Monday 15 June 2009

Narrative and wellbeing

Arthur W Frank (pictured), a sociologist visiting from Calgary, gave a talk at Uclan today on narrative. Since I’m keen to try to pin down what’s meant by that term, I went along. In the background was the working assumption that something was a narrative if it met enough of a large number of criteria which he didn’t exhaustively spell out today. So there wasn’t exactly an analysis of ‘narrative’ but there were a number of pointers as to how understood it, including the claims that narrative makes lives narratable; that it involves people ‘holding their own’; that identification with characters allows some people to be caught up in, and some excluded by, it; that it can concern fear and desire in the most general sense; and that it involves a play of and with unreliable memory.

With this suggestive motley in place, his main idea – it seemed to me – was that narratives structure people’s life possibilities through the notion of ‘emplotment’. So, eg., therapists propose new life ‘plots’ to spinal cord injured patients for whom there is, sadly, no going back to their past plots. They have suffered a kind of ‘narrative wreckage’ from which they need rescuing (in a dialogue with therapists) through such therapy.

What seemed awkward to me, in what was an engaging off the cuff talk, was a tension between two aspects of such narrative structuring. First, he suggested, narratives were open to multiple readings. But second, they constrain possibilities. Their emplotting possibilities suggests a normative constraint: they fit some events better than others; others not at all. But to capture this second aspect, Frank resorted to saying that stories themselves act. This seemed to me an unnecessary and eccentric platonism (akin to Achilles’ cry: ‘Then logic would take you by the throat!’) When I queried this aspect of the account, however, he first directed me to W.J.T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want? and then said that when he longer heard people talking in this way in everyday academic life, then he’d be happy to stop. So I guess he had a point. (See this for later thoughts about his book.)

Later – in a day in which I did very little administrative work, obviously – Lynn Froggett reacted to the articulation of a debate about wellbeing, at ISCRI started by my philosophy colleagues, by mapping a psycho-social approach to how distinct models of welfare have helped and hindered it. Using two dimensions of separation vs. attachment and equality vs. inequality, she placed in historical order: social democratic welfarism; market-led private provision; mixed economy of welfare; and a new emerging and improved position based on active citizenship between interdependent subjects in the quadrant roughly defined by equality and attachment.

The diagram had the great Cartesian virtue of being swiftly surveyable. But in the end I wasn’t sure about what the significance was of the axes. On the one hand, they simply did a good job of presenting and unifying a number of features of the models of welfare since the second world war. But on the other, she suggested that they also had developmental and psychotherapeutic significance. That seemed one virtue too many. My inchoate confusion was nicely pinned down by a question from Peter Lucas as follows. There is, presumably, a happy balance in development between attachment and separation. Things are more complicated in the equality versus inequality scale but, plausibly, we might follow Rawls and accept only that degree of inequality which benefits, in absolute terms, the worst off. So there ought to be an ideal point on the two scales for wellbeing. But this wasn’t reflected in the account of approaches to welfare. How did that normative ideal relate to the rougher historical mapping?