicated in developing and maintaining the sense of self and forging identity. This issue becomes critical when psychology moves from theory into the domain of practice and therapy.

Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, where Michael White worked from 1983 until his death in 2008 and which now functions as a “gateway to narrative therapy and community work”, gives the following definition of narrative approaches on its website:

Narrative approaches to counselling and community work centre people as the experts in their own lives and view problems as separate from people. Narrative approaches assume that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives. The word “narrative” refers to the emphasis that is placed upon the stories of people”s lives and the differences that can be made through particular tellings and retellings of these stories. Narrative approaches involve ways of understanding the stories of people”s lives, and ways of re-authoring these stories in collaboration between the therapist/community worker and the people whose lives are being discussed. It is a way of working that is interested in history, the broader context that is affecting people”s lives, and the ethics or politics of this work.2

David Epston (2009) dates “the birth” of narrative therapy to a workshop Michael White presented at the second Australian Family Therapy Conference in 1981 in Adelaide, even though it went un‐named as such until early in the 1990s. Both practising therapists, initially working within a family therapy framework, White and Epston formulated the main tenets of what came to be known as narrative therapy in response to issues they encountered in their practices. They also drew on a variety of sources beyond psychology in elaborating their approach, displaying, in the words of White, “profound disrespect for disciplinary boundaries” (White and Epston 1990: xvi). An important area of influence for them was anthropology; Epston was trained as an anthropologist, while White was profoundly influenced by the writings of Clifford Geertz (1976, 1986), Gregory Bateson (1974) and Edward Bruner (1986a, b). Equally important for White were Michel Foucault”s ideas, particularly those regarding the nexus of power and knowledge (Foucault 1985, 1986, 1995, 1998). Roland Barthes”s (1997a, b), Peter Brooks”s (1984) and Jacques Derrida”s (1978) ideas in literary theory, Erwin Goffman”s (1974) in sociology and Jerome Bruner”s in narrative psychology provided further points of reference for their work.

White and Epston”s 1989 book Literate Means to Therapeutic Ends (republished a year later as Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends) presents a narrative therapeutic model and outlines their understanding of the broader socio-cultural and political contexts that affect a person”s psychological functioning, the genesis of psychological problems and the nature of therapists” engagements with their clients. In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends White and Epston also elaborate an analogy that they had previously outlined in a number of single-authored articles, of therapy as a process of “storying” and/or “re-storying” of people”s lives and experiences (Epston 1985, 1986; White 1984, 1988). In particular, they draw on Bruner”s idea that narrative is constructed within a dual landscape: a landscape of action and a landscape of consciousness. The landscape of action comprises events and experiences: the who, what, where and when of a story. The landscape of consciousness encompasses the meaning that people ascribe to experiences and events and reveals how a person”s desires, values, beliefs, intentions and motives are implicated in the production of meaning.

White and Epston suggest that the particular story a person is constructing about his/her life is always selective and never includes all the facts related to this person”s functioning. When a problem-saturated story becomes dominant, people have greater and greater difficulties coping with their life, filtering problem-free experiences out of their memory and perception. Adopting Geertz”s (1973) notion of “thick description”, White and Epston develop a method of multifaceted description of human life, as a result of which other descriptions can surface and become a therapeutic resource for the reconstruction of a more effective life story.

Significantly, this narrative view of therapy is embedded within a broader framework of understanding of human functioning largely inspired by Michel Foucault”s ideas. In particular, White and Epston draw on Foucault”s understanding of power as on the one hand dominant and constraining and on the other constitutive. They emphasize that a primary effect of power is the production of a particular form of individuality, “an individuality that is, in turn, a “vehicle” of power” (White and Epston 1990: 20). They further acknowledge the particular historical form that the interaction of power and knowledge can take, maintaining that the modern form of power cannot be understood from an internal point of view. In light of these considerations, they argue that therapists, counsellors and other psychology workers are also implicated in maintaining and generating a particular power imbalance and have to accept responsibility for this. Thus, White and Epston insist that therapeutic practice is inevitably political.

The assumptions about the effect of power on the construction of subjectivity and self-knowledge penetrate deeply into White and Epston”s view of how “presenting problems”, as they are known in therapeutic practice, emerge and how they are to be treated. This is evident in their elaboration of three broad aims of therapy: the externalization of the problem; the identification of unique outcomes, and the construction of alternative stories. ““Externalising””, write White and Epston, “is an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. In the process, the problem becomes a separate entity and thus external to the person or relationship that was previously ascribed as the problem” (1990: 38). Externalization of the problem implies simultaneous identification and separation of persons from unitary knowledges and truth discourses — including various ideological positions and diagnostic categories — that subjugate them. By means of externalizing of the problem and generating a “thick description” persons “are able to identify previously neglected but vital aspects of lived experiences” that White, employing Goffman”s terminology, defines as “unique outcomes”. Unique outcomes present evidence of defiance of the power of the problem, and become instrumental in generating new meaning. Furthermore, following Bruner”s argument, White insists that the process of narrative therapy should aim to “initiate performances of meaning rather than actually formulating meaning [itself]” (Bruner quoted in White and Epston 1990: 79). Thus, the provision of space for the performance of alternative, previously neglected or subjugated knowledges is central to the therapeutic endeavour.

