Literary Pathfinding: The Work of Popular Life Constructors

Kevin Murray ‘Finding literary paths: The work of popular life constructors’  In T.R. Sarbin (ed.) Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct New York: Praeger (1986)

Social actors often need a past to satisfy the requirements of many different dramatic situations. These situations can vary from the extraordinary ‑ the television show “This Is Your Life” ‑ to the mundane, such as getting to know an acquaintance. The way in which the biographical subjects and their audience construct this past is likely to vary according to the rhetorical demands that govern the situation in which this practice of life emplotment occurs. This context is likely to influence at least three dimensions of this process: the choice of events that are seen as relevant to the construction of the life, the themes that provide coherence between these events, and the degree and type of narrative closure to the life story.

The structures used by people as they construct lives ‑ the language of self‑reflection employed in this discourse ‑ is an important new field of research (see Potter, Stringer, & Wetherell, 1984). Such an approach assumes that life construction is a discursive practice governed by the social settings which demand that a life history be presented. In the present chapter, I examine the form of the life manual, especially Gail Sheehy’s Passages, in order to discover the sort of resources offered through this medium for the social construction of lives. In common with other theories of biography (see Kohli, 1981; and Runyan, 1980) this analysis assumes that more than one possible account can be construed from the events of a person’s life, according to the perspective of the biographer. This chapter emphasizes, in addition, the role of narrative structures in the way an account is constituted, specifically those structures provided in the language of self‑reflection employed in life manuals.

The language of self‑reflection is most obvious in specialized forms of discourse such as works of autobiography and biography, but there are other social events and institutions which are partly designed for the construction of life narratives. Two common rituals which involve the telling of a story about a life are the speeches at testimonial dinners and weddings. These stories usually have contrasting emphases: wedding speeches emphasize human and everyday aspects of character, while retirement speeches highlight achievements that distinguish the subject from others.

The process of life construction is important in many social events designed to establish a moral character (see Gergen & Gergen, 1983, for a discussion of the social utility of this practice). This is highlighted in the statements of a character witness in the courtroom, though it is no less evident in the responses of an interviewee when asked to account in a research interview for certain actions. In the former, the witness attempts to construct a story about character which makes more sense of one interpretation of the accused’s acts than another, less innocent one; and in the latter, the research question of the interviewer makes it imperative that the interviewee construct an account of past actions that is coherent and sensible (see Mishler, this volume).

In each case, the rhetorical demands of the situation require a relatively unambiguous reading of motive: the situation demands thematic generality over a disparate course of events. So, for example, a character witness might begin the testimony with, “When he was five he saved a kitten from drowning,” in order to highlight how the theme of consideration for others marks the life events of the accused. For the account to have an easily read point (that is, the likely innocence of the defendant), the narrative must sift out those details that do not add to the coherence of the story.

Given the pervasiveness of the process of narrative construction of life events, one is naturally prompted to investigate its function. However, there is an obstacle to this investigation. One of the reasons why these processes have received relatively little study is the assumption that the function of telling stories about lives is mimetic and therefore unproblematic; that is, that life narratives are largely a transparent means of representing the truth. However, while it is necessary that these processes bear an ostensible relation to a commonly perceived reality, the success of an account is also likely to be judged by how well it fits certain rhetorical demands, including the set of conventions in language that govern the telling of stories.

The debate about the representational nature of narrative has occurred in other disciplines. History has been popularly conceived as concerned exclusively with the mimetic function of revealing the truth about the past. However, in an analysis of nineteenth‑century historians, Hayden White (1973) demonstrates the importance of other factors in writing history such as ideology, world view, and what he terms “explanation by emplotment,” which is presenting a description of the past that convinces by its success as a story; specifically, how well it conforms to the conventions of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire. Although White would agree with other relativists, such as Runyan, on the plurality of narratives for the construction of life events, he would differ in the emphasis placed on language as a system that imposes form on reality. For Runyan, relativism extends only to the ideological and theoretical perspective of the biographer, whereas for White, the narrative account of the past is determined by the preconscious linguistic structures (tropes) imposed on reality by the constructor ‑ the choice of structure is determined by aesthetic and moral reasons.

The nonrepresentational factors which figure in this professional sense‑making are also likely to apply to everyday constructions of the past. The criterion of truth is certainly not dominant in informal social activities such as gossip, when the members of a group exchange “interesting” stories about people not present, and popular culture, especially in magazines concerned with media personalities whose lives are regularly encapsulated in touching, shocking, and amusing stories.

