Last updated: June 6, 2003

[Narrative Psychology]

 Topics in Narrative Psychology

 The Self in Narrative

. . . And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

-from The Idea of Order at Key West , by Wallace Stevens

Background  ||  Internet  ||  Bibliographical  ||  Theorists



Background Issues

Who are we? What does psychology understand by the notion of "self"? What is the nature of our identity? These are questions originally posed by philosophy, but now stand as prime issues within psychology. Narrative approaches to the study of identity and self focus upon questions such as

Both the general, theoretical works mentioned immediately below as well as the specific autobiographies listed elsewhere serve to offer a starting point for the discussion of these questions and many others.

See, also, Personality, Psychobiography, and Psychology of the Life Story and the resources related to Dan McAdams

Theorists*Key Figures

Internet Resouces

Resource Sources on Concepts of Person and Self
Shawn Gallagher (Philosophy & Cognitive Science)
Canisius College, Buffalo, NY

The most extensive online set of resources on the general issue of personhood and selfhood.

Selfhood (Psychology 319)
David Leary (University Professor)
University of Richmond

On this course page, historian and psychologist, David Leary, presents a comprehensive set of pedagogical materials for his course on the nature of Selfhood. Materials include a syllabus and a lengthy bibliography of sources. His course takes narrative as a significant focus in its review of historical and contemporary approaches to the self.


Bibliographical Resources

+Barclay, C. R. (1994).Composing protoselves through improvisation. In U. Neisser & R. Fivush (Eds.), The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative (pp. 55-77). New York: Cambridge University Press. [BF378.A87R46 1994]

Barclay, C. R. & Smith, T. S. (1993). Autobiographical remembering and self-composing. International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, 15, 1-25.

Bruner, J. (1993). The autobiographical process. In R. Folkenflik (Ed.), The culture of autobiography: Constructions of self-representations (pp. 38-56). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [CT25.C84 1993]

+Bruner, J. (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]

Bruner accepts a more active, constructive understanding of the self-narrative and, thus, does not accept the term "remembered self". He stresses notions of agency and discusses his own recent work on autobiographical processes.

Bruner, J., & Weisser, S. (in preparation). Autobiography and the construction of the self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Conway, M. A., Rubin, D. C., Spinnler, H., & Wagenaar, W. A. (Eds.). (1992). Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Overview, conceptual issues, social construction and the development of autobiographical memory, cognitive perspectives, autobiographical memory across the lifespan, autobiographical memory and emotion, neurological impairments, autobrographical memory in perspective. Proceeedings of the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Theoreticl Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory, Grange-over-Sands, UK, July 4-12, 1991.

Cushman, P. (1990). Why the self is empty: Toward a historically situated psychology. American Psychologist, 45, 599-611

Cushman provides a theory of contemporary "selves" in Western culture within the social context of the post-World War II era. He describes the self as "empty" in response to cultural forces and charts how people continually seek to "fill" themselves with food, consumer products, and celebrity. He charts the role of advertising and psychotherapy in creating this empty self without being able to satisfy it. An expanded and elaborated version of this viewpoint if found in Cushman (1995).

Cushman, P. (1995) Constructing the self, contstructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

See Cushman (1990) above.

Fivush, R. (1991). The social construction of personal narratives. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 37, 59-82.

Fox-Keller, E. (1995, December). Changing the subject of science and psychoanalysis: Problems of agency and authority in a post-modern world (Cassette Recording Nos. GS1-10105-95 ). Address presented at the 39th Winter Meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge, MA. [Cassette available from Audio Transcripts, Ltd., 335 South Patrick Street, Suite 220, Alexandria, VA 22314]

+Freeman, M. (1993) Rewriting the self: History, memory, narrative. New York: Routledge. [BF378.A87F74 1992]

An exploration of the process by which people re-interpret the meaning and significance of past experience. Drawing on the lives of such autobiographers as St. Augustine, Helen Keller, and Philip Roth as well as the insights of psychology, philosophy, and literary theory, the book sheds light on the intricacies & dilemmas of self-interpretation. [from book cover blurb] Brilliant book. Won the Alpha Sigma Nu National Book Award in Social Science.

Gergen, K. J. (1991). From self to relationship. The staturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life (pp. 139-170). New York: BasicBooks.

In the sixth chapter of his general volume, Gergen explores the psychological aspects of postmodernism as it pertains to the development of the "self"; included are his notions of the "pastiche personality" and the "relational self". He also summarizes his schemas (with Mary Gergen) of the three basic forms of narrative [success (comedic), failure (tragic) , and cyclical (epic)] and the general notion of a narrative psychology.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

See earlier annotation for this work.

Hermans, H. J. M. (1996). Voicing the self: From information processing to dialogical interchange. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 31-50.

The author details the development of a narratively-attuned theory of the self as multivocal.

Hermans, H. J. M. (2001). The dialogical self: Toward a theory of personal and cultural positioning. Culture & Psychology, 7(3), 243-281.

Hermans traces the conceptual development of "the dialogical self" from the joint traditions of William James' I-Me distinction and Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogism. Here, the author proposes an elaborated understanding of the interaction of person and culture as crucial to the elaboration of the dialogical self across time. A synthetic advance upon Hermans' earlier (1996) work.

James, W. (1950). Principles of of psychology. Vols. 1-2 (authorized ed.). New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1890)

Any psychology of self probably must acknowledge the elegant theory of James, particularly that found in Chap. 10, "The Consciousness of Self;" there James describes the seminal distinction between the "I" and the "me" as two experiences of selfhood. His discussion of the "Social Self" has echoed across much of narrative reflection.