In a number of later works White and Epston develop and refine the principles and methods of narrative therapy, including re-authoring and re-membering conversations, definitional and outsider witness ceremonies, and using written documents — letters, certificates and poetry (Epston 1997). In doing so they further draw on poststructuralist ideas regarding the constitution of lives and the role of discursive and textual practices (White 1997). In White”s final book Maps of Narrative Practice (2007) he extends his conceptual apparatus by drawing on Lev Vygotsky”s (1986) cultural-historical theory and introducing a general principle of scaffolding as a main axis that undergirds the therapeutic engagement. The concept of “scaffolding” is derived from Vygotsky”s ideas about semiotic mediation and interiorization, as well as the notion of the zone of proximal development. Noting that people generally consult therapists when they are having difficulty in proceeding with their lives and might need to start thinking about and experimenting with what might be possible rather than what is familiar and known, White defines the gap between the two as a “zone of proximal development”. In the context of therapeutic practice, “[t]his zone can be traversed through conversation partnerships that provide the necessary scaffolding to achieve this — that is, the sort of scaffolding that provides the opportunity for people to proceed across this zone in manageable steps” (White 2007: 263). At the same time, White reiterates his commitment to Bateson”s metaphor of “maps”, but extends its use to encompass not only our knowledge of the world carried in the form of mental “maps” of external or objective reality, but also to point essentially to “destinations that could not have been specified ahead of the journey, via routes that could not have been predetermined” (White 2007: 5). During the same period (towards the end of the first decade of the new century), Epston begins to explore possible therapeutic implications of Mikhail Bakhtin”s concept of the polyphonic novel, focusing particularly on the mechanism of sideshadowing — an exploration of possibilities implicitly present in the story — to complement the technique of “thick” description.3

Since the publication of Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, narrative therapy has been successfully applied in a number of settings: communities, organizations, penal institutions, and schools (Denborough 1996; White and Denborough 1999). It proved to be a powerful tool for engaging with a wide range of issues: family discord and violence, child abuse, addiction, trauma, loss, grief and bereavement, and the experience of personal failure (Jenkins 1990; White 2004a, b). At the same time narrative therapy has begun to be employed to address a number of issues within indigenous communities (Wingard and Lester 2001). Narrative therapy has forged productive alliances with feminist approaches and queer counselling, and maintained a constructive theoretical engagement with a number of critical issues in family therapy and beyond (Freedman and Combs 1996; Morgan 2000). Last but not least, narrative therapy has provided a useful vocabulary for a self-reflexive analysis of therapists” own positions (Denborough 2002; Hales and White 1997; White 2001; Yuen and White 2007).

At the same time, narrative therapy has generated considerable debates and attracted various criticisms. One of the fundamental criticisms was formulated by Minuchin (1998) who argued that narrative therapy disregards theoretically informed, systemic ways of thinking. He notes that few theoretical constructs in the narrative therapy approach address personality structure or family interaction.

Mark Hayward (2003) documents and rebuffs other specific concerns raised with regard to narrative therapy. He observes that narrative therapists have been accused of devising and imposing their own language, which remains opaque for the uninitiated. However, Hayward points out that “[e]normous care often seems to have gone into White”s construction of ideas and terms of description so that highly specific but counter-cultural notions and whole different ways of thinking can be apprehended using familiar words in unfamiliar sequences and juxtapositions” (Hayward 2003: 186). In defence of White and Epston”s way of expression Hayward further suggests that if we accept that language is instrumental in producing certain perspectives as well as reflecting them, then the articulation of the innovative practice that White and Epston devised would require a different language by necessity.

A further criticism levelled at the narrative therapy movement is that it has tended to make gurus of its leaders, while its leading proponents are dismissive of most other types of therapy, positing narrative therapy as the best solution to a broad range of problems. This criticism goes hand in hand with the point that the role of the individual therapist, with his or her personal opinions and biases, is not sufficiently acknowledged in narrative therapy (Doan 1998).

Another broad criticism raises the issue of whether narrative therapy can meet conventional research standards (quantitative and qualitative). There is an alleged lack of evidence-based research assessing the real effects and outcomes of narrative practices. Etchison and Kleist (2000) note that narrative therapy”s focus on qualitative outcomes is not congruent with larger quantitative research and findings that are typically sought or presented in scholarly research today. From the position of academic psychology, this constitutes a lack of empirical evidence on the basis of which critical judgements regarding the efficacy of narrative therapy can be made. Yet Busch, Strong and Lock (2011) argue that the idea of narrative therapy being standardized in order to be evaluated using the same criteria as evidence-based psychotherapy is deeply misleading as it does not acknowledge the radical differences in their respective epistemological and theoretical commitments. These authors propose that “researchers need to evaluate narrative therapy through the epistemological stances that theoretically constitute it” (Busch et al. 2011: 50). This suggestion can serve to open analytical possibilities for more congruent reading of White and Epston”s approach and is taken as a point of departure in the present analysis.