Life Story: Identity, Subject and Subjectivity in McAdams”s Approach - Constructing the Narrative Subject

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

Life Story: Identity, Subject and Subjectivity in McAdams”s Approach
Constructing the Narrative Subject

McAdams has throughout the course of his scientific career consistently rejected postmodern views and attacked the postmodern appropriation of the concept of narrative. He writes in The Redemptive Self:

The concept of narrative is key in the psychological writings of postmodern thinkers. Lives are like texts, they suggest, narratives that continue to be written and rewritten over time. But what are texts? They are nothing but patterns of words, pictures, signs, and other sorts of representations. There is nothing substantially “real” about them. (McAdams 2006c: 296)

McAdams directs this critique specifically against Kenneth Gergen, as one of the major proponents of a postmodern perspective in psychology. McAdams explicitly contrasts his own view on the self and identity with Gergen”s position expressed in his The Saturated Self:

Under postmodern conditions, persons exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to a reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality. The centre fails to hold. (Gergen 1991 cited in McAdams 2006c: 342)

McAdams formulates his approach to the subject in sharp contrast to postmodern appropriations of the notion of narrative and mobilization of it to theorize identity and subjectivity. In responding to postmodern critique, McAdams reiterates his commitment to modern values and assumptions in the concluding paragraph to The Redemptive Self:

If I thought life narratives signified nothing beyond the swirl and confusion of contemporary life, however, I would not study them. If I thought that American adults themselves were not the real authors of their own stories, appropriating discourses and narratives that prevail in their own culture […], I would not assert that narrative identities provide lives with some degree of unity and purpose while offering insights, as well, into culture. No matter how messy it gets out there, people want to make sense of it all. Life-story telling continues apace. (McAdams 2006c: 298)

This commitment creates a unifying theme that has run throughout McAdams”s research for more than a quarter of a century.

Reflecting on the relationship between identity and historical periods in 1996, McAdams asserted that the storied self is a modern phenomenon that emerges in response to “the particular problems and challenges in selfhood posed by modernity” (McAdams 1996: 297). These challenges are evident in repeated doubts that Western men and women have expressed since the early 1800s “about the extent to which they experience themselves as (a) essentially the same person from one situation to the next one over time and (b) a unique and integrated person who is consistently different as well as related to other unique persons in the environment” (McAdams 1996: 297). In response to these questions modern Westerners engage in a reflexive project of articulating their multi-layered “selves” in narrative form encompassed by the direction of progress and self-improvement over time. He further concedes that these selves are seeking self-actualization, self-realization, self-fulfilment and even self-transcendence. McAdams suggested that these tendencies continue to encompass identity-building efforts of contemporary Westerners despite some authors arguing that Western societies have entered the postmodern era.

McAdams (1993) articulated his narrative view of identity most fully in his monograph The Stories We Live By: Personal Myth and the Making of the Self. While the origins of this book can be traced to his first scholarly book Power, Intimacy and the Life Story (McAdams 1985), McAdams reached a new level of engagement with the idea of life story in the 1990s. Starting with an argument that each of us comes to know who he or she is by creating a heroic story of the self, a personal myth, McAdams put forward an elaborate narrative model of identity encompassing past, present and future and characterized by plot, characters, scenes and a particular aesthetic. Introducing this idea by asking “What is a personal myth?” McAdams stated:

First and foremost, it is a kind of story that each of us naturally constructs to bring together the different parts of ourselves and our lives into a purposeful and convincing whole. Like all stories, the personal myth has a beginning, middle, and end, defined according to the development of plot and character. We attempt, with our story, to make a compelling aesthetic statement. (McAdams 1993: 12)

As rich and inspirational as it is, this definition also reveals the underlying tension in McAdams”s model that comes powerfully to colour his later research and that bears directly on the understanding of the category of subject that his model presupposes. This is the tension between essentialist and constructivist assumptions, betrayed most clearly by the paradoxical statement that each of us “naturally constructs” a myth. The tension between the given and produced, the natural and cultural, indicates the two poles in McAdams”s theorizing to which he returns time and again in an attempt to reconcile them, or rather—as the later analysis demonstrates—to subsume one within the other.

