Last updated: June 15, 2004
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[Narrative Psychology]

General Overview

 Narrative Psychology: Basics

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Background Issues

What is meant by "narrative psychology"? Is it a subfield of psychology in the ways developmental or cognitive or biological psychology are? Probably not. Rather, many theorists would claim that "narrative psychology" refers to a viewpoint or a stance within psychology which is interested in the "storied nature of human conduct" (Sarbin, 1986)--how human beings deal with experience by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. Psychologists studying narrative are challenged by the notion that human activity and experience are filled with "meaning" and that stories, rather than logical arguments or lawful formulations, are the vehicle by which that meaning is communicated. This dichotomy is expressed by Jerome S. Bruner (1986, 1990, 1991) as the distinction between "paradigmatic" and "narrative" forms of thought which, he claims, are both fundamental and irreducible one to the other. Sarbin (1986) proposes that "narrative" becomes a root metaphor for psychology to replace the mechanistic and organic metaphors which shaped so much theory and research in the discipline over the past century. Polkinghorne (1988) offers an especially broad introduction to the general notion of "narrative" including its study within psychology.

Theorists*Key Figures

Jerome Bruner (center) and Ted Sarbin (right) with Rita Charon (left) in May, 2003 at the Narrative Medicine Colloquium, Columbia University, New York.




Photo © 2003 Vincent Hevern

[Rita Charon, Jerome Bruner, Ted Sarbin]

Berger, P. L., & Luckman, T. (1963). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

This classic text in the sociology of knowledge has prompted much fundamental thinking about the nature of the social world and its dimensions as both an objective and subjective reality. Berger & Luckman argue about reciprocity in the establishment of both identity and social relations: "identity is formed by social processes. Once crystallized, it is maintained, modified, or even reshaped by social relations...Conversely, the identities produced by the interplay of organism, individual consciousness and social structure react upon the given social strucure, maintaining it, modifying it, or even reshaping it" (p. 173). For psychologists the epistemological framework of Berger and Luckman offers a bridge between the study of the individual and an understanding of larger social realities. A crucial work.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [BF38.B75 1986]

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.[BF455.B74 199]

This wonderful short book collects the talks Bruner gave in Jerusalem some years ago and explains his understanding of the importance of the issue of "meaning" in the psychological and other social sciences, the search for an understanding of the impact of culture upon human development, and the turn towards the autobiographical in psychological study. Bruner here expands upon his theory of "paradigmatic" and "narrative" as two modes of human thinking expressed originally in Bruner (1986).The endnotes provide a wealth of excellent references and tend to cite jewels across several literatures.

Bruner, J. S. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18, 1-21.

Bruner, J. S. (1994). The 'remembered" self. In U. Neisser & R. Fivush (Eds.), The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative (pp. 41-54). New York: Cambridge University Press. [BF378.A87R46 1994]

In this essay, Bruner summarizes many of the reflections he made in Acts of Meaning (1990) including his understanding of the self, how narrative represents one of several properties of the self, and what the nature of spontaneously-spoken autobiographies (one of Bruner's current fields of study) reveal about the function of narrative vis-a-vis the self.

Crossley, M. L. (2000). Introducing narrative psychology: Self, trauma, and the construction of meaning. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Crossley's well-received introduction offers a brief (200 pp.) but fairly comprehensive overview of the theoretical, analytic, and practical issues and questions regarding narrative psychology. Crossley is particuarly interested in narrative psychology's understanding of the nature and function of the self. A lecturer at the University of Manchester, she comes with a professional and scholarly commitment to both clinical and health psychology as primary arenas for the application of narrative. Hence, she illustrates the application of narrative psychology with chapter-length examples drawn from childhood sexual abuse and physical illness ("living with a long-term HIV-positive diagnosis"). Her theoretical background is particularly comfortable with authors and references from the academic world of the UK. Many of her chief themes are reflected even more concisely in her excellent article in Theory & Psychology (v. 10) noted immediately below.

Crossley, M. I. (2000). Narrative psychology, trauma, and the study of self/identity. Theory & Psychology, 10, 527-546.

