Narratives in action

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Narratives in action Article in Narrative Inquiry · December 2005 Impact Factor: 0.56 · DOI: 10.1075/ni.16.1.15ger





2 authors: Mary M. Gergen Pennsylvania State University 42 PUBLICATIONS 984 CITATIONS SEE PROFILE

Kenneth J. Gergen Swarthmore College 268 PUBLICATIONS 8,430 CITATIONS SEE PROFILE

Available from: Kenneth J. Gergen Retrieved on: 18 April 2016

Narratives in action Mary M. Gergen and Kenneth J. Gergen Penn State University / Swarthmore College

In various professional fields today, a profusion of practices are inspired by or draw sustenance from narrative inquiry; similarly, narrative inquiry must attend to these practices as they are vital to its future. Ultimately a full fledged dialogue between scholars and practitioners is to be sought. We review three major domains in which narratives are in action: psychotherapy, organizational change, and conflict reduction. We conclude by taking up theoretical issues raised by these practices. Of particular concern are questions of why narratives are effective in social change, and what theoretical orientations are most adequate to the challenge of practice. (Narrative, Social Construction, Therapy, Organizational Change, Mediation, Conflict Reduction)

Over the past three decades, scholarly inquiry into narrative has yielded an enormously rich, sophisticated, and catalytic body of literature (cf. Josselson & Lieblich, 1993; Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992; Sarbin, 1986). However, it is also important to weigh the value of such literature within society more generally. Few would be content with the idea that scholarly interchange is essentially hermetic, an activity the sole purpose of which is to stimulate further writing within the ivory tower. At the same time, scholars have devoted far too little effort to considering narratives in action, the ways in which narrative ideas can and do function within various practical settings. The purpose of the present offering is to open the door to the realm of narrative practice. We think this is a vital entree because a profusion of professional practices is inspired by or drawing sustenance from narrative inquiry more generally. Not only does an appreciation of the “state of the art” in narrative demand attention to these developments, but in our view it is vital to the future of narrative inquiry in the academy to engage with them. Questions of considerable importance to theory and research are stimulated by these practices, and ultimately a full fledged dialogue between scholars and practitioners is to be sought. In what follows, we offer a rapid tour through some of the major domains in which narratives are in action. While space limitations prevent more than a scanning of the terrain, there are major accomplishments in the domains of psychotherapy, Requests for further information should be directed to Ken and Mary Gergen, Dept. of Psychology, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA 19081. E-mail: [email protected]

Narrative Inquiry 16:1 (2006), 112–121. issn 1387–6740 / e-issn 1569–9935 © John Benjamins Publishing Company

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organizational change, and conflict reduction. We shall conclude by taking up several theoretical issues raised by this work.