Initially McAdams located his model of identity as a story or myth within his three-level model of personality (presented in Chap. 2) encompassing the level of dispositional traits, the level of personal concerns and the level of life narrative. This model of personality was described by McAdams as structurally complex and comprising a set of heterogeneous psychological characteristics not subordinated to a hierarchical relationship. However, within this model, identity as a life story is responsible for provision of coherence with regard to a self-perceived account of the person”s life and is also critically implicated in integrating the work of different levels within the personality. Thus, McAdams characterized identity by bounding and masterful qualities—an orientation that over time becomes even more pronounced in his work.

Furthermore, as Vollmer (2005) notes, identity for McAdams is hidden inside of us. It is based on material that has been “gathered” beforehand: “Even before we consciously know what a story is, we are gathering material for a self-defining story we will someday compose” (McAdams 1993: 13). The self, for McAdams, is discovered when this unconscious story is brought to light and made explicit through narrative. As Vollmer explains, McAdams posits that “what we do when we explicitly tell or write a story, is not an act of creating our self, but an act of describing something that has already been created, of revealing what is already there but hidden” (Vollmer 2005: 202).

Vollmer highlights that the essentialism of McAdams”s position is also evident in his idea that self-descriptive stories convey the truth about the inner self, the truth that has been known to the teller all along. The sense of self is given and clearly pre-dates its narrative rendering: as McAdams concedes, the story is “there all along, inside the mind. It is a psychological structure that evolves slowly over time, infusing life with unity and purpose. An interview can elicit aspects of that, offering me hints concerning the truth already in place in the mind of the teller” (McAdams 1993: 20). Importantly, narrative capacity as such and narrative as a form of organizing the flow of experience and consciousness represent a given for McAdams as well.

Over the following years McAdams expanded his initial model of personality and introduced the “New Big Five” fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality (McAdams and Pals 2006). In elaborating these “New Big Five” McAdams strives to locate his understanding of self, identity and personality within a broader framework encompassed by evolutionary determinants. Noting that most grand theories of personality advanced in the first half of the twentieth century (psychoanalytic theory, humanistic psychology, and the cognitive-behavioural approach) are essentially “faith-based systems whose first principles are untested and untestable” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 205), McAdams and Pals suggest that “an integrative science of persons should be built around a first principle that enjoys the imprimatur of the biological sciences” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 205). Thus, the first principle of the “New Big Five” is that,

Personality psychology begins with human nature, and from the standpoint of the biological sciences, human nature is best couched in terms of human evolution. To the extent that the individual person is like all other persons, that deep similarity is likely to be a product of human evolution. (McAdams and Pals 2006: 206)

The second principle within the “New Big Five” approach correlates with Level I of the personality model McAdams had introduced earlier and relates to the dispositional signature of the person: those “broad, nonconditional, decontextualized, generally linear and bipolar, and implicitly comparative dimensions of human individuality that go by such names as extraversion, dominance, friendliness, dutifulness, depressiveness, the tendency to feel vulnerable and so on” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 207). Principle 2 maintains that, “Variations on a small set of broad dispositional traits implicated in social life (both in the EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness] and today) constitute the most stable and recognizable aspect of psychological individuality” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 207).

Principle 3 invokes the characteristic adaptations (constructs that were previously located by McAdams on Level II of his personality model) such as motives, goals, plans, strivings, strategies, values, virtues and schema. This principle states that “beyond dispositional traits, human lives vary with respect to a wide range of motivational, socio-cognitive, and developmental adaptations, contextualised in time, place, and/or social role” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 208). This principle speaks to a domain of human individuality that is more closely linked to motivation and cognition than are traits, and seems more amenable to environmental and cultural influences.

Principle 4 grounds the concept of narrative as a new root metaphor in psychology and argues that, “beyond dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations, human lives vary with respect to the integrative life stories, or personal narratives, that individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 209). This principle reiterates McAdams”s original insight that “[n]arrative identity is indeed that story the person tries to “keep going”—an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that incorporates the reconstructed past and the imagined future into a more or less coherent whole in order to provide the person”s life with some degree of unity, purpose, and meaning” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 209—210). Narrative identity is thus responsible for continuity and coherence and, furthermore, is critically implicated in psychological growth, development, coping and well-being.