Given the prevalence of narrative structures in constructions of the past, it is difficult to argue for life stories as a transparent means of representing truth. A qualified case for this mimetic view may, however, be cast in information‑processing terms. These stories may be seen as attempts at information reduction, in which the large variety of life events is reduced to a set of narratives so that it may be cognitively processed more efficiently. The function, therefore, remains representational, though this is by means of an information‑simplifying structure rather than by a mirror of reality. However, this ignores the pleasure with which apparently useless additional information is sought about people who have no practical relation to one’s life. Who should care if Elizabeth Taylor marries again? It would be difficult to see a story of Elizabeth Taylor’s remarriage being used as an aid in the cognitive organization of the social environment. The moral function of such a story seems more evident than the information‑processing function; the remarriage may continue a story about a prominent public figure whose actions have relevance as standards of conduct in everyday life; the happy or sad outcome of the story indicates whether the course of action is correct or misguided. For Hayden White, one purpose of narrative is moral:

Narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system, that is the source of any morality that we can imagine. (1980, p. 18)

If one looks again at the process of gossip (Sabini & Silver, 1982), one finds emphasis on the embodiment of codes of conduct on the elaboration of moral rules in concrete examples. The gossipy stories in the popular media seem to instantiate the moral order, thus exercising it and ensuring that it is able to organize the events of everyday life.

Besides the moral function of this process, life construction is also likely to be an attempt to find a narrative structure by means of which life can be granted meaning. This is what Frank Kermode describes as an explanatory fiction: “In ‘making sense’ of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy because of the accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance of beginning, middle, and end, which is the essence of our explanatory fictions” (1967, pp. 35‑36). This sense of beginning, middle, and end, in terms of a life path, is provided by a set of conventionalized narrative forms. Jerome Bruner, in his essay “Myth and identity” (1962), describes this set as the “controlling myths of community,” which provide a “library of scripts” that give recognition to certain life paths. This library of scripts is an abstraction of the narratives that are evident in the ways the biography of an individual is presented in public. The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate, in popular psychology at least, that these life constructions are determined as much by the moral and narrative conventions contained in the hypothetical library of scripts as they are by the facts of life.


The popular book Passages (1977), by Gail Sheehy, presents a revealing document for studying these socially recognized life paths. First, it explicitly sets out to provide a prescribed route through life events, and tells many stories about people as examples of a general theory. Second, Sheehy is a popular writer (her books reach the top of bestseller lists), and her books are more likely to be consumed as myths than books directed to an academic audience. Given these factors, Sheehy’s works are likely to indicate ways in which lives can be constructed as resources that can he used by members of society in the choosing of a life path.

Sheehy’s work is examined here with an emphasis on the manner in which she constructs life narratives and on the theory from which she draws to support her constructions. The relativity of her constructions can be established by two sets of contrasts: first, by a comparison with two of her contemporaries: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould; and second, because many of the assumptions Sheehy makes may seem at first to be self‑evident to participants of the same culture. 1 cite a theorist from a different time: the Victorian moralist and biographer, Samuel Smiles. Smiles, like Sheehy, achieved great popularity while telling stories about how people should live their lives.

Because our interest is partly in the consumption of Sheehy’s book it is useful to approach it initially from the perspective of the ordinary reader. It is likely that the prospective reader goes to this book as a guide to ways in which one deals with problems in life. This seems to be the ostensible purpose of the book. As the reader inspects it in the bookstore he or she sees the blurb on the cover reinforce this expectation:

‘A revolutionary way of looking at adult life’


Brilliant new insights on the predictable crises of adult fife.

However, if at this point the reader decides to gauge Sheehy’s style by examining the first page of the main text, the expectation of a serious academic work is soon put in doubt. Chapter One of Passages, entitled “Madness and Method,” immediately immerses the reader in the excitement of Sheehy’s adventure in Northern Ireland. There is no conceptual argument; it begins much more like a novel than an academic tract.

