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.

A Few Pertinent Assumptions of the Narrative Approach:

  1. We become who we are through relationship - through the meaning we make of our perceptions of and interactions with each other.
  2. We organize our lives through stories.
  3. We can make many different stories or meanings of any particular event.
  4. 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.
  5. People are separate from problems. The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.

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.

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 American 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 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. We locate problems in discourses, rather than in individual minds or in "dysfunctional families."

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.

Narrative therapy is a post-structuralist therapy

Rather than seeking to classify individuals in terms of general classes or types, we seek specific details of each person, family, or community's identity.

Rather than valuing the knowledge of "experts," we value local knowedge.  (We don't give ourselves expert status, with the power to define people's identities. We emphasize the power people have to define themselves according to their own knowledge of the details of their lives.)

Rather than interpreting and valuing individual lives according to universal rules or norms, we focus on how people live out and lay claim to meaningful lives with reference to their chosen, local values.

Rather than assigning meaning to people's life stories by fitting them into universal, general structures, we focus on people's power to construct meaningful lives through the stories they tell, enact, and remember in day-to-day life with each other.

Rather than focusing on "thin conclusions" (numbers, statistics, charts, pigeonholes), we value "thick descriptions" of people and their particular, local cultures.

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 people 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.

Unpack and unmask problem-supporting stories and discourses.

Listen for openings (unique outcomes, alternative possibilities, experiences that would not have been predicted) in problematic stories.

Expand unpredicted experiences by asking questions that invite people to retell, develop, and immerse themselves in the stories of these experiences 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.)

  1. What sort of "selves" and relationships does this model/theory/practice bring forth?

  2. How does this model/theory/practice press you to conduct yourself with people who are seeking your help?

  3. How does it invite them to conduct themselves with you?

  4. How does it have them "treat" themselves? "see" themselves?

  5. How are these people being redescribed or redefined by this model/theory/ practice?

  6. Does it invite people to see therapists or themselves as experts on themselves?

  7. Does it divide and isolate people or give them a sense of community and collaboration?

  8. 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?)

  9. 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?

  10. 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?


Michel Foucalt

"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