This is the final draft of the Introdction appearing in Lines of Narrative, eds M.Andrews, S.D.Sclater, C.Squire and A. Treacher, London: Routledge (2000). Also published as The Uses of Narrative. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction (2004)
This book aims to provide a contemporary profile of sociologists’ and psychologists’ work on narrative. It clarifies the views they share and the issues that divide them, and points to the value such work has for generating new ways of conceptualising and investigating the social world. Adopting a distinctively ‘psychosocial’ approach, the book draws together examples of narrative theory, methods and research from North America, Western and Central Europe and Australia, to provide the reader with an overview of this increasingly popular field. Narrative’s double meanings, at once modern and postmodern, seem to allow research in this field to avoid many of the limitations of more traditional sociological and psychological approaches, and in particular to challenge the conventional dualism between individual and society. Using narrative, the ‘self’ can be located as a psychosocial phenomenon, and subjectivities seen as discursively constructed yet still as active and effective. Material social conditions, discourses and practices interweave with subjectively experienced desires and identities and people make choices, reconstruct pasts and imagine futures within the range of possibilities open to them. This is the realm where sociology overlaps with psychology and neither the ‘social’, the subject matter of traditional psychology, nor the ‘individual’, the subject matter of conventional psychology, are privileged. Rather both are constructed in relation to each other, not in the ‘outer’ realm of society and culture, or the ‘inner realm of personality characteristics, but in a distinct,’psychosocial’ zone.
If we are constructed by stories, or storytellers by nature, or perhaps both, then narrative must, surely, be a prime concern of social science. Yet the ‘story’ of narrative in the social sciences is longer and more complicated. Over the past thirty years, the study of narrative has been a point of intersection, even crossover, between the social sciences and the humanities. In the social sciences, narrative is one element in a broader cultural and linguistic ‘turn’ through which recognition has been given both to the shaping effects of cultural environments, and to subjective experience. The growing status of qualitative methods in sociology and psychology is a compelling indication of this ‘turn.’ Today, ethnography, biographical case studies, discourse and conversation analysis, semiotics and social constructionism, as well as more narrowly focused narrative studies, are all commonplace, even mainstream parts of these disciplines.
In the humanities, especially in literary and cultural studies, studies of narrative have, in contrast, served to objectify or formalise research. Literary and cultural critics had previously relied on implicit and intuitive procedures, whose affinities with ‘creative’ forms of writing and art they valued. During the 1960s, this intuitive approach began to seem insufficient. One factor was the greater international exposure of cultures to one another—an early consequence of ‘globalisation.’ Another was the emergence of ‘new’ voices within national societies, as social change movements such as civil rights, feminism and gay rights achieved some measure of cultural democratisation. The literary and cultural-critical mainstream was attacked for its anglocentrism, for being middle-class, for its uncritical humanism and individualism and for a ‘high-cultural’ bias against the plethora of new cultural forms—film, radio, television, journalism, popular fiction. In place of trained sensibility, literary and cultural studies now became dominated by theories and analytic procedures which it was hoped would bring some conceptual order to the expanding cultural field. These theories and procedures were trawled for in many different places—in the interpretive ethnographies of US sociology, in several varieties of Marxism, in structural linguistics, in discourse theory, in hermeneutics—and in the idea of ‘narrative.’
So, just as the social sciences were discovering the importance of ‘subjectivity,’ the humanities were starting to celebrate the advantages of ‘objectivity’—the application of formal concepts and methods to cultural artifacts of all kinds. One can see this process as a kind of reintegration of the sciences and the humanities, after a long post-Enlightenment period in which they were sharply counterposed. To the horror of many traditional humanist scholars, the humanities came to be approached in a quasi-scientific way while to the equal horror of many partisans of ‘science,’ cultural and social perspectives were increasingly deemed integral to sociology and psychology. At the same time, the social sciences became affected, in a kind of reverse transmission, by the formalist enthusiasms of the humanities, and the humanities themselves were subject to a barrage of ‘backlash’ scholarship reinstating the authority of intuition.
The study of ‘narrative’ is on the rise at a late and complex stage in this intersection of the disparate disciplinary approaches. Narrative researchers attempt to produce formal theories of culture and society. But because stories also seem to have intimate and important connections with the nature of human experience, narrative research incorporates other dimensions—notably those of historical time and subjectivity—that were in danger of being left out of other language or discourse-based research. As this portmanteau account of narrative research suggests, the field is a wide one. Part of this book’s concern is to explore the field’s extent, and the parameters that define it.