If the reader had looked at the cover notes in a little more detail the expectation would not have been of a serious theoretical work. The notes on the inside of the cover are more representative of the style of the introductory chapter:

‘A lively, passionate and readable message . . Margaret Mead

‘Provokes the same recognition that we experience in a good novel . . .’ New York Times Book Review

‘Extraordinarily good reading . . ‑Publishers Weekly

The readableness of Sheehy’s book is evident in the clever literary style she adopts throughout. This style partly consists of tropes, such as, “Killing time is a suicidal act. The time she is killing is all she has left to live.” This emphasis on the literary style may seem irrelevant to the purpose of this chapter, but it is important to recognize the context in which Sheehy’s theory is cast ‑ the medium which contains the message. The decision in adopting this particular style may be related to what she is trying to say, and the way in which she wants her message to be consumed.

The rest of the statements used to package Passages emphasize the involvement of the reader in the text.

PASSAGES IS YOUR LIFE STORY. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your lovers.

‘Passages shakes you up, shakes you out, and leaves you shaking hands with yourself.’

Shana Alexander

These statements stress the prospect of the reader being changed by the text ‑ either in the acts performed in life or the process of self‑reflection. (For a discussion of the influence of reading on everyday life, see Sarbin, 1982.) The impression of Passages gained from this bookshop browse is likely to be of an entertaining text which has the power to recast one’s own life story.

At this point we will leave the impressions of the prospective reader and turn to the actual theory which Gail Sheehy offers to account for life events. According to Sheehy, adult life consists of a negotiation between two powerful forces within the psyche, and the outside world. The primary force is essentially good, Sheehy calls it the “dream.” The dream has its origins in the fantasies of childhood. Adult ambitions, such as vocational success, establishing a secure family, and becoming famous, are attempts to realize this dream. Opposed to the dream is the “inner custodian.” This is a negative psychic force, similar to the superego,l which has its origin in the demands that parents make of the child. The inner custodian, which Sheehy calls a “nasty tyrant,” demands that one live up to these ideals or be nothing. It is a critical annihilating force that engenders a feeling of helplessness.

The conflict between these forces comes to a head in midlife. In this “passage” there is usually a threatening event which triggers a crisis, usually a memento mori such as the death of one’s parents, or a heart attack affecting oneself or a friend. Sheehy’s book begins with the event which triggered her own crisis: the sense of futility in life resulting from her experience of a Northern Ireland massacre. For Sheehy this is a particularly dramatic event in the lives of everyone: “There is a moment an immense and precarious moment ‑ of stark terror.” This crisis engenders a period of depression and inactivity ‑ a sense of hopelessness in coping with the threat.

Sheehy advises people at this point in their lives to act bravely, to face the conflict squarely and be hopeful of the future. The hope which Sheehy offers is a romantic one; there is an optimistic commitment to the self as the only force of authority in one’s world. This becomes clear when her statements about the crisis are examined:

For whether we know it or not, and usually we don’t, it is this dictator guardian from whom we all are struggling at last to be free. In midlife, all the old wars with the inner custodian flare up again. And eventually, if we let it happen, they will culminate in a final, decisive battle. The object of that battle is to overtake the last of the ground held by the other and end up with the authority for ourselves in our own command. (1977, p. 436)

Given Sheehy’s literary style, it is not surprising that she employs a metaphor to describe this conflict. It is, rather, her choice of metaphor which is interesting. By using a metaphor of battle she is encapsulating the event of midlife crisis in terms which make it compatible with the literary structure of a romance.

Indeed, Sheehy’s theory readily allows for a romance narrative. There is already the notion of a dream, which can be seen in terms of a romantic quest, and the inner custodian, which can be easily viewed as the elemental foe opposed to the realization of the quest. Given these initial terms, the equation of romance is completed by Sheehy’s view of life as a perilous journey consisting in a series of adventures leading up to a crucial struggle in the midlife crisis. This is clearly indicated by Sheehy’s statement of romantic hope:

To reach the clearing beyond, we must stay with the weightless journey through uncertainty. Whatever counterfeit safety we hold from overinvestments in people and institutions must be given up. The inner custodian must be unseated from the controls. No foreign power can direct our journey from now on. It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning. And for each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. (1977, p. 364)

Sheehy aims to inspire the reader with a sense of hope in life by constructing personal development in terms of a romance. And given the nature of the crucial struggle in romance ‑ that it allows for the rebirth and rejuvenation of the hero ‑ it structures a difficult period in life in a way which allows for the possibility of an optimistic outcome. If she had chosen to structure life according to alternative forms, such as a tragedy in which childhood hopes are destroyed by the cruel realities of adult life, or a satire where the idealistic dreams of childhood are disillusioned by the ironies and complexities of adulthood, the effect would be to engender despair.