Herman, D., Jahn, M., & Ryan, M.-L. (Eds.). (In preparation). The Routledge encyclopedia of narrative (RENT).

Scheduled for publication in 2005, editors David Herman, Manfred Jahn, & Marie-Laure Ryan are compiling a comprehensive one-volume resource (bound to be abbreviated as RENT) which is designed to examine 450 separate topics. The editors maintain online a provisional list of all planned entries and their associated cross-referenced concepts. This looks like it will become one of the fundamental cross-disciplinary resources for narrative psychologists. This entry is meant to alert browsers to its eventual appearance.

Hinchman, L., & Hinchman, S. (Eds.). (1997). Memory, identity, community: The idea of narrative in the human sciences. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

A selection of classic essays which illustrate the three main themes of the title.

Howard, G. S. (1991). Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46, 187-197. (see Russell & Lucariello, 1992, for critique.)

Narrative approaches to understanding human action have recently become more popular in several areas of psychology. Treating human thinking as instances of story elaboration offers numerous implications for many domains of psychological theory, research and practice. [see the resulting letters of response to this article in vol. 47, pp. 671-4 (May 1992)]

Josselson, R. (1995). Imaging the real: Empathy, narrative, and the dialogic self. In R. Josselson & A. Lieblich (Eds.), The Narrative Study of Lives (Vol. 3, pp. 27-44). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the verbal and visual arts (pp. 12-44). Seattle, WA: American Ethnological Society (University of Washington Press, distributor).

Seminal article by two scholars of linguistics outlines the basic elements of narrative & examines those elements in detail through the oral transcriptions of 14 interview excerpts.

Bamberg marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the classic essay of Labov and Waletsky (reproduced in this collection) by gathering together 47 new contributions to assess the impact of the original article within the context of narrative studies during the past 3 decades. This cross-disciplinary assembly of commentators represent a grouping of the many of the most important theorists and researchers working on narrative in the world today.

Mishler, E. G. (1979). Meaning in context: Is there any other kind? Harvard Educational Review, 49, 1-19.

Mishler argues that positivist research methods in the behavioral and social sciences tend to ignore the importance of context. Mishler surveys ways in which these inadequacies are demonstrated within different disciplines while proposing alternative, context-sensitive research approaches.

Mishler, E. G. (1995). Models of narrative analysis: A typology. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 5, 87-123.

Mishler proposes a theoretical set of models or a "typology" by which to achieve a sense of orderliness in the increasingly messy domain of study called "narrative."

Mitchell, W. J. T. (Ed.). (1981). On narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [P302.06 1981]

This important and basic collection of seventeen essays and rejoinders under Mitchell's editorship charts how people formulate, comprehend, and employ stories. The authors form an extraordinarily distinguished panel: historian Hayden White, psychoanalyst Roy Shafer, critics Jacques Derrida and Frank Kermode, philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and others. Hence, at their publication, these essays fairly represented the "state of the art" of narrative analysis across a multidisciplinary range. The articles in this volume originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry, 7, number 1 (Autumn 1980) and number 4 (Summer, 1981).

Murray, K. D. (1995). Narratology. In J. A. Smith, R. Harré, and L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Rethinking psychology (pp. 179-195). London: Sage Publications.

Murray provides an advanced overview of the origins of narrative psychology in critique of psychological experimentalism, cognitive and ethological contributions, and narrative as a solution to the problems of what stands between internal and external processes.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany, NY: State of New York University Press.

This extremely influential study attempts to bridge the gap between research and practice for social scientists who constantly work with the narratives of their clients and research subjects. Polkinghorne grounds his approach in a comprehensive synthesis of the narrative form as examined in literary criticism, historiography, and the various social science disciplines. The textbook for PSY 444.

Plummer, K. (2001). Documents of life 2: An invitation to a critical humanism (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage Publications.