Josselson, R. (1994). Identity and relatedness in the lifecycle. In H. A. Bosma, T. L. G. Graafsma, H. D. Grotevant, and D. J. De Levita (Eds.), Identity and development: An interdisciplinary approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virture (2nd ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Mahoney, M. J. (1991). The Self in Process. Human change processes: The scientific foundations of psychotherapy (pp. 211-248). New York: Basic Books.

This Chapter 9 of Mahoney's awesome text provides a sweeping overview of the various notions of "self" and "disorders of the self" (e.g., borderline and multiple personality disorders) which have been advanced in twentieth-century psychology.

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

The authors propose that possible selves, individuals' ideals of what they might become or would like or are afraid to become, serve important roles: as incentives for future behavior and as contexts to evaluate and interpret the self as currently viewed. Persistent problems in any theory of self are commented upon, e.g., stability of self, unity, self-distortion, etc. (adapted from abstract).

McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: William Morrow and Company. [BF697.M164 1993]

McAdams, a developmental psychologist with an enduring interest in narrative psychology, portrays human identity development as a personal mythmaking process and details common narrative themes across the life cycle. Somewhat popular presentation. Readable.

Modell, A. H. (1993). The private self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Modell articulates the differences between the private and public selves from a contemporary psychoanalytic framework, seeks points of rapprochment with developmental neurobiology, and critiques the narrative perspective as too narrow in an explanation of the self.

+Neisser, U. (1994). Self-narratives: True and false. In U. Neisser & R. Fivush (Eds.), The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative (pp. 1-18). New York: Cambridge University Press. [BF378.A87R46 1994]

In this opening essay, Neisser not only summarizes the companion papers found in this volume, but provides a survey of research approaches to the truth or reality of memory-based self-narratives. He speaks specifically of the current controversies over "repressed" memories of abuse and concludes that "autobiographical memory is best taken with a grain of salt" (p. 8). He notes the many challenges currently offered to the "self" conceived as a unity, particularly by those who emphasize social context and forces as shaping what is remembered in the self-narrative.

+Neisser, U., & Fivush, R. (Eds.). (1994). The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press. [BF378.A87R46 1994]

As the editors indicate, this collection of 15 essays represents a convergence of three general themes: an "ecological/cognitive analysis of the self", recent studies in memory development, and, and the concept of narrative (p. vii). Self-narratives, in this perspective, are seen as flexible, changing, and responsive to altered environments over time. A specific focus of application of these isses adopted by several contributors is the belief in uncovered repressed memories of childhood abuse versus the claim that such memories are false. A uniformly excellent range of essays which well illustrate the current state of the narrative approach to a theory of self.

+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.

Sarbin, T. R. (1952). A preface to a psychological analysis of the self. Psychological Review, 59, 11-22.

+Smith, J. A. (1994). Reconstructing selves: An analysis of discrepancies between women's contemporaneous and retrospective accounts of the transition to motherhood. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 371-392.

Smith obtained accounts from four women at four time points during pregnancy and in the postnatal period. Later recollections of the pregnancy were compared with earlier accounts and found to demonstrate reconstructive narrative changes & self-enhancing consistencies.

Stevens, R. (Ed.). (1996). Understanding the self. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

The essays in this textbook discuss the issue of self identity from a range of perspectives, e.g., self as "embodied", the experiential perspective, social constructionist models, and psychodynamic understandings.

Stigler, J. W., Shweder, R., & Herdt, G. H. (Eds.) (1990). Cultural psychology: The Chicago symposia on human development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This compendium of papers from cross-cultural psychologists and cultural anthropologists tends to take issue with the notion of "psychic unity," the notion that humans across cultures share in the same basic psychic apparatus (e.g., perception, affective, and cognitive). Demonstrates how culture profoundly shapes the human personality.

+Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [BD450.T266 1989]

Charles Taylor's masterful and difficult study of the modern "turn inward" of the self finds the roots of this movement in the history of Western philosophy. He believes that, at its heart, this philosophically-informed self affirms ordinary life as value-ladden in itself while rejecting moral grounding in birth or wealth. He concludes his study of modernity in the wake of the late 19th and early 20th century's reflections upon "the expressivist notion of nature as an inner moral source" (p. x). He argues that the achievement of this modern identity offers a rich moral source which has been inadequately articulated by its supporters.

Trillin, C. (1993). Remembering Denny. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. [H59.H355T75 1994]

Journalist Calvin Trillin's memoir of his Yale classmate, Roger D. (Denny) Hansen, probes how this idolized college figure came to commit suicide thirty years later. Trillin raises provocative questions about how well individuals can be known by those close to them, the devolution of one person's mythic status, and the impact of changing cultural forces (1950s vs. 1980s) on personal development. Popular. Compassionate reportage.

Whiting, B. B., & Edward, C. P. (1992). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Discusses a longitudinal study of more than 100 children living in six different cultures.

Widdershoven, G. A. M. (1994). Identity and development: A narrative perspective. In H. A. Bosma, T. L. G. Graafsma, H. D. Grotevant, and D. J. De Levita (Eds.), Identity and development: An interdisciplinary approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wyse, L. A. (Chair; 1995, December), Rethinking culture and psychoanalysis (Cassette Recording Nos. D-10105-95A and D-10105-95B). Symposium conducted at the 39th Winter Meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge, MA. [Double cassettes available from Audio Transcripts, Ltd., 335 South Patrick Street, Suite 220, Alexandria, VA 22314]


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Hevern, V. W. (2003, June). Self in narrative. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved [enter date] from the Le Moyne College Web site:

     Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide
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