The purpose of using a literary style can thus be seen as allowing Sheehy the license to use literary forms to construct lives. In effect, Sheehy is teaching the readers to read their own lives in terms of romance so that they may share in this hope: “the capacity for renewal in each human spirit is nothing short of amazing.” The message on the cover saying “Passages is your life story” now can be translated as “You too may emplot your life as a romantic adventure.”

There is further evidence for this point in Pathfinders (1982), the sequel to Passages. Here Sheehy presents heroes of her system. The heroes must pass three tests:

  1. To confront crossroads
  2. To cause a minimum of human damage.
  3. To seek a purpose outside oneself.

What is significant about these three tests is that, according to critics of the romantic literary form (see Frye, 1957), the heroes of classic forms of romance must also face three tests, and the nature of these tests roughly corresponds to Sheehy’s. The first test (agon) involves conflict between the hero and the evil force. The second test (pathos) is the final death struggle between the combatants. Sheehy’s second test is compatible with this; it assumes that the person has tried to resolve the conflict by reassessing commitments such as an unchallenging job or a sour marriage. She is specifying that the outcome of this test should not merely be the annihilation of previous commitments ‑ persons should salvage some of their pasts from this crucial struggle. The third test (anagnorisis) is the discovery of a transcendent meaning or truth as part of the process of renewal after the struggle. Sheehy similarly specifies that the pathfinder should discover a meaning beyond the pursuit of pleasure or self-gratification. It is understandable that if Sheehy invests in the mythos of romance as a source of optimism, then she also buys the baggage of the romantic conventions.

In Passages Sheehy refers to the work of two other researchers as promoting her own interest in human development: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould. Levinson’s book, The Seasons of Man’s Life (1978), is seen by some as an academically respectable work from which Sheehy draws her theory. Certainly, the Dream concept figures as strongly in Levinson as it does in Sheehy, but, unlike Passages, Seasons constructs a force opposed to the Dream which is not an object with whom one can engage in battle ‑ it is not like Sheehy’s inner custodian (“nasty tyrant”); rather it is a tragic flaw within the character, something over which one has no control. Levinson’s scenario for midlife does not provide the reader with the same sense of adventure as Sheehy because the enemy or frustrating force is part of oneself ‑ it cannot be easily externalized as a foe: “The tragic sense derives from the realization that great misfortunes and failures are not merely imposed upon us from without, but are largely the result of our own tragic flaws” (1978, p. 225). Given the absence of clear opposition between good and bad, the metaphor for the process of growth cannot be battle; Levinson chooses instead to compare development in midlife to a geographical study, in which basic faults are revealed to the explorer. The aim then is discovery, rather than the victory which Sheehy envisages.

Gould is another theorist who refers to the Dream as a primary force in human development, but he provides a different metaphor for the process of growth. The negative force for Gould rests with the “angry demons” of childhood, which remain fostered in the illusions carried into adulthood: “To enjoy full access to our innermost self, we can no longer deny the ugly, demonic side of life, which our immature mind tried to protect against by enslaving itself to false illusions that absolute safety was possible” (1978, p. 218). Midlife thus becomes a period for facing up to reality. The metaphor Gould employs is breaking a wild horse; evil cannot be defeated in battle, it must simply be exposed to reality and, through experience, tamed. Gould holds an existentialist position toward life ‑he sees it as a process of demystification: “Time … strips away our last remaining illusion of safety and makes existentialists of us all.” The breaking down of illusions through experience is the goal presented by Gould, contrasting with Levinson’s discovery of tragic flaws and Sheehy’s victory over the inner custodian. The goals typify the myths of satire, tragedy, and romance, respectively.2 The fact that these authors examine the same issue, with similar materials, yet construct their theories in such contrasting ways, demonstrates the relativity of narrative constructions, and especially highlights that Sheehy’s view of life is as much a product of the structures of narrative emplotment and their associated assumptions about human nature as it is of representation.


Samuel Smiles is a writer whose success in the Victorian era is compatible with Sheehy’s success in our own time. Smiles authored many life manuals, the most popular being Self‑Help (1925, originally published, 1854). The impact of Self‑Help on Victorian culture can be gauged by the fact that it sold more copies than any of the great nineteenth century novels. The purpose of the comparison between Smiles and Sheehy is not to analyse historically the changes in sensibilities concerning life constructions, but simply to highlight more distinctive features of Sheehy’s approach.