While Principles 2, 3 and 4 replicate McAdams”s earlier thinking on personality, Principles 1 and 5 expand his framework by grounding personality analysis within two contextual domains of a different order—evolution and culture. McAdams thus concludes that, “A full accounting of a person”s life requires an examination of the unique patterning of dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, and life narratives that characterize that life, all grounded ultimately in the evolutionary demands of the species and, at the same time, complexly influenced by culture” (McAdams and Pals 2006: 210).

Incorporating culture as Principle 5 in his approach, McAdams points out that this dimension remains traditionally underappreciated in personality psychology, while for him it offers important cues in discerning the effects of environment on individual differences:

Culture exerts different effects on different levels of personality: It exerts a modest effect on the phenotypic expression of traits; it shows a stronger impact on the content and timing of characteristic adaptations; and it reveals its deepest and most profound influence on life stories, essentially providing a menu of themes, images, and plots for the psychosocial construction of narrative identity. (McAdams and Pals 2006: 211)

McAdams presents the “New Big Five” principles as a significant step forward for personality psychology dominated previously by the “Big Five” traits model. However, one of the limitations of the “New Big Five” principles is that they outline five broad domains but not the functional relationship between them. What holds these domains together is that they firmly focus on an individual self. The five domains can be thought of as gradually enlarging concentric circles all centred on an individual, who draws material for personality development from evolutionary, cultural, dispositional and other resources. Both evolutionary and cultural domains provide a range of options to choose from as well as a set of constraints, yet they are not determinative of the individual. In contrast to the traditional self, where the subject is defined in terms of its relation to the wider order beyond it, and to the postmodern self, where culture provides a powerful decentring force, in the “New Big Five” the subject is self-defining. The subject is imbued with agentic and reflexive power and reigns in the universe that is neatly arranged around him.

As such, McAdams”s “New Big Five” intervention is clearly anchored in a modern view of individuality, not engaging into the debates ushered by Clifford Geertz”s powerful argument that “[t]he Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgement and action, organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world”s cultures” (Geertz 1979: 229).

McAdams”s emphasis on the synthesis and integration of the self as key functions of narrative identity further demonstrates his broader allegiance to modernist assumptions in psychology. McAdams attributes particular importance to the internal coherence of the life story:

People construct stories to make sense of their lives; therapists and their clients co-construct new narratives to replace disorganized or incoherent stories of self; lives become meaningful and coherent (or not) amidst the welter of social constructions and discourses that comprise contemporary postmodern life. It follows, furthermore, that story construction — at the level of the individual, group, and even culture — moves (ideally) in the direction of coherence. (McAdams 2006a: 110)

McAdams further provides arguments in support of the view that narrative coherence represents an ideal—or at least desirable—pole of identity construction. First and foremost, he notes, since stories exist to be told, they need to be understood—and thus they need to comply with certain culturally produced expectations regarding time, intention, goals, causality and closure. Thus, narrative coherence promotes communication, while lack of coherence hinders it. Further, coherence is instrumental in assisting a generation of causal explanation, which for McAdams represents another important function of life narrative: “If a life story is to make psychological sense, then, it must explain how a person came to be (and who a person may be in the future)” (McAdams 2006a: 114). McAdams refers to Habermas and Bluck”s (2000) identification of four types of coherence inhering in the development of narratively organized identity: temporal, autobiographical, causal and thematic. McAdams stresses the importance of autobiographical coherence, which encompasses “implicit understanding of the typical events and their timing that go into the construction of a typical life story” (Habermas and Bluck 2000: 115).

McAdams notes that narrative coherence has its limits and often faces challenges. This is particularly the case in the therapeutic domain, where the presentation of confused, incomprehensible and disordered stories, populated by multiple unstable characters with unclear goals and unstable drives, is a widespread phenomenon. However, for McAdams such experiences are no more than deviation from an optimal psychological development: “When the self”s synthesizing powers break down, therapists need to help patients construct stories with fewer characters and simpler plots, in the hope that more coherent life stories will translate into more coherent and more effective lived experience” (McAdams 2006a: 120). On the other hand, even highly coherent life stories can be unhelpful, for example when they are handed down by parents and uncritically assimilated into identity structure by children. Thus, McAdams acknowledges that judging a life story as coherent and therefore efficient always relies on a recognizable moral perspective. But for McAdams himself, there is no doubt as to where his moral and ethical commitments lie and how they translate into his theory. As Smith and Sparkes observe, for McAdams “the degree to which different parts of a story fit together in some consistent and orderly way is a key criterion of its meaningfulness” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 176). Furthermore, the “degree to which this criterion is achieved in an individual”s life story may also be evaluated in moral terms as an index of personal adequacy, positive mental health, and of a positively valued identity” (Smith and Sparkes 2006: 176).