Narrative therapy All forms of therapy are lodged within some form of narrative. Psychoanalysis, for example, is based on a story of emerging repression with cure depending on the lifting of such repression through psychoanalytic treatment (Book, 2004; Polkinghorne, 1988; Schaffer, 1981; Spence, 1982). Rogerian therapists are committed to a story of the individual confronting conditional positive regard, and thus losing the capacity for self-actualization. The therapist’s unconditional regard enables the individual to regain direction (Rogers, 1959). Cognitive-behavioral therapy involves narrative explanations of how treatment practices alter cognitive orientations (A. T. Beck, 1979; J. Beck, 1995). However, within recent decades the increasing consciousness of narrative has culminated in a therapeutic movement, commonly identified as narrative therapy (see Angus & McLeod, 2004). There are many different ways in which narratives are employed in such work. Some therapists see stories as a means of building a new life trajectory after a loved one has passed away (Neimeyer, 2001); others help clients to locate self-defining memories for use in building an integrated identity (Singer & Blagov, 2004); still others comb aspects of narrative into existing therapeutic paradigms, such as existential and gestalt therapy (Angus, Lewin, Bouffard, & Rotondi-Trevisan, 2004; ). Most widely known is the work of Michael White at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia, along with his colleague David Epston of the Family Therapy Centre in Auckland, New Zealand (White & Epston, 1990). At the heart of the approach is a concern with the client’s personal story and the way in which this story embodies and sustains the problems the client brings into therapy. In this sense, the “narrative is the problem.” The ultimate goal of narrative therapy is to transform narrative constructions so as to enhance client wellbeing. The attempt is to remove feelings of self-blame and guilt for one’s failures and misfortunes and to build a new and more promising future. Therapists help clients to construct alternative interpretations of their life circumstances and assist them in becoming aware of the social/cultural forces impinging upon them. It has also become apparent that building a new “narrative to live by” is not simply a matter of inventing a new discourse. The new narrative must be both believable (i.e., linked to existing life conditions as the client understands them), and “actionable,” (capable of being put into daily practice). Therapists thus search for means of “scaffolding” the newly emerging narrative. Perhaps the chief form of scaffolding is to draw from raw material of the client’s original story. In effect, the new story carries with it some of the more compelling “fabula” of the old. Another major process employed by narrative therapists is externalization. The attempt here is essentially to split the major protagonist in the story into two, one the self, and the other external to the self. By and large clients bring into therapy a story in which the problem and the self are one, as in

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“I am depressed,” or “I cannot control my anger.” In externalization the depression or anger are placed outside, as alien protagonists. Epston and colleagues (Epston, Morris & Maisel, 1995), for example, have frequently worked with anorexic patients using this method. By suggesting that the anorexia is an enemy striving to inhabit one’s body, the therapist assists the patient to “fight” against it. In this narrative, the personification of anorexia as the externalized antagonist allows the client to become the heroine of the story, emerging victorious in a battle against this evil force. Of particular concern to many narrative therapists is the manner in which discriminatory societal practices have encouraged groups of people to accept self-derogating stories. Aboriginal people in Australia and the Maori in New Zealand are among those with whom White and Epston have been particularly concerned. For these groups, White and Epston see narrative work as politically relevant and important as a liberating process. In the same manner, Epston’s work with anorexics sensitizes clients to the inimical “culture of thinness” celebrated in advertising and women’s clothing styles. The fight against the anorexia is thus expanded into a social protest against the unlivable idealizations of women. Of special concern to future scholarly work, narrative therapists are divided at this point on the issue of narrative coherence. On the one side are therapists who believe therapy enable the client to move toward greater narrative coherence (Salvatore et al, 2006) — thus favoring a stabilized or anchored sense of being. On the other, are those who view the individual as embedded in complex social relationship requiring multiple narratives in varied contexts (Gergen & Kaye, 1992). Discussion of these issues is currently active (see the Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19, 2006, the Special Issue on Narrative Coherence).

Organizational transformation Narrative scholars in the field of organizational studies have been quick to see potentials in the postmodern emphasis on rhetorical tropes such as metaphor and narrative. Gareth Morgan’s major book, Images of the Organization, a treatise on a metaphorical understanding of organizations, was first published in 1986. This was also followed by various inquiries into the significance of narrative in organizational life (Boje, 1991; Cobb, 1993; Czarniawski, 1998; Gabriel, 2000). In both the case of metaphor and narrative, one of the chief ideas is that such tropes are significant to participants in centering the meaning of the organization. For example, if the shared understanding of the organization is as a “machine,” this metaphor emphasizes efficiency and the impersonal character of workers as the “cogs” in the machine; a “family” metaphor can foster images of convivial action and dedication to a mission, as well as “family feuds” and patriarchal power (see for example, Denning, 2005). Indeed, many programs of leadership training place a strong emphasis on capacities for story telling, However, as organizational consultants have become increasingly sensitized to the significance of narrative, new forms of change practice have also spread at a rapid rate.