Looking at the cover notes of Self‑Help, the reader is less encouraged to find a literary masterpiece within. Smiles’ style is praised as being 11 clear and attractive,” but the emphasis is largely on the inspirational nature of his works:

[Self‑Help will] help to inspire the rising generation with ennobling sentiments.


There are few departments of public life in which this book may not inspire to higher self‑devotion….

Liverpool Mercury

Smiles’ style is less colourful than Sheehy’s, and more precise.

The force which drives personality in Smiles’ system is character. Character is made up of various elements or moral qualities of personality. These are energy. duty, reverence, will, courage, self-control, cheerfulness, and manners. The general theme of these qualities is a positive desire to do right by society. According to Smiles, character is determined by social milieu. Thus the greatest formative influence on personality is family, followed by teachers. peers, spouse, patrons, books. and society’s heroes.

Many of Smiles’ books display the means by which character can become manifest to others, especially as it is evident in the lives of heroes of Victorian society; their story is usually of boys from modest and devout backgrounds who through application are able to raise themselves and do good in society. Their character is made evident in two ways. First, it can be seen in the daily contributions to society that eventually amount to a character‑building set of good works: “Indeed, character consists in little acts, well and honourably performed; daily life being the quarry from which we build it up, and rough‑hew the habits which we form” (1925, p. 468). Alternatively, character may become manifest by means of a dramatic gesture: “When Stephen of Colonna fell into the hands of his base assailants, and they asked him in derision, ‘Where is now your fortress?’ ‘Here’, was the bold reply. placing his hand upon his heart (1925. p. 453). In this way character becomes something which is easily read by others. in terms of one’s history of good works (moral career) or through self‑presentation strategies.

Compared to Sheehy, the essence of Smiles lies on the surface. Smiles’ lives are flat and undynamic ‑ there is no struggle within the self to arrive at a self‑determined meaning. In the language of self‑reflection discussed by Potter et al., Smiles holds an “honest soul” theory of character. one which sees self as consisting of a stable set of traits, whereas Sheehy sees self as something that must be strived for, the romantic self.

For Smiles, the meaning which determines one’s life comes necessarily from outside oneself; there is an objective moral order, the same for all, by which one’s personal worth is judged. This may sound restrictive and uninviting, but Smiles does offer a bonus. Because the example of others acts as an independent force which permeates our moral capabilities, our own actions are granted a significance outside ourselves as they become part of the moral fabric of society which in turn controls the behaviour of others. Smiles’ theory of character thus implies a secular immortality:

The spirits of men do not die: they still live and walk abroad among us…. Thus, every act we do or word we utter, as well as every act we witness or word we hear, carries with it an influence which extends over, and gives a colour, not only to the whole of our future life, but makes itself felt upon the whole frame of society. (1925, p. 428)

According to Sheehy the worth of an individual is in the ability to face reality by finding a balance betwen seeking and merging, independence and intimacy. In contrast, Smiles simply believes that people operate like a Marxist economic system; that the value of a product is directly related to the labor involved in its creation, thus there is no honor without struggle. The value for Smiles is labor, whereas for Sheehy it is authenticity. A comparison of the moral orders of Islam and St. Thomas of Aquinas by Rom Harr6 (1984) reveals a similar difference. While the Islamic concept of quaadar prescribes a universal life path for all that is achieved by faith and determination, Aquinas refers to the necessity of making decisions in the life‑course.

So far, Sheehy and Smiles have been contrasted in their theories of how lives are constructed. To gain knowledge of their method, attention should be paid to the many case histories included in their books. Both writers use cases very much as exemplary lives which not only demonstrate their theories about human nature and conform to the narrative patterns seen as typical in life, but also provide models of how the readers should live their own lives.


In Passages (1977, pp. 256‑27 1), Sheehy uses the case of Dwight to illustrate the rebirth of a person who avoided experimentation in earl. life. It begins as an example of the hazards involved in a lack of risk taking when young, and ends as a celebration of the potential to overcome a bad start by taking on adventures later in life.

Dwight is presented as a person whose early development was stamped with the traditionalism of his established New England family. Sheehy exploits the rhythm of language to highlight his lack of experimentation. After Dwight gains a large inheritance from his grandfather:

He safed it all away in blue chip stocks. Lock!

He wasted not a moment between finishing basic training and starting married life with Vanessa. Lock!

And she describes his becoming a teacher despite his father’s objections:

With almost no experimentation Dwight had found his one true course in life.