This becomes particularly evident in McAdams”s elaboration of the idea of the redemptive self. According to McAdams, both on a broad societal scale and in individuals” private lives, a significant proportion of Americans are motivated by the idea of transforming their suffering into a positive emotional state, by the belief that a move from pain and peril to redemption is not only possible, but inevitable. The development of redemptive identity is driven not only by the urge to the realization of the self”s full potential, but also by the push to become our best selves.

McAdams”s conclusions are based on hundreds of interviews with caring and productive American adults who demonstrate a strong commitment to their careers, their families and making a positive difference in the world. These highly “generative” men and women embrace the negative things that happen to them. In their view, by transforming the bad into good they are able to move forward in life and ultimately leave something positive behind. While there is no indication as to what percentage of Americans fall into this category, for McAdams the results are sufficient to suggest that these respondents can be considered representative of America today, and to allow for a characterization of the redemptive self as a quintessentially American mode of identity.

However, McAdams acknowledges that there are limitations to how the redemptive self operates. These encompass both psychological and social issues. On the psychological level, McAdams admits that “the expectation that all bad things should be redeemed may keep a person from experiencing a life in its full emotional richness” (McAdams 2006c: 268). On the social level the same expectation can trivialize the suffering of others, while strong commitment to distinctive individual accomplishment runs the risk of separating the self from society.

Furthermore, not all contemporary Americans develop the redemptive self. The life stories of such people are described by McAdams as presenting “contaminated plots” and “vicious circles”. This reveals the rather heavily normative and judgemental aspect of McAdams”s model: the redemptive self is not only a dominant characteristic of contemporary Americans, it is also an ideal state; when redemption fails, it issues in not only deviation, but also a sense of failure.

McAdams”s model of the redemptive self reveals most clearly his allegiance to an essentialist, centred, singular and individualistic understanding of the subject. The narrative mobilized to articulate this type of identity is circumscribed by a particular type of story, with clearly defined plot, turning points and resolution. Discussing various narrative constructions of self, Peter Raggat argues that the imposition of coherence on modern life constitutes “a hegemonic insult” (Raggat 2006). Such critique can be extended to the redemptive self. While McAdams (2006a) is prepared to acknowledge that “life is messier and more complex than the stories we tell about it”, there is no real provision to address and incorporate this complexity in his model.

Significantly, the dynamics of redemption as an essential aspect of contemporary American identity became evident for McAdams in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when, “The workers were convinced that the death and the destruction of 9/11 would give way to new life, new growth, new power, and a new reality that, in some fundamental sense, would prove better than what came before” (McAdams 2006c: 3). The inevitability of redemption was simply taken for granted. It is in the context of political debates post-September 11, 2001, that McAdams”s emphasis on redemption becomes understandable. The widespread critical response to the unspeakable horror of 9/11 insists that “the time has come to abandon the cynicism, ironic play and “oppositional anarchism” associated with postmodernism and to embrace a positive conception of power and its potential affinity with truth and knowledge” (Bennett 2009: 20). From this position the questioning and ideological critique by postmodernism of such categories as truth, beauty and goodness are interpreted as a temporary aberration and a reaction against a once progressive modernism, whose agenda now seems newly energized. McAdams”s model of the redemptive self can thus be characterized as a reworking of many features of the modernist project in the post-9/11 context, where the narrative of redemption is powerfully positioned as a new grand narrative.

McAdams argues consistently for the existence of a single, stable and knowable reality and, correspondingly, the existence of a self that is singular, stable and knowable. Moreover, this self is masterful and agentic; it strives to actualize its true core. In the context of the debates concerning the shift beyond postmodernity, the paramount expression of McAdams”s essentialist approach to self—the redemptive self—can be seen as a model of post-postmodern self superseding the plethora of postmodern selves such as the empty self, the protean self, the saturated self and the quantum self.