Contemporary social-scientific definitions of narrative are extremely variable. In general, narrative is taken to mean a sequence of events in time (Berger, 1997). Thus defined, ‘narrative’ includes much more than what we think of as the usual materials of social-scientific narrative research: spoken, often personal stories, like those explored in many of the chapters in Sections 2 and 3 of this book. ‘Narrative’ must take in writing--fiction and documentary writing, which have clear time sequences, but also explanatory writing, where narrative sequence lies in the causal succession that a text proposes, as in Wolkowitz’s and Jacobs’s chapters. Narrative includes image sequences, too, as well as still images which imply event sequences while only showing a moment of them, as Abell et al. and Walters’s chapters demonstrate. In addition, “narratives” are now often taken to include sequences of actions: the living out of story structures in everyday life described by Seale.
The term ‘narrative’ now also extends to cover phenomena beyond verbal, visual or acted ‘texts.’ Sociologists and psychologists working with both personal and media narratives tend to assume that these narratives bear a strong resemblance to the structure and content of the lived, social world, as in the chapers by Freeman, Wengraf and Konopasek in this volume. Some contributors, like Malson, also claim that individual ‘stories’ contain elements of cultural metanarratives, stories that are much more significant than the apparent narrative totalities in which their elements appear. Moving in the reverse direction, from the personal narrative towards the intrapsychic rather than towards cultural formations, Hollway and Jefferson argue that some autobiographical narratives express, to an interpretive researcher, a ‘story’ of unconscious affect, spelled out in the associations, gaps and ideosyncrasies of language rather than in its overt narrative content and structure. This book, by paying attention to the variety of narrative forms at stake in the social sciences, aims to disestablish conventions that make stories of human lives, or - in the psychological, literary and cultural-studies tradition - narratives with idealised linguistic, fiction or filmic forms, the canonical centre of narrative analysis.
Narratives and Methods
What we take to be ‘narrative’ determines how narrative will be studied. From the definitional differences discussed above flow considerable differences in narrative methodology, which manifest themselves across the chapters. The first way in which narrative is commonly studied is by obtaining stories through individual interviews. Even here, though, anomalies arise. The stories produced by Smith’s group interviews with children, who are rather rare participants in narrative interview research, raise questions about the power relations of ‘narrative’ interviews, who usually gets to tell their stories, and the place of the researcher. Hollway and Jefferson, seeking to theorise the psycho-social subject, found traditional interview procedures wanting and developed their own Free Association Narrative Interviewing method. Konopasek’s collectively-produced autobiographies, generated by a kind of written ‘interview’ with self and others, may lead us to ask about the textual and collaborative nature of other, apparently simpler autobiographies, where individuals are sole authors of their own life stories and as such need only be accountable only to themselves. Seale’s parallel investigations of the ‘narratives’ derived from semi-structured interviews and from ethnographic observations renders permeable the boundaries between these methods, so that actions become stories to be ‘listened’ to and stories, ‘acts’ to be observed.
If, moreover, we examine how even the more traditional interview material is analysed, we see an instructive span of categories. For Wengraf, the narrative method is the analysis: stories told within a life history interview tell their own significance to a sensitive reader who can hear the “told story” as opposed to the facts of the “lived life.” Other contributors venture away from interview data more explicitly, Hollway and Jefferson perhaps most controversially when, drawing from psychoanalysis in their analytic procedures, they uncover ‘narratives’ of unconscious affect. In so doing they challenge some conventional but rather fragile distinctions between social scientific and psychoanalytic interpretation. Moving in the other direction, Freeman and Malson deploy larger understandings of cultural narratives within which they situate individuals’ stories. To do this, Malson works explicitly from a discourse-analytic perspective that allows her to set up in advance analytic categories based on previous research as well as on what she finds in the data. Freeman relies rather on comparisons with literary models. For both, stories ‘mean’ more than they say. Contributors to the book have well-formulated modes of analysis to demonstrate this richness of meaning, and use concepts of triangulation and reflexivity as checks on their interpretive range.