Slowly becoming aware that his life had been too restricted to allow the realization of any authentic sense of self, Dwight begins to break out. He leaves his wife and starts experimenting with one of Sheehy’s stock figures, the Testimonial Woman When she leaves him Dwight is devastated, but this leads him to realize that: “a change of mates was not the key. A change in him was.” Following this revelation Dwight sets out on the romantic quest to find himself, and he begins to grow: “As he began to assume the authority for his own support, Dwight stretched on all levels.” In keeping with the romantic mythos, Sheehy even has Dwight disappearing into the sunset: “On the brow of 40, brimming with vitality and more daring than he had ever before displayed, Dwight whisked off with his new wife to the last wilderness in the West to make a documentary: in his field, using her medium.”

There is, however, another story embedded in the case of Dwight that Sheehy chooses to deny by her use of poetic license. Dwight’s previous life may be alternatively represented as a series of rebellions. First, he turned against his father’s expectations of him to become an executive and chose to become a teacher instead. This, according to Sheehy, happened with no experimentation, but “experimentation” seems to be something which serves the narrative structure of the case rather than the “facts” of Dwight’s life. Second, he entered the political arena by working for a year as an administrative aide to a congressman; but this was, “For want of excitement…. It tickled him to make contacts with celebrities.” After this change of style he went back to teaching. By employing metaphor, Sheehy again uses poetic license to make one interpretation seem more obvious than another: “At 30, the outlines of his life in the academic world seemed to fall into place as clearly as the stone geometry of an old land‑grant college.” The metaphorical neatness of Sheehy’s image allows her interpretation to slip in without being subject to a serious critical scrutiny.

Sheehy’s romantic story of Dwight’s life is not the only one that can be constructed. One could construct it as a satire, in which a good and honest man is influenced by the romantic ideal of selfhood and destroys his family and personal future in the misguided belief that he would achieve greater authenticity. Instead, Sheehy chooses the romance mythos which generates an altogether more inspiring and optimistic scenario. Her choice is not guided solely by the match between this mythos and reality; also at play are Sheehy’s moral and aesthetic visions of life.


A typical case from the works of Samuel Smiles reveals a different force driving personality. The case of Dr. Samuel Lee (1925, pp. 41341 5) typifies the story of the man who through the force of character hauls himself up from modest beginnings to outstanding achievements. “One of the dullest boys” at school, Dr. Lee began life as a carpenter, reading books with Latin quotations in his leisure. Becoming more interested he mastered Latin, and went on to study ancient Greek, followed by the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan dialects. All this was without support from any academy. However, the strain of reading began to tell on his eyes and he had to forego his study until a fire destroyed his carpentry tools and he was forced to take up teaching language for his livelihood. Through the patronage of Dr. Scott, a neighboring clergyman, Dr. Lee expanded the languages under his command and eventually became a professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Queen’s College, Cambridge. According to Smiles, the point of this story is to reveal “the power of perseverance in self‑culture,” though it could just as easily be to demonstrate the unpredictable and impressive nature of a natural gift for languages.

Absent from Smiles’ narrative is any discovery within Dr. Lee of a goal which has personal relevance, which would have marked Sheehy’s version of the same story. The catalyst for Dr. Lee’s rise was not selfdiscovery, but the patronage of Dr. Scott and the recognition from others of Dr. Lee’s “unaffected, simple, and beautiful character.” The story of Dr. Lee’s life can be viewed as an epic narrative in which the hero undergoes adventures that do not interact with his relatively static and simple character. Scholes and Kellog (1966) contrast the epic with the romantic form, especially the modem romance involving a psychological search for identity, where the adventures dynamically affect the character of the hero. The form of character emplotment used by Sheehy typifies the themes of modem romance.

Despite these differences in their chosen forms of life emplotment, Sheehy and Smiles have in common a moral framework upon which their constructions are based. In this framework the hero is understood to be an exemplar of certain virtues ‑ for Sheehy it is authenticity, and for Smiles it is commitment. An alternative framework for constructing character is suggested by Hunter’s (1983) study of the practice of “reading” character in drama criticism. Sheehy and Smiles typify a practice of reading character in which the worth and workings of a person are formed by moral qualities. An alternative means of reading character was practiced in the eighteenth century. This involves viewing character as a rhetorical object, whose plausibility and quality is determined by the dramaturgical rules of everyday life. This practice is evident in the typification of characters into such categories as the “eccentric” and the “conformist.” What such characters lack is a temporal dimension which would give their lives a stronger narrative underpinning, and thus a greater moral relevance. By providing definite narrative frameworks for life, Sheehy and Smiles enable character to be read morally.