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One of the most compelling practices is committed to the view that narratives are more effective when employed in dialogue among organizational participants than promulgated monologically by management. This practice, called Appreciative Inquiry [AI], is now used internationally (Barrett & Fry, 2005; Cooperrider & Avital, 2004; Watkins & Mohr, 2001; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2003). The goal of AI is to bring about organizational change through a radical alternative to problem-solving approaches. Rather than solving the organization’s problems, the AI consultant enables the organization to articulate and activate its positive core values. The discovery of these values relies on personal narratives produced by members of the organization. Frequently participants pair up to share a story about a time when they participated in an activity that brought success, joy, discovery or increased coordination to the organization. These stories are then collected and shared in increasingly larger meetings of the organization. From these stories, positive themes are extracted, and participants then use these themes to generate designs for future of the organization. Besides being very effective in creating change, the AI process is one that typically builds enthusiasm and commitment among the participants. With significant support from upper management, participants trust the process and become committed to the new programs and policies to be enacted.

Narratives and conflict reduction. Both theorists and practitioners in conflict resolution have long been aware that antagonistic parties live in different constructions of reality (Briggs, 1996). In classic dispute and bargaining practices a strong emphasis is placed on the particular goals of various parties, and discussion centers on how both parties can maximize them. Dialogue is often based on the theory that rational arguments will yield proper solutions. Through these means the attempt is to reach some form of viable compromise. Yet, while practicable, these traditional practices are problematic in several respects. First, both parties often find themselves frustrated and unfulfilled by the outcome. Further, the definition of the parties as antagonists persists. Contracts may be concluded and change may take place, but little appreciation of the other’s position occurs. With the increased consciousness of narrative, new and more promising forms of conflict reduction have begun to appear. Attempting to replace litigation and bargaining as a form of conflict resolution, many mediation practitioners now turn to narrative mediation in which all parties come to believe they have engaged in a win/ win encounter (Winslade & Monk, 2001). A first step in narrative mediation involves deconstructing the usual conflict-saturated story that narrows the antagonists’ perspectives to the problematic issue, as well as to the entitlements, such as seniority, age, or gender, that are the basis of the problem-story. Throughout the process the mediator takes a collaborative stance, expresses respect for all parties, and emphasizes that they must all working together to create new relationships. Rather than dictating the terms of the agreement, the mediator demonstrates great curiosity about potentials for new stories and helps the parties to externalize issues within the conversation so

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that the problem becomes detached from the personalities. The consultant attempts to discover the non-conflictual and overlapping elements in the narratives so that the re-storying of the conflict becomes possible. If it is to continue to thrive, the newly shared story must be supported by continuous follow-up, adequate documentation, and written agreements. Narrative practices are also successfully employed in cases of extreme or intractable conflict. An example is furnished by the work of the Public Conversation Project ( The core of their specific practice is the telling of stories by individuals who do not share the same views about important public issues. One of their original projects was related to the issue of abortion, crystallized in the public media as two opposing positions: pro-choice vs. pro-life. Unlike many other approaches, the goal of the practice is not to change people’s positions, but to deepen understanding of the positions of others. Of course, in the process of learning about others, some form of change does occur. As one of the central activities of the Public Conversation Project, participants tell stories of how they came to have their beliefs about the issue at stake. This leads to a round of storytelling in which people are deeply involved, and emotionally expressive. Others who listen are often enthralled by the stories, which reveal private experiences, emotional commitments, strongly held values and hard choices. The storytelling process is important in that it eliminates the tendency to argue against a point of view. It is socially difficult and even rude to directly challenge or undermine a personal life story. Lastly, the commingling of personal stories highlights the overlap among the participants in many ways. People may not agree on certain important endpoints, but they share many things along the way. Other practitioners rely on narrative for their work in the international arena. It has long been recognized that narratives may serve as a means for non-violent conflict resolution (Beck, 1996). With the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used public storytelling as a major means of healing. In the Middle East the non-profit organization, PRIME, collects oral histories from Palestinians and Israelis, and enters them into a computer archive. The narratives are made available to school teachers in both languages to be used in their classes to create mutual understanding and a shared history. Daniel Bar-on (2002), for example, has brought holocaust survivors and descendants of Nazi perpetrators together to share stories of their lives, and to bring about reconciliation among them. An offspring of this program is the Northern Ireland program, Towards Healing and Understanding, which works with Catholics and Protestants toward peace. For an outline of other relevant programs, the interested reader may consult the website These developments in therapy, organizational change, and conflict resolution scarcely exhaust the range of practices now in motion. While space limitations prevent a full account, narrative has played a prominent role, for example, in practices of community building. One multifaceted endeavor is Imagine Chicago originated by Bliss Browne and her co-workers. Through various forms of dialogue, including storytelling, Browne and her colleagues have created numerous