The second way in which social scientists commonly study narrative is by analysing preexisting written, visual or spoken stories. In a sense, such studies have a ‘partial’ method, because they work with found texts. In Wolkowitz’s case, even selection is obviated because the texts in the category that interests her, memoirs of the wives of US nuclear weapons scientists, are small in number. However, these are not methodologically unproblematic narratives; Wolkowitz has to contend with the possibility that they are ‘ventriloquised’ rather than authentically authored. Other contributors must develop principles of selection, as in Jacobs’s careful empirical assessment of all news coverage of the Los Angeles uprisings, or Abell et al.’s choice of what they argue is a single but iconic and culturally defining televisual moment—Princess Diana’s Panorama television interview. As with the interview studies, these text-based contributions deploy analytic methods drawn from a range of fields, with varying explicitness; given their objects of study, it is not surprising that they borrow more from the methods and theories of literary and cultural studies. Jacobs makes explicit use of categories of literary form and Abell et al. deploy a functionalist discourse and conversation analysis, also influenced by cultural studies precedents for the analysis of broadcast narratives. Wolkowitz makes implicit reference to conventions of written stories, memoirs specifically, and Walters conducts a wide-ranging address to the cultural dynamics of Othering and assimilation as played out in popular media stories of lesbian and gay relationships and parenting, which again draws creatively on emergent traditions of cultural-studies analysis.
Narrative methodologies exemplify the uneasy yet productive fusion between increasing formalism in the humanities - as in Jacobs’s deployment of literary-critical categories to understand popular media - and increasing subjectivism in the social sciences, as with Wengraf’s interpretive reading of life stories. Yet the methods also indicate the blurred nature of this distinction, in for example Walters’s reliance on an entirely implicit methodology for her cultural analysis, or Smith’s use of the rhetorical structure of drama to understand her interviews with boys. Such disciplinary crossovers seem one of the most helpful and hopeful aspects of the narrative research showcased here. For where social-science and cultural studies collide in the study of narrative, as they inevitably will, researchers have to make difficult choices between methods that do not need to be justified or even explicated--which are still, in the main, used within cultural studies--and methods obliged to justify themselves rigorously, if not scientifically, as social-scientific methods still in general must. The resulting confrontations between different approaches to method have considerable value in developing ideas of what narrative analysis means, while acting, again, to destabilise conventional concepts of what social-scientific research on ‘narrative’ entails.
Narrative, construction and culture
How has the ‘discovery’ of narrative influenced the social sciences, and what fields of investigation does it open up? To answer this question, we need to distinguish between understandings that are products of the ‘cultural turn’ in general, and those that are specific to the study of narrative. What has followed from the ‘cultural turn’ is a recognition that the forms in which experience is encoded, accounted for and represented, help constitute that experience. This recognition displaces the idea that there are realities of nature, society and individuals wholly independent of the languages and cultural patterns through which they are represented. It makes problematic what was formerly taken for granted and thus invisible, namely the way in which representations construct and form part of realities.
The contributors to this book are clear that stories always have a ‘cultural locus’ (Denzin, 1989: 73) without reference to which they cannot be understood. The chapters consistently concern themselves with this ‘top-down’ (Berger, 1993) perspective on narratives’significance: how narratives derive from specific cultural loci, how they can be described with reference to these cultural locations, how culturally particular forms of narrative are routed though individual narratives and narrating subjects, and how apparently ‘personal’ stories impact back on the culture. While the chapters in Section 1 are especially preoccupied with the confluence of narrative and popular culture, similar concerns appear in Section 3, where contributors address the discourses, the structures of power and knowledge, within which stories are told, and the discursive effects those stories themselves have.
What is narrative research’s specific contribution to the ‘culturalist’ or ‘constructionist’ perspective? Such research seems both to constrain and enable it. Narrative work does not examine the constructing effects of individual, symptomatic words, or silences, or cross-textual ‘discourses’: these all have to be placed in the context of a ‘story.’ However, a narrative is itself an accumulating construction. As you follow it, you hear meanings and realities accrue. In this sense, narrative research offers object lessons in the construction of the social world. A principal resource of the constructionist perspective has been its investigation of the patterns of representation which emerge in each field of study and through which different ‘realities’ are constituted, and such patterns are often dramatically obvious in the field of narrative. In this volume, contributors examine, for instance, the representations and realities effected by the specific narrative forms of official death-certification procedures (Seale), television celebrity interviews and sitcoms (Abell et al., Walters), print news journalism (Jacobs), literary genres of fiction and autobiography (Jacobs, Freeman, Wolkowitz, Konopasek), children talking with adults (Smith), and autobiographical speech (Wengraf, Malson, Hollway and Jefferson, Freeman). From these investigations emerge valuable understandings of how particular narrative patterns interact with individual and social representations of the world.
Narrative, history and subjectivity
Narrative theorists have accepted and have even been able to exploit the systemic concepts and procedures which followed the linguistic ‘turn.’ Their more unique contribution has been to draw attention to some specific dimensions of the process of cultural construction, those of history and human subjectivity. These dimensions have been an important corrective to the objectifying effects of formalist studies of cultural forms, which sometimes merely substituted a kind of ‘culturalist’ determinism for previously materialist ones.