Gail Sheehy’s books can be seen as attempts to construct life in terms of the narrative conventions of romance, of a struggle between good and evil which sets the stage for a discovery of inner truth. The outcome of this construction is to create adventure in personal conflict and thus allow the possibility of hope in a period of potential despair; it gives personal crisis a meaning by encapsulating it in narrative terms. Compared to Sheehy, Smiles’ narratives grant the individual much less authority in resolving the issues of selfhood, and offer the less individually determined Stoic path of moral goodness as a guarantee of happiness. Smiles’ books demonstrate that the conventions used by Sheehy are relative. What is found in the works of two of Sheehy’s contemporaries, Levinson and Gould, are the life manuals which do grant the individual this authority, but their metaphors for selfhood lack the spirited adventure with an externalized foe that characterizes Sheehy’s vision. Certainly there are enough materials in any life for the construction of a romance, but whether romance is chosen before other narrative structures such as tragedy and irony will depend on the aesthetic and moral will of the constructor.

All of these life constructions serve a basic need to provide a narrative concordance in human development, but they obviously differ in the values they attach to the individual and society, the limits of human freedom, and the resulting degree of hope, despair, resignation, or pragmatism that is appropriate in life’s progress. The first step has been to recognize the process of life construction at work in the popular life manual, the next stage is to determine its aesthetic, moral, psychological, social, cultural, and historical contexts.


1. For an analysis of Gail Sheehy’s relationship to popular psychoanalysis see Murray, K. (1984). Romanticizing psychoanalysis. Unpublished manuscript, University of Melbourne, Australia.

2. For a description of these myths see N. Frye, 1957; and for a statement of their theoretical relevance in the social sciences see K. Murray, in press.


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Runyan, W. M. (1980). Alternative accounts of lives: an argument for epistemological relativism. Biography, 3, 209‑224.

Sabini, J. and Silver, M. (1982). Moralities of everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sarbin, T. R. (1982). The Quixotic principle: A Belletristic approach to the psychological study of meanings and imaginings. In V. L. Allen and K. E. Scheibe (Eds.), The social context of conduct: Psychological writings of Theodore Sarbin. New York: Praeger.

Scholes, R. and Kellog, R. (1966). The nature of narrative. London: Oxford University Press.

Sheehy, G. (1977). Passages: Predictable crises in adult life. New York: Bantam.

Sheehy, G. (1982). Pathfinders. New York: Bantam.

Smiles, S. (1925). Self‑help: With illustrations of conduct and perseverance. London: John Murray. (Originally published in 1854).

White, H. (1973). Metahistory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, H. (1980). The value of narrativity in the representation of reality. Critical Inquiry, 7, 5‑28.

Narrative Partitioning: The ins and outs of identity construction

Kevin Murray ‘Narrative Partitioning: The ins and outs of identity construction’ in Rethinking Psychology: Volume 1 – Conceptual Foundations  (ed J. Smith, R. Harre & Luk van Langenhove) Sage (1995)


Narrative psychology is one of the many new fields of research that extend the narratological study of how stories work (Prince, 1982) into extra-literary domains. This chapter attempts to introduce the narrative approach with and against two major paradigms of modern social psychology. Before locating into its position within the discipline of psychology, it is important to place this development within the broader analysis of narrative in the twentieth century.

Attention to the mechanics of narrative was the subject of systematic study by early Soviet literary theorists. Russian formalists of the 1920s made their principle unit of study the `device’ (Erlich, 1981). Rather than focus on the meanings conveyed by narrative, their method explored the more abstract tools which gave stories a familiar structure. One of the most influential works of Russian literary criticism was Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1968) which reduced a corpus of Slavic fairy tales to a series of functions (lack, quest and resolution) and agents (e.g., hero and donor).

This formal interest was developed further in the American literary school of New Criticism. Northrop Frye’s seminal work Anatomy of Criticism (1957) provided a series of schemes for the analysis of Western literature. His principle categories were the four mythoi: romance, comedy, tragedy and satire. Such literary genres serve as tools for those who extend `poetics’ beyond fiction to those practices of representation which have a formal component. Frye’s myths have since been used in the analysis of other extra-literary forms of narrative understanding, such as historiography (White, 1973).

