Friday, 16 November 2012

Narrative structure and underlying reality?

I’ve mentioned here before that Laura Buckley is researching older people’s conceptions of wellbeing. She is exploring this through photographs taken by participants and using narrative analysis to explore their discussions of the significance of the pictures. In a supervision with Joy Duxbury and Bernie Carter this week, I was struck by the hint of a worry which is related to a previous worry.

The previous worry was this. Those who use narrative analysis in qualitative social science (let’s call them ‘narrative theorists’ and the approach ‘narrative theory’ for speed) seem to be tempted by two claims either one of which may be true but probably not both. They often stress the ubiquity of narratives (“Even a conversation at a bus-stop is a narrative”). But they also chart the internal structure of narratives (“All narratives have a moral” “There is always a Trickster”). It seems – albeit contingently – highly unlikely both are true. The more the interesting claims about the internal structure of narratives (eg the division into say seven elements of any narrative), the less likely that narratives are ubiquitous or of universal application to apparently non-narrative social situations (eg all conversations at bus-stops). One would expect, rather, it to be true of particular literary genres. The more the appeal to universal application, the less likely that all utterances in social situations form a narrative with a particular internal structure. My entirely informal survey of discussions with narrative theorists (not at UCLan, I hasten to add) is a fondness, nevertheless, for both claims.

The new worry – which is less straight forward and may be unfounded – goes something like this. If narrative theory really charts interesting and contingent aspects of the structure of the utterances of social science subjects then it contrasts with, say, a grammar theorist’s view. A theory of the grammar of a language – a grammar – is a sizeable achievement. But it does not provide an insight into the content of utterances: just the linguistic vehicles for expressing them. By contrast, the narrative theorist says things like ‘every narrative has seven elements:...’, which could obviously be false. If what makes the grammarian’s claims true is the structure of English, say, or the structure of English as spoken in C21 Preston, or the innate structure of human depth grammar, what would make the narrative theorists claims true?

Here is a thought. What they chart, intellectually riskily like any brave social scientist, are the contingent social practices of, say, C21 conversational participants. We can imagine the participants in contemporary Preston initially explicitly following some rules of good style in the way that one might follow the rules of haiku or lipogram construction and then this becoming second nature. The narrative theorists chart these conventions. But now suppose that we are interested in the views of wellbeing expressed by these subjects in conversations and that we ask them. If we attend to the form of the narrative (every narrative has a moral; every narrative has seven elements:..) that they offer in reply we run two related risks.

First, we will be examining not the structure of the subjects’ conception of wellbeing but rather the structure of their conversational engagement and that is looking in the wrong place. Second, if we do not realise this and set out the structure of what results (the moral; the seven elements etc) we run the risk of thinking that their conceptions of wellbeing are in some way narratively structured when in fact it is merely a contingent way of giving them expression. (Imagine that we investigate two groups who reply on two different kinds of narrative to set out their conceptions of wellbeing. Have they distinct conceptions of wellbeing or the same conception undergoing different conventional forms of expression?) The way to avoid this is to model narrative structure on grammatical structure. But if so, the substantive claims about narrative structures will be undermined.

(This worry parallels a worry about the relationship of the conceptually structured realm of appearance and the underlying noumenal realm on a two world reading of Kant. Once the noumenal realm is part of a composite picture, the process of conceptualising it in one way (rather than another) looks to be distorting of what is really real. One needs to think that the structure is not a substantive mediation but merely a way of letting the reality shine through.)