Narrative is most generally defined as temporal sequencing of events. Paul Ricoeur (ref*), one of the most widely cited writers on narrative research, argues that human experience too is arranged and bound in time. Human actors cannot but engage with time, and therefore narrative, in their formation of desires, intentions, expectations and memories. As a consequence, the histories that human beings write are not the ‘objective’ accounts of events occurring across time that they seem to be; rather they are, like fictions, creative means of exploring and describing realities. They follow narrative principles of ‘emplotment’; they describe sequences of events with beginnings, middles and ends, and generate intelligibility by organising past, present and future in a coherent way. For Ricoeur, and for many other narrative theorists - Wengraf and Hollway and Jefferson, in this volume, among them - this narrativity affects the speaking and writing of individual ‘histories,’ too. Our time-inflected phenomenology places creating and maintaining meaning at the centre of all human activity. The ‘first order’ activity of lives as they are lived is mirrored in ‘second order’ activities of reflection, representation, accounting and storytelling. For Anthony Giddens, (ref*) these second order activities provide the resources for the ‘first order’ world-making of each next generation - as, indeed, many contributors to this volume, such as Walters, Jacobs, Smith and Konopasek, would argue . For Zygmunt Bauman (1992), moreover, resistance to our narratives’ unavoidable end, the inevitable fact of mortality, explains much in human work and culture, as Seale, Freeman and Craib might themselves say.
What, though, of subjectivity, agency and intention? Intentions give shape to our perceptions and accounts of what we and others do - for example, in the various forms of rationalisation and false consciousness named by Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. The narrative perspective makes possible the acknowledgement of this dimension of ‘agency,’ both as reality and as belief, in the ways in which accounts of experience are framed. Narrative trajectories are, like agency, purposive; they move towards endings, they aim for closure. In writings throughout this book, people are helped to or barred from agency in narrative.
The contributors to this volume differ over the extent to which they believe stories and lives mirror one another. Is subjectivity contained within narratives, spoken through the cultrual and social languages available, or is there more to subjectivity than the storied self? For Seale, there is almost nothing which is not narrative - but narrative is still not, for him, a sufficient description of every phenomenon. For Freeman and Wengraf , spoken narratives and life paths run in inexact, approximate parallel. Malson and Walters take it for granted that cultural and life narratives both reflect and resist each other, but they use the term “narrative” broadly enough to take in nonlinear metastructures like “patriarchy” that would not be susceptible to conventional narrative analyses. Hollway and Jefferson propose a parallelism between spoken and unconscious narratives, but this latter notion again departs from conventional, verifiable notions of what a narrative is. Smith, Wolkowitz and Abell and her cowriters register implicit reservations about the scope of narrative analysis by concentrating on theorising the narrative structures of particular spoken and written texts, with some cautious suggestions about their meanings and effects. Konopasek and Jacobs are interested in how individual and cultural narratives both derive from and feed into specific sociopolitical situations, but they avoid describing these conditions as ‘narratives.’ At the far end of the continuum, Craib suggests that concepts of narrative in the social sciences have become so encompassing that they now include, homogenise and simplify every psychological and sociological phenomenon. He wants to reserve a place outside narrative for some of subjectivity’s contents - unconscious fantasy and emotions, whose psychic dynamics are linked with but partly independent of cultural and social domains.
It is now taken for granted in much contemporary work on subjectivity that a narrative is drawn from social, cultural and, perhaps, unconscious imperatives, which it at the same time reveals. These imperatives, however, do not entirely constrain the production or understanding of narratives. Narratives come in many kinds, they are contradictory and fragmented, there is no such thing as a coherent story. There is also, in the aftermath of grand ‘narratives’ of the social and political order, and in a time of identifications rather than identities, no entirely firm sociocultural ground from which to tell stories. Moreover, human subjectivity itself is diverse, fragmented, and carries within it the pushes and pulls of various available narratives, which are contingent upon social and cultural positioning.
Within this book, there are two contrasting views of the future of narrative research. The more optimistic poses narrative as a means to recuperate individual and social agency in the social sciences. It argues that narratives provide solace, a means of keeping on with life, even resistance – as in Seale’s notion of narrative as resurrective practice. Stories may be crucial in helping you to survive or even to live in new and progressive ways. They may also reveal lies, vulnerabilities and fracture lines within the dominant culture. This viewpoint is perhaps most obviously associated with the life history, oral history and biographical-interpretive methods work presented in Section 2 of the book, but it appears in other chapters, too.
