Narrative Psychology: Limitations, Tensions and Challenges - The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

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

Narrative Psychology: Limitations, Tensions and Challenges
The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

While McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston all share a commitment to the narrative approach, their respective positions are markedly different in terms of theoretical assumptions, goals, values and procedures. This reflects broader tensions that characterize contemporary narrative psychology. In order to provide a map for scholars trying to navigate this complex field, Brett Smith and Andrew Sparkes (2006) identify eight significant conceptual contradictions underlying narrative research, which they further group into three themes. Theme one addresses “narrative and the self” and encompasses the relation between narrative and selfhood; the unity of self; and the coherence of self. Theme two focuses on the “ontology or nature of narrative” and comprises tensions arising from different positions with regards to (neo)realism versus relativism; interiority versus externality; and the use of the notion of constructivism. Theme three addresses conflicting methodological approaches to narrative research.

With regard to the first theme, the relationship between narrative and self, Smith and Sparkes point out that some narrative researchers view narrative and self as inseparable or identical, advancing the position that either the narrative is our identity, or that a self or identity is narrative. By contrast, other researchers argue that drawing equivalence between narrative and identity runs the risk of linguistic reductionism and take the position that self is instead produced in the process of telling of stories.

The second tension within this theme concerns the issue of unity of self, with some researchers arguing for a unified and purposeful self, imbued with integrating and synthesizing capacities, while others see self as multiple, fragmented and unfinished. From this perspective identity is understood as a “performative struggle, always destabilised and deferred” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 175).

A third tension concerns the issue of temporal coherence. While one camp of narrative psychologists insists that there is an inherent demand for a coherent and stable psychological identity, another allows for temporal discontinuity and fragmentation. These scholars tend to conceptualize coherence as an accomplishment, relational and interactional.

Theme two focuses on the “ontology or nature of narrative” and comprises tensions arising from different positions with regards to (neo)realism versus relativism; interiority versus externality; and the use of the notion of constructivism. The debates concerning the (neo)realist understanding of self versus the relativist perspective are grounded in two opposing views. The (neo)realists are committed to the view that there is a reality out there, “independent of us, which can be known — at least in principle” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 178). Against this view, the relativist position argues that no claims can be made “for the existence of foundations, of a reality outside of ourselves that can be known objectively through, for example, the appropriate use of procedures or techniques” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 179). According to the latter, then, theory-free observation or knowledge is impossible; knowledge — including our understating of self, identity and subjectivity — is always socially constructed and always fallible.

Closely connected to the tension between (neo)realist and relativist perspectives is the issue of how much weight is given to the “individual”, “subjectivity”, “experience”, and the “personal and real” or “natural” selves in a particular narrative perspective. Some scholars insist on preserving some sense of interiority, privileging the active engagement of the individual person in the process of self-construction and acknowledging the “real” nature of individual subjectivity. Other narrative researchers, however, challenge and undermine the recourse to real inner core and emphasize the social aspects of narrative in the formation of the self, such as the fact that identities are constructed in situated relationships and depend on social positioning. Furthermore, these scholars underline the use of semiotic practices and linguistic resources on which individuals draw when constructing their self.

Smith and Sparkes further illuminate a related tension surrounding the use of the word “construction” in different narrative perspectives. For those scholars who insist on the given core or authentic subjectivity, the self can be described as a natural phenomenon, which can be “found” in the inner depths of one”s consciousness where it was waiting to be discovered and revealed to the world. By comparison, scholars who theorize the process of narrative identity formation using the concept of construction demonstrate quite a different understanding: for them there is no private, interior self to be discovered; the self is produced and formed through a variety of social and semantic practices. An important implication of a constructivist view is that it allows greater freedom to re-construct and re-arrange the sense of self, thus “granting people the greatest opportunities and possible freedoms for transformation” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 183).

Finally, theme three reflects on various methodologies employed in narrative research and outlines two tensions: between the “what” and the “how” in narrative research practice, and between privileging the position of a story analysand versus the position of storyteller.

Building on the critical analytical framework proposed by Smith and Sparkes, in this book I map these three themes onto the change from the modern to the postmodern paradigm, which allows me not only to identify the tensions, but also to explore their nature and the reasons behind them. Thus, it can be argued that the modern position encompasses the perspective of ontological realism — the view that there is a reality out there, including the reality of self and subjectivity, which can be objectively known. It further entails that there is a core self or natural, inner self that can be discovered, and this self is characterized by unity and coherence. This modern perspective tends to adopt methodology that privileges the study of the “what” of narrative and the position of the researcher, rather than a storyteller, while bracketing the impact of the methodological procedure on the behaviourand materials collected.

