Thursday 24 February 2011

Narrative researchers' views of narratives

I have an interest in narrative understanding via the question: is it a form of understanding fundamentally distinct from criteriological diagnosis in psychiatry (hence papers here, here and here)? Were it so, then calls for an addition to conventional psychiatric diagnosis could have a particular focus. Even better if, as well as being distinct, it had a connection to the idea of charting the individuality of psychiatric patients, often thought to go missing in the diagnostic process. And thus my interest stems from the development of person centred care in psychiatry.

Given that starting question, it is unsurprising, if not very laudable, that I have generally simply helped myself to familiar work on other distinctions which are clearly in the same general area - eg. the space of reasons vs the realm of law; or the manifest image versus scientific image etc - and assumed that one can use ‘narrative’ for one side of them too: the side governed by the constitutive principle of rationality. (That is, I have assumed that the kind of rational understanding that contrasts with subsumption under laws of nature lies at the heart of narrative understanding. Mere generality or regularity is not enough to count as narrative. And thus physics does not offer narrative accounts of planetary motion, for example.)

But it would be sensible to see whether this approach does violence to the notion of narrative used by those social scientists who call themselves ‘narrative researchers’ and actually do work with it (rather than talking about it from the sidelines). And hence, today, I made time to listen to Bernie Carter (pictured) giving an introduction to it for nursing graduate students.

As a keen user of the approach she was obviously going to describe it in positive and intuitive terms. So first she stressed its general application by arguing that its basic ontological units – stories – were ubiquitous. They comprise, or structure, everyday social interactions, encounters with clinicians, recreation and much child rearing. Since stories are ubiquitous, it is unsurprising if focusing on them is potentially revelatory of much of the social world.

But she also offered a representative sample of claims made by narrative theorists for the nature of stories or narratives (including Arthur Frank). Such approaches typically articulate components or aspects of narratives and appear to do this in different, rival ways, albeit with some significant overlap. (For example: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution and coda. Or: temporality, people, action, certainty (or not) and context.) By decomposing a whole story into such elements one can arrive – as a narrative researcher – at a sub-structure which still stop short of a positivist or reductionist analysis (although she later suggested that whether it really stopped short was a bone of contention).

This presents a prima facie tension, however, between the claim as to ubiquity of stories and the specific and apparently falsifiable claims as to how they are structured. It is by no means obvious that items with specific (and rather plodding, it seemed to me, no cut up technique or Nouveau-Roman approach here!) six-fold internal structure are to be found in every human vocal interaction.

Interestingly Bernie suggested the following reading of the situation. Researchers were able to recognise stories with the same pre-reflexive ease of the rest of us. The rival frameworks were not making – or should not make – constitutive claims about the nature of narrative. They were rather mere heuristic devices to help the analysis. It is worth looking at character and suspense, for example or noting the evaluation and uncertainty involved.

But this does then leave an issue. Not, epistemologically, how are we guided to recognise stories? But, constitutively, if not the frameworks, what does mark out what is and isn’t to be counted a story? If the approach is genuinely distinct as far as social science goes, how is its basic method distinct from any other chunking of responses to questions?

Not that that question need seem pressing for narrative researchers. Perhaps there is no great need to maintain tribal distinctions and thus to be able to argue that the results of semi-structured interviews are not narratives. But even though the question need not be pressing, I can imagine that it might still press. After all, if the various heuristic structures do work then surely a self-conscious narrative researcher will want to know why? Do they reflect some necessary and / or sufficient features of stories? Are they contingent but mark deep structures of Western thought, eg? Are they simply this year’s fashion for, like, presenting oneself? One consequence of interesting and substantial answers to these questions might be that it requires the researchers to bite the bullet and say that what makes narratives interesting, by contrast with other ways of presenting ourselves, is that they are not ubiquitous. After all, as the Incredibles taught us, if everyone is special, no one is.