The other, more negative viewpoint has come to be as important a part of narrative studies as the first. It centres on the assertion that narratives can lie, may foreclose more imaginative ways of living, and often hide the operation of power relations. Some narratives are defensive, concealing difficult aspects of subjective life, or subjects’ ‘true’ feelings of for example, guilt, shame or envy. Ian Craib tellingly characterises these as ‘bad faith’narratives (p.00), showing how they can be observed even in a psychotherapeutic situation whose conventions were devised for precisely the opposite purpose. Other narratives mask powerful hidden relations of subjection and coercion. More subtly, narratives drawn from acceptable social and cultural sources can operate subtextually as stories of exclusion or assimilation. Subjects find themselves subsumed in conventional stories that impose on them a particular definition of the normal and the possible. At the moment when a life seems most individual and particular in its telling, the narrative forms within which it is encoded and by which it is made to seem recognisably ordinary, simply reproduce and reinforce social norms. The chapters by Walters and Wolkowitz show, for instance, how established cultural narratives of family displace all other aspects of the lives of those they aim to describe, neutralising their differences.
This contradiction, that narratives both reveal and conceal, enable and constrain, is in many of the contributions to this volume, and looks to be one that will powerfully inflect narrative research for the foreseeable future. From both sides of the contradiction, however, contributors would perhaps agree that the way narratives are spoken and negotiated bears witness to the way that ‘lived experience is shredded’ (Bollas, 1995, p*). The construction of meaning through narratives seems to be a fundamental aspect of both individual and social experience. For this reason, the narrative ‘turn’ has refocused attention on agency and subjectivity, as well as enriching the structural possibilities available for thinking about texts and the construction of subjects. Once the centrality of narrative temporality is recognised, it becomes impossible to ignore individual and collective active subjects. But the discursive resources through which narratives are made are themselves cultural products, and these constrain and construct individuals at the same times as they provide them with means of autonomous thought and expression. The ‘discovery’ of narrative has, then, as its main benefit, the possibility of opening up new spaces for investigating relations between subjects and structures. The study of narrative is not of cultures of individual subjects, but the study of their relations. Individuals and collectivities can be seen to be making their own history, but not, as Marx (ref*) pointed out, in conditions of their own choosing.
The first section of this book focuses on how cultural narratives relate to everyday narrative talk, writing and practices. The chapters examine the place of narrative as a cultural resource for understanding, and even for living, many aspects of our lives, from the most intimate to those determined at the furthest distance from us. They look at the opportunities and constraints offered by cultural narratives for challenging social and individual circumstances. Finally, they examine how some ways of telling cultural stories may themselves help change the shape of the world the stories and their tellers inhabit.
Section 2 explores different approaches to narrative theory and method in biographical work. How do individuals construct the stories they tell about their lives? What is the relationship between living and telling: between our day to day experiences and and the way in which we internally organise these experiences and subsequently represent them to ourselves and others? Through the recounting of stories, people reveal what they perceive as the dominant influences which have shaped the course of their lives. These chapters examine the possibilities and limitations of narrative work for representing individual meaning-making systems which taking account of the larger social context in which lives are enacted.
The chapters in Section 3 highlight the dynamic relations between discourse and narrative, problematising the autonomy of discourse as well as the completeness of narrative. Attention to intertextual discourses also has implications for how we ‘do’ narrative work. It becomes necessary to hold in mind both the narrative ‘parts’ and the discursive ‘whole’ as we explore the dynamic relations between them. Moreover, discourse analysis depends heavily on the analyst’s own familiarity with dominant cultural discourses if discourses are to be identified from the fragments that populate narrative accounts. The researcher’s constructive role is therefore highly visible, challenging the traditional ‘invisibility ‘ of the researcher and raising issues of reflexivity and research ethics as well as questions about the ‘truth’ and ‘validity’ of narrative work. The analysis of narrative and discourse together is, then, a microcosm of narrative research and its problems. It is beset with methodological uncertainties and theoretical complexities, but it also affords powerful possibilities for addressing both the socio-cultural dimensions of human lives, and all that is most ‘subjective’ about subjectivity.
The authors would like to thank Michael Rustin for his extensive contribution to the conceptual framing of this piece, and for his thorough and thoughtful comments on drafts. Thanks also to Phil Bradbury for his ideas on narrative methods, and his careful reading of the work.
References Bauman, Z. (1992) Intimations of Postmodernity, London: Routledge.
Berger, A. (1993) Narratives in Popular Culture, Media, and Everyday Life, London: Sage
Bollas, C. (1995) Cracking Up, London: Routledge
Denzin, N. (1989) Interpretive Biography, London: Sage.
Plummer, K. (1995) Telling Sexual Stories, London: Routledge.