In 1983, sociologist Ken Plummer published an important volume, Documents of life: An introduction to the problems and literature of a humanistic method, under the London imprint of George Allen & Unwin. Almost two decades have elapsed and Plummer has issued an extensively revised and updated edition through Sage. The focus of this text is the notion of "documents of life" -- be they diaries, films, letters, oral history recordings, etc. -- which permit us to understand individual lives with a depth and breadth not found in traditional sources of social science data. In those decades since his first volume, narratives and life documents have proliferated and caught the attention of many social scientists. In this revised edition, Plummer weighs these documentary sources and argues for their use (for which he gives broad historical and theoretical reviews of the literature) in achieving a "critical humanism". He is exquisitely sensitive to the blistering critiques of any form of "humanism" offered by many postmodern commentators; yet he maintains that social scientists must still seek to understand a human being as "always an embedded, dialogic, contingent, embodied, universal self with a moral (and political character)." (p. 262). This text draws deeply upon contemporary understandings of narrative (particularly in its middle and closing chapters) in developing approaches to the use of life documents within social science. The author's professional identity as a sociologist rather than psychologist is evident throughout. An especially valuable element of the text is the presence of short, annotated bibliographies of resources found at the end of each chapter. [View book description at Sage.]

Rosenwald, G. C., & Ochberg, R. L. (Eds.). (1992). Storied lives: The cultural politics of self-understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. [BF697.S844 1992]

The fourteen essays and the introductory and closing reflections of the editors are directed toward articulating the relationships between personal stories, cultural and political forces influencing these stories, and the processes of coming to a self-identity. The core of this volume also can be judged to provide an introduction to narrative psychology more generally.

Russell, R. L, & Lucariello, J. (1992). Narrative, yes: Narrative ad infinitum, no! American Psychologist, 47, 671-672.

This letter critiques Howard's (1991) broad assertion of the identity between mind and narrative in therapy. According to these authors, much more study and analysis at very fundamental levels are needed before psychology could adopt such a sweeping perspective as Howard proposes.

Sarbin, T. R. (Ed.). (1986). Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. New York: Praeger. [P302.7.N37 1986]

This is the first published compendium explicitly devoted to "narrative psychology." Sarbin has assembled eleven essays across four domains of interest: narrative in scientific theories (philosophical and epistemological issues), studies of narrative competence, the emplotment of self-narratives, and the constructing and deconstructing of self-narratives. The editors notes that "the essays make clear that story making, storytelling, and story comprehension are fundamental conceptions for a revived psychology" (p. vii).

Schwandt, T. A. (1997). Qualitative inquiry: A dictionary of terms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [H61.S4435 1997]

Though ostensibly a dictionary devoted to qualitative approaches to research, this excellent volume provides very valuable short essays and descriptors of many of the key terms used by narrative theorists and researchers. As the book's jacket blurb notes, Schwandt focuses "primarily on philosophical and methodological concepts rather than on technical aspects of methods and procedures." There are extensive general and key references and suggested readings as well as more specific bibliographical citations for individual concepts and terms. I suspect this volume will eventually be considered essential in the library of most students of the field as well as the bookshelves of established researchers.

Schwandt, T. A. (2001). Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

This is an updated version of his wonderful 1997 volume and contains more than 100 additional terms. Browsers can read the Sage Publications description here.


Serials Focusing Upon Narrative in the Social Sciences

[icon] Narrative Inquiry [NI; issued semi-annually]
(Originally, Journal of Narrative and Life History [JNLH; issued quarterly; ISSN 1053-6981])

Originally published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Hillsdale, NJ) as JNLH and, beginning with volume 8 (1998), by John Benjamins Publishing Company, (Amsterdam, Netherlands) as NI. Volume 1 was first issued in 1991. Michael Bamberg (Clark University) and Allyssa McCabe (Harvard University and University of Massachusetts, Lowell) continue as editors.

In the transition to NI, the editors have issued a new statement giving their editorial perspective for this continued journal.

Special issues of this journal have been devoted to these topics:

[tinysubhead icon] Narrative Study of Lives, The [TNSL; issued annually]

A book series published by the American Psychological Association with editorial offices at the Foley Center for the Study of Lives (Northwestern University). This series was originally published by Sage Publications (Newbury Park, CA). Volume 1 of the original series was first issued in 1993. The series began under the editorial direction of Ruthellen Josselson (Towson University) and Amia Lieblich (The Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem, Israel). They have been joined by Dan P. McAdams as a series editor.