The postmodern perspective assumes a world of multiple, “mind-dependent” realities and embraces epistemological constructivism. This perspective denies the possibility of theory-free knowledge and “objective” observation. It doesn”t assume there is a natural, real, given self which can be discovered — rather, identities are something that people construct, produce and perform in different contexts in relation to a particular situated audience. Such identities are non-unitary, and characterized by fragmentation, multiplicity, and context-specificity. They also lack coherence and allow for flexibility and temporal discontinuity. The postmodern perspective further foregrounds methodological procedures, acknowledging their constitutive impact on the studied phenomena. It privileges the “how” of narrative research and the position of a storyteller rather than a researcher.

I then explore how these themes unfold within McAdams”s approach, Hermans”s dialogical self theory, and White and Epston”s narrative therapy, and, further, offer an analysis of tensions that exist between the ethical implications of each of these approaches. In doing so I also engage with the broader criticisms that are raised with regard to narrative psychology as “an ontological and epistemological framework on the nature of lives as “storied”” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 171).

James Phelan (2005) warns against a trend that he defines as “narrative imperialism”: “the impulse by students of narrative to claim more and more territory and more and more power for our object of study and our ways of studying it” (Phelan 2005: 206). Closely related to the warning against the risk of the “narrative imperialism” is a critique that highlights the ethnocentric nature of narrative. As Brian Schiff notes in his 2006 article “The Promise (and Challenge) of an Innovative Narrative Psychology”:

In describing our project as narrative, we are reifying a Western, arguably middle and upper class, concept as the universal mode of shaping and articulating subjective experience. The narrative metaphor has wide intellectual currency in our literate culture where autobiographies and memoirs are common technologies for organizing experience, making known our insides, and carving out a place for ourselves in the social worlds. These vehicles are accepted and available in our daily life, that”s why the metaphor is so compelling. (Schiff 2006: 21)

Schiff goes on to suggest that the scope and mode of applicability of the narrative metaphor should be clearly delineated and it should be acknowledged that narrative can be expressed in a variety of media: through painting, dance, performance, song, etc.

Perhaps the most forceful criticism of narrative in general has been articulated by Galen Strawson, who delineated the psychological narrativity thesis, according to which “human beings typically see or live or experience their lives as a narrative or story of some sort, or at least a collection of stories”, and the ethical narrativity thesis, that “states that experiencing or conceiving one”s life as a narrative is a good thing; a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood” (Strawson 2004: 428). Strawson argues that both theses, and any combination of them, are false, and insists that the view that supports them is particularly regrettable: “It”s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative” (Strawson 2004: 429). In Strawson”s view, the narrative perspective hinders human self-understanding, closes down an important avenue of thought, impoverishes our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distresses those who don”t fit this model, and is potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts. Strawson suggests that there are other ways of psychological functioning, such as the episodic non-narrative mode. The core of Strawson”s criticism seems to be aimed at the notion that narrativity as a principle of psychological operation is natural and universal: “The aspiration to explicit narrative self-articulation is natural for some — for some, it may even be helpful — but in others is highly unnatural and ruinous” (Strawson 2004: 447). Such criticism raises the valid concern of whether narrativity can be posited as a natural ability inherent in and beneficial for all human beings.

The analysis that is offered in this book aims to respond to Strawson”s criticism. The exploration of the psychological narrativity thesis, i.e. the assumptions about the narrative subject, and the analysis of the ethical narrativity thesis bookend my project. However, the close investigation of the three main streams of narrative psychology offered in this book shows that various approaches sharing broad narrative perspective can differ substantially in their assumptions about the given versus constructed nature of the human ability to create and mobilize narrative in different aspects of their psychological functioning. While all three approaches interrogated in the present study can be appropriately located under the umbrella-term of “narrative psychology”, their particular use of narrative and narrativity differ substantially depending on their ontological and epistemological assumptions. The foundational aspect where such differences become obvious is the use of narrative in relation to self, identity and subjectivity. The next chapter offers a discussion of how narrative is positioned with regard to the subject by McAdams, Hermans, and Epston and White in their theoretical and practical work.