Narrative and Post-Structural Theory
The notes on this page are taken from handouts that Jill and Gene have used in their workshops over the years. Please feel free to use them and circulate them, as long as you are careful to credit the source.
"As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next--as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet." —Michel Foucault
A Few Pertinent Assumptions of the Narrative Approach:
- We become who we are through relationship - through the meaning we make of other's perceptions and of us and interactions with us.
- We organize our lives through stories.
We can make many different stories or meanings of any particular event.
There are many experiences in each of our lives that have not been “storied.” Each of those events could, if storied, lead to a different, often preferable, life narrative.
- The dominant discourses in our society powerfully influence what gets storied and how it gets storied.
A discourse is a system of words, actions, rules, beliefs, and institutions that share common values. Particular discourses sustain particular worldviews. We might even think of a discourse as a worldview in action.
Discourses tend to be invisible--taken for granted as part of the fabric of reality.
- Locating problems in particular discourses helps us see people as separate from their problems.
We seek to identify the discourses that support problematic stories. Once a problem is linked to a problematic discourse, we can more easily help people oppose the discourse or chose to construct their relationship in line with a different, preferred, discourse.
Characteristics of the Narrative Worldview
We work with meaning, and we believe that the meaning of life events comes from the stories that people tell themselves and each other about those events.
The same events can be storied in a variety of ways and these different ways will make a difference in how life is experienced.
HOWEVER, in order to make a lasting and significant difference, new stories must "fit" and they must be different in particular ways.
The dominant discourses in our society powerfully influence what gets "storied" and how it gets storied.
A discourse is a system of words, actions, rules, and beliefs that share common values. Particular discourses sustain particular worldviews. We might even think of a discourse as a worldview in action.
Example: The meaning of the word "men" in the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence has changed as the discourses surrounding who can own land, vote, and hold political office have changed. It originally referred to adult, white, male, landowners. It now refers, in many people's minds at least, to adults of all genders and skin colors whether or not they own property.
Discourses tend to be invisible, that is, they are taken for granted as part of the fabric of "reality."
In narrative therapy, we seek to identify the discourses that support problematic stories.
Locating problems in particular discourses helps us see people as separate from the problems that beset them. That is, not to locate problems as residing in individual minds or in "dysfunctional families," but in discourses.
When we succeed in this perceptual shift, we see a whole different world, one in which the discourses that support problems become more visible. In this world, we can more easily oppose, undermine, or alter the influence of those discourses, making robust, viable non-problematic life stories more possible.
Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (Narrative therapy is a post-structuralist therapy)
How they view identity, personhood, and power
Seeks to classify individuals in terms of general classes or types.
Expert knowledge is valued. (Experts have the power to define people's identities. They know more about people's personhood than the people themselves.)
Surface phenomena hold the clues to deep identity. Only expert specialists have the power to accurately decode surface clues.
Individual lives are interpreted and valued according to rules or norms.
Experts have the power to assign meaning to people's life stories by decoding the formulas that underlie their structure.
Thin conclusions are valued.
Seeks specific details of people's identity.
Local knowledge is valued. (People have the power to define themselves based on their own knowledge of the details of their lives.)
Surface phenomena are all we can really know. Each of us has the power to interpret surface phenomena.
Individual lives are valued and interpreted in terms of how they embody exceptions to what might have been expected.
People have the power to construct meaningful lives through the stories they enact, tell, and remember with one another.
Thick descriptions are valued.
In the day-to-day work of narrative therapy, we:
Start by seeking to join people in their particular experiential worlds (not by educating them about ours).
Listen to what they say as stories: not "facts" or clues to deep meaning or symptoms to diagnose, etc.
Try to understand the stories through which people are currently organizing their lives and what they find problematic about those stories.
Strive to perceive people as separate from their problems.
This tends to unpack and unmask problem-supporting stories and discourses. (This process is an important part of "deconstruction.")
Listen for openings (exceptions, unique outcomes) in problematic stories.
Expand openings by asking questions that invite people to retell and re-experience the openings so that they become rich, thick narratives whose meanings may be able to overshadow the meanings of the problematic stories.
Collaborate, through the use of reflecting teams, letters, documents, and communities of concern, in the circulation of the preferred stories so that they have an audience.
Some questions pertaining to ethics from a narrative perspective (The following points derive from a list that David Epston shared with us. He and Michael White developed it years ago.)
What sort of "selves" and relationships does this model/theory/practice bring forth?
How does this model/theory/practice press you to conduct yourself with people who are seeking your help?
How does it invite them to conduct themselves with you?
How does it have them "treat" themselves? "see" themselves?
How are these people being redescribed or redefined by this model/theory/ practice?
Does it invite people to see therapists or themselves as experts on themselves?
Does it divide and isolate people or give them a sense of community and collaboration?
Do the questions asked lead in generative or in normative directions? (i.e. Do they propose "tailor-made" projects for living or do they conserve "one-size-fits-all" ways?)
Does this theory/model/practice require the person to enter the therapist's "expert" knowledge or does it require the therapist to enter the worlds of the people seeking help?
What is its definition of "professionalism"? Does its idea of professionalism have more to do with the therapist's presentation of self to colleagues and others or more to do with the therapist's presentation of self to the person(s) seeking their assistance?
At Evanston Family Therapy Center, we offer workshops and supervision that provide experience in these new ways of thinking and working. View our current offerings for workshops and trainings, sign up to receive e-mail updates, or contact us with any questions or comments about narrative ideas or trainings you would like to see come to the Evanston Family Therapy Center.