Original Series (Sage). Each volume in the older Sage-published series contained between eight and eighteen longer articles exploring topics in the series' areas of interest. According to the editors, the "common denominator that comes to the fore [of articles published in volumes 1 and 2] has to do with the contributors' awareness of subjectivity and reflectivity in their means of knowing" as the researchers explore diverse psychological and social experiences from a narrative perspective. A distinctly international flavor has been displayed in the range of articles published in the first four volumes; contributors have come from the US and Israel as well as Australia, Canada, Swaziland, and the United Kingdom.

Current Series (American Psychological Association). The purpose of the current series is "to publish the best work being done today in psychology, sociology, and related disciplines pertaining to the narrative study of human lives. TNSL provides a forum for research and theorizing on narrative studies, life histories, psychobiographies, and other qualitative approaches to psychological inquiry." (from older TNSL site). Three volumes have been planned on these topics:

Other Serials

Theory and Psychology

"Theory & Psychology is a bi-monthly journal devoted to work with a broader meta-theoretical intent, examining such issues as the conceptual frameworks and foundations of psychology, its historical underpinnings, its relation to other human sciences, its methodological commitments, its ideological assumptions and its political and institutional contexts. Among its Editorial Aims, it attempts to foster dialogue among psychologists and between those interested in psychological analyses in other disciplines." (--taken from blurb at journal online site.)

Founded in 1991, this journal is neither exclusively nor predominantly devoted to narrative. It is, however, concerned with many of the broad issues of theory in psychology, often from a constructivist stance, which stand at the center of the narrative perspective itself. The journal is edited by Henderikus J. Stam of the University of Calgary and is published by Sage Publications [journal site at Sage]. The journal's online site at Calgary contains abstracts of all issues of the journal.


Internet Resources

The Virtual Faculty
Andrew Lock, Psychology Department
Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand

"This 'virtual faculty' began to form in late 1994. As faculty members we share a sufficient common interest...; perhaps the 'key plank' in [this] common interest is what has been termed ' the discursive turn ' (aka ' the second cognitive revolution ' [the phrase of Rom Harré]) that has begun to occur in a number of areas of contemporary psychology." (site blurb) The faculty includes Michael Bamberg, Lawrence Berg, Michael Billig, Nancy Budwig, Daniel Chandler, Michael Cole, Jeanne Curran, Bronwyn Davies, David Epston, Kenneth Gergen, Mary Gergen, Rom Harré, Vincent Hevern, Andrew Lock, Ian Parker, Joseph Petraglia, Jonathan Potter, Lois Shawver, John Shotter, and James Wertsch. [1/99]

Five related projects to the overall Virtual Faculty include:

  1. Daniel Chandler's (University of Wales, Aberystwyth) Media and Communications Study Page
  2. Joseph Petraglia's (Georgia Institute of Technology) for the study & teaching of rhetoric and software to support constructivist learning
  3. Jeanne Curran's (California State University, Dominguez Hills) Dear Habermas: A Postmodern Journal
  4. This webpage, Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide (Vincent Hevern, Le Moyne College)
  5. Lois Shawver's Postmodern Therapy News (not updated in about a year)

Centre for Narrative Research in the Social Sciences
Dept. of Human Relations
University of East London

Narrative Psychology [Kevin D. Murray, Australia]

storywise: Center for Narrative Studies
[2205 Washington Ave # 102 Silver Spring MD 20910; Voice: 301-585-5188]

This site and Center represents an eclectic resource willing to work in narrative modes across a range of issues. Directed by Australian Paul Costello and American, Kathie Hepler, the Center's origins include fields as diverse as pastoral counseling, creative writing and communications, teaching, and social and community renewal.


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When citing this document, you may wish to consider this form for the reference (derived from APA Style [5th ed.])

Hevern, V. W. (2004, March). Narrative Psychology: Basics. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved [enter date] from the Le Moyne College Web site:

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is copyright © 1996-2004 by Vincent W. Hevern, SJ, all rights reserved.

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