The function of narrative: Toward a narrative psychology of meaning
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The function of narrative: Toward a narrative psychology of meaning Brian Schiff Department of Psychology The American University of Paris [email protected] What is narrative? What is narrative psychology?. “Narrative” is an elusive concept. The term is stretched and overextended.

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What is narrative what is narrative psychology

The function of narrative: Toward a narrative psychology of meaningBrian SchiffDepartment of PsychologyThe American University of [email protected]


What is narrative what is narrative psychology

What is narrative? What is narrative psychology?

  • “Narrative” is an elusive concept.

  • The term is stretched and overextended.

  • Psychology, like the other social sciences, appears to be content with an imprecise metaphor.

  • As Hyvärinen (2006) argues, in the social sciences, the something else is, often, life.


Why define the metaphor

Why define the metaphor?

  • The narrative metaphor should be sufficiently open to include a broad range of research and dissent.

  • But, it should be specific enough such that:

  • We know what narrative is.

  • Why we are doing narrative.

  • It should direct us to innovative ways of understanding human lives.


Is narrative a structure or a function

Is narrative a structure or a function?

  • There is a tendency to understand narrative as a structural concept.

  • The lines between what is narrative and not narrative are often fuzzy (Herman, 2009; Ryan, 2007).

  • To psychologists and others, who are interested in narrative because of the way that narratives are involved in how persons make sense of life, the issue of structure is secondary.


Narrative functions

Narrative functions

  • The structural properties of narrative are important and complimentary.

  • However, narrative is special because of the meanings that speech and other expressions are able to produce, create and inhabit.

  • How narrating functions to manage meanings.

  • Narrative is important because of what can be done or accomplished with narrative.


Narrative is a verb

Narrative is a verb

  • Narrative is a dynamic process.

  • Narrative should be thought of as a verb, to “narrate” or “narrating”, rather than the noun form “narrative.”

  • Conceptual similarities with the related forms “to tell,” “to show,” and “to make present.”

  • Narrating is an expressive event, unfolding in space and time.


Describing narrative functions

Describing narrative functions

  • Categories are beginning points, which should serve as ways of thinking about narrating.

  • As I see it, the primary function of narrating is to “make present.”

  • Three ways of thinking about making present.

  • Declarative. To give presence to subjective experience.

  • Temporal. To give meaning to the past, present and future.

  • Spatial (social). To co-create (shared and divergent) understandings of the world.


Making present as showing

Making present as “showing”

  • Making present can be thought of as a variety of showing.

  • Telling makes known.

  • It is declarative.

  • “To give presence to.”

  • Telling objectifies our subjective experience and projects it into the world of social life.

  • In making present, speakers are making claims about the reality of their experiences or knowledge.

  • There is always a gap between what we know and experience and what we tell (Josselson, 2004).

  • However, narrative is, arguably, the closest that we can get to experience and our understanding of experience.


Making present in time and space

Making present in time and space

  • Narrating is always making present at some specific time and place.

  • In a very real sense, experience is made present here and now.

  • Bakhtin’s (1981) concept of the chronotope.


Locating narrating

Locating narrating

Source: Page 80.

Young, K. (2004). Frame and boundary in the phenomenology of narrative. In M. Ryan (Ed.) Narrative across the media: The languages of storytelling (pp. 76-107). Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.


Making present in time

Making present in time

  • Mark Freeman (2010) argues that one of the proper functions of narrative is reflecting on and making sense of the past.

  • For Freeman, understanding is always from the perspective of the present, looking backward, what he calls hindsight.

  • Hindsight is a kind of “recuperative disclosure.”

  • It is, he writes, an “agent (sic) of insight and rescue, recollection and recovery, serving to counteract the forces of oblivion (p. 44).”

  • He continues, a little later, “Or, to put the matter more philosophically, it is a making-present of the world in its absence; it is thus seen to provide a kind of ‘supplement’ to ordinary experience, serving to draw out features of the world that would otherwise go unnoticed (emphasis added, p. 54).”

  • It is really, as Bert Cohler (1982) argues, a “presently understood past.”


Making present together in space

Making present (together) in space

  • Other people are the most salient aspect of space.

  • Making present in space implies locating ourselves in a given conversation.

  • The imagery is one of being physically present in an ongoing “scene of talk” (Herman, 2009).

  • A social performance (Bauman, 1986).

  • In which we enter into and exit from conversational turns (Sacks, Schlegoff & Jefferson, 1974).

  • We gain our “footing” in the conversation at hand (Goffman, 1981).

  • We “position” ourselves in relation to what is being said, to the others present and to larger identity discourses (Bamberg, 2004; Georgakopoulou, 2007; Wortham, 2000, 2001).


Making present together in space1

Making present (together) in space

  • The ability to tell stories is first acquired through the child’s participation in storytelling activities with others who are more expert (Fivush & Nelson, 2006).

  • There are sound theoretical and empirical reasons to argue that all narrations, even in adulthood, are co-narrations.

  • The end result is to make present together joint understandings of self, others, the world, the past.

  • However, co-telling doesn’t lead necessarily to consensus.

  • It can also be a vehicle for bringing forward and expressing competing versions of reality.


What are the implications of this theoretical analysis for narrative psychology

What are the implications of this theoretical analysis for narrative psychology?

  • Narrative psychology should focus on the process of meaning making.

  • How do persons (in time and space) make sense of life?

  • In my opinion, this is what narrative research is all about.

  • Narrative can grapple with meaning and do so in a way that is scientific, complex and grounded in expressions in time and in context.

  • Further work on narrative functions should be grounded in actual observations of interviews and other conversations.

  • Turning toward the concrete circumstances in which life experience is made present.

  • Closely tying our observations to human lives.


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