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community building programs in vast partnerships within the city. In one of their first projects in 1993–1994, fifty at-risk teen-agers interviewed 140 business, community and cultural leaders, asking them to tell stories of the high point of their lives as citizens, what their hopes were for the city’s future, and how to help people to work together to achieve these goals. The project culminated in a day long “imagination celebration” in which the outcomes of these stories were shared by the participants at a large community gathering. Through narrative practices Imagine Chicago has helped to bring a new vitality to the city. In the area of law, practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which the outcome of trials is dependent upon the narrative properties of the cases being made (Amsterdam and Bruner, 2001). In medicine, most provocative at this point is the potential for using narratives in practices of pain management. As proposed by Arthur Frank (1995) the way in which pain is narratively figured for the individual has significant impact on the intensity of pain. (See also Carr, Loeser & Morris, 2005).

Theoretical issues emerging from practice While narrative practices are often informed by scholarly inquiry, they also raise challenging questions for theoretical deliberation. In this final section we wish to open discussion on two of the most prominent issues, narrative efficacy and theoretical adequacy.

The question of efficacy As we have seen, there are numerous practices in which the insertion of narratives into ongoing interchange can alter the future of relationships. The practices of Appreciative inquiry, the Public Conversations Project, and narrative mediation are representative. Of theoretical concern, however, is why narrative should prove so effective in these practices. Narration may be contrasted with many other forms of discourse, such as argument, rational assessment, future visioning, and so on. However, as many practitioners concur, there is something particularly effective about listening to others’ narratives that crosses boundaries of meaning and brings people into a state of mutuality. Drawing from this literature, we suggest the following possibilities: 1. Receptivity. Story telling is often associated with pleasure, entertainment, and conviviality. Stories form the basis for plays, games, jokes, operas; they provide humor, drama, gossip, and the grounds for sociability. In effect, when told a story the listener may be in a maximum posture of receptivity. 2. Familiarity. Virtually all members of a culture carry with them a vast repository of stories. Stories are a major vehicle of communication throughout the life course. Narratives also have structural properties that are similar to one another. They have recognizable beginnings and endings and are typically built around a point of signif-

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icant hedonic value. As a result, there is enhanced receptivity. One does not struggle to comprehend them, as is the case with many abstract arguments. 3. Witness Trust. The storyteller positions him/herself as a witness. High credibility often accrues to witnesses; they are trusted sources of evidence. Eyewitness testimony in courts of law is only one example. In effect, the account of a storyteller gains important status as truth. 4. Empathic Witnessing. Audiences who listen to a story from a witness become themselves second-order witnesses. They create for themselves the visual images, sounds, and visceral responses of the witness. One might say that they engage in empathic listening, in which they come to feel with the storyteller. In this way a sense of intimacy is can be created. For the empathic witness, it is difficult to stand outside as analyst or critic. 5. Recreating the Self. All people harbor multiple stories of self and world. Only a small number of these may be salient in any one context. Typically under conditions of conflict, one’s stories of self will be constrained; focal attention will be on the ways in which self differs from others. The potentials for polyvocality are reduced. Yet, in listening to another’s story, one privately takes on various roles, most typically that of the protagonist. In playing out the part of the protagonist, polyvocality is restored. Recessive personae may be thrust into salience. And most importantly, the emerging self may resemble the person who is otherwise an antagonist. “I now recall when I have felt like he did….” There may indeed be other significant reasons for the efficacy of narratives. In our view, however, the most important challenge for the scholar is that of developing a theory of listening relationally. How are we to understand the act of communication such that certain forms of talk can potentially bring about change in action. This challenge is closely related to a second important question.

Theoretical adequacy Practitioners are often not fully steeped in the academic literature on narrative. Yet, while not fully articulated, most practices can be traced to one or more theoretical positions. At the same time, every theory will invite certain courses of action, while constraining exploration of others. In this context it is useful to consider existing theories of narrative as related to action: in what respects are they adequate to the challenges of practice; where are their shortcomings; what new theoretical departures are invited? In brief, we find there are three major theoretical orientations that currently inform many existing practices. There is first a view of narrative as a cognitive structure or schema through which we understand the world, and which may guide our actions within it (see for example, Mandler, 1984; Shank & Abelson, 1977). In contrast, from a social constructionist perspective, narratives are discursive actions. They derive their significance from the way in which they are employed within relationships (see for example, Gergen & Gergen, 1988). Falling between these extremes,

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are orientations that locate the source of narrative within social relationships, but see them as incorporated into the personal functioning of the individual. As it may be said, one lives through the story (M.Gergen, 2001; McAdams, 1997). The cognitive view is most evident in various practices that presume that one’s private stories guide or direct action. When one embraces a new narrative, it is held, one’s course of action can and will change accordingly. While quite plausible in certain respects, this view suffers on several counts. At the outset, there is no adequate explanation of how a narrative structure can dictate action, and particularly as conditions of action are constantly in motion. One might say that the cognitive theorist still carries the weight of the mind-body problem. Further, there is little account in the cognitive view of the motivational antecedents necessary to place the cognition into action. One may possess a template for action, but never activate it. Further, the cognitive theorist must confront the problem of acquisition. If one understands the world through a narrative schema, how did was the first schema ever acquired? Understanding narratives as discursive action is particularly relevant to practices that place an emphasis on social interchange. To the extent that narratives are lodged within relationships, and appropriated by individuals for use in various contexts, they become major levers for human change. If narration plays a critical role within our relationships, making us intelligible to each other, bringing us into consensus, and creating divisions, then alterations in discourse hold important promise for enhancing otherwise problematic relationships. Thus, when narrative therapists attend to narrative efficacy, and conflict resolution specialists design conditions of dialogue, this view is particularly relevant. Given our constructionist orientation, it should come as little surprise that we favor the discursive orientation (Gergen, 1999; Gergen & Gergen, 2004). Given its non-dualistic character, the discursive position avoids almost all the pitfalls of cognitivism. At the same time, because of its anti-dualism, the discursive position lacks an account of psychological functioning. Given the strong commitment in western culture to a mental ontology, this lack may equate discursive theory with black box behaviorism. Further, while rich in implication for action, the discursive orientation is weak in terms of specific recommendations. One may appreciate that narratives play a significant function within relations, but this appreciation carries no specifiable marching orders for action. The view of narrative as an acquired disposition may solve some of the problems faced by the strictly discursive position. If narratives are absorbed into one’s own mode of functioning, are used with some frequency, and embedded within certain courses of action, it may be said that one comes to live the narrative. Such an orientation is very useful in practices concerned with changing otherwise stabilized forms of action, whether evidenced by a client in therapy or ideological antagonists. By identifying sustaining narratives, options for transformation become narrowed. Certain practices may be favored and others discarded. Yet, in terms of theoretical challenge, there is no extant account of this process of personal absorption that does not implicitly rely on some form of mental realism. Invited at this juncture is an account of human change in which all that we have understood as distinctly psychological can be understood in terms of relational action.

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