More recently, the French structuralist school drew on the linguistic theory of Saussure for a purely semiotic analysis of narrative. It’s principle focus was narrative as a structure of binary oppositions formed by the operations of metaphor and metonymy (Barthes, 1974). Various attempts have been made to combine a structuralist analysis with the phenomenological processes of consciousness such as intentionality. Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative (Ricoeur, 1984, 1985) argues that one of the principle achievements of narrative is the experience of `event’ ¾i.e., contingent action such as a test whose outcome is not wholly determined by the text.

One of the recurring speculations in narratological literature is that narrative operates as a fundamental process of understanding beyond any particular literary tradition. Butor (1969, p. 26) describes narrative as `one of the essential constituents of our understanding of reality.’ In a field such as anthropology, this speculation relates to an established inquiry into the role of mythological story-telling in the reproduction of culture. Turner (1980) proposes a link between the sacred narrative corpus and ritualistic resolution of social conflict. Propp’s basic triad of breach, crisis and redress is presented as a process of collective functioning for which narratives are paradigmatic.

When narrative is incorporated into social psychology, with emphasis more on the individual’s relation to the group, the central question becomes one of agency. It’s most direct correlate in literary theory is the relationship between the teller and his or her audience. Chambers (1984) offers an analysis of texts as acts of seduction which attempt to elicit the reader’s desire ¾the principle desire being to gain knowledge that is withheld in the narration. In social psychology, the question is more how an individual relates to his or her own story with less emphasis on the actual scene of the telling.

One of the first outlines of narrative psychology explored the link between a life and the story that is told about it. Kotre (1984) speculated on the presence of `archetypal stories’ which place individual lives in the context of collective meanings. Rather than any formal analysis of narrative, Kotre focused his study on `the personal and social dynamics of stories’ (p. 264). He claimed that certain stories had a generative potential which enables individuals to overcome life crises such as old age. Though it is an important beginning to narrative psychology, what Kotre overlooks is the individuals who for reasons such as race or gender might lack a collective story which gives their life purpose.

This critical perspective was more the business of Potter, Stringer & Wetherell’s (1984) marraige between the concerns of social psychology and modern literary analysis. Their term for the common ground between literature and psychology was `codes of intellegibility’. For example, the personality theory which presupposes traits as underlying determinants of identity is consistent with the roles in literature of minor characters, such as the `honest soul’, whose identities are static. Such codes have clear implications for the capacity of an individual to effect change in his or her situation. Potter etal‘s volume reflects a strong interest in the application of narrative to an understanding of the discipline of psychology itself.

This interest continued in Sarbin’s (1986) collection of essays — the first explicitly devoted to `narrative psychology’.[1] Sarbin identified its project as an exploration of the way individuals make sense of their world through stories. Gergen & Gergen (1986) demonstrated the temporal assumptions of psychological theories which imply a `nonobjective’ narrative code. Piaget’s `progressive’ narrative of cognitive development was contrasted with Freud’s `regressive’ narrative of psychosexual development. These narrative `slopes’ offer `dramatic impact’ which `invites the audience into one’s theoretical edifice’ (p. 42). Gergen & Gergen’s analysis is an example of how narrative might be used to `de-objectify’ scientific truth by demonstrating the role of temporality and purpose in the persuasiveness of any particular theory.

One link between narrative and life in Sarbin’s volume concerned the clinical situation. Keen (1986) explored the clinical condition of paranoia as a particular narrative strategy whose features included a cataclysmic future horizon, a polarity of good and evil, and an absolute divide between self and other. A similar approach was followed in a study of popular psychology texts (Murray, 1986) which by contrast with their professional equivalents tended to favour Frye’s mythos of romance over tragic scenarios.

Psychoanalytic perspectives on narrative tend to consider the particular process by which analytic therapy reconstructs the stories an individual tells about him or herself. For Spence (1986), the process of psychoanalysis entails the narrativisation of an experience which otherwise lingers as a traumatic lapse of meaning. This process is termed `narrative smoothing’ ¾what he has described elsewhere as the practice of offering a `home’ for meaning: `truth in the service of self-coherence.’ (1982, p. 62). Spence claims successful self-narrative is a precondition for psychological well-being.

Fellow psychoanalyst Schafer (1978) attends more to the particular kinds of narrative which it is the business of therapy to construct. For Schafer, the principle goal of therapy should be to place the analysand in an active relationship to his or her life situation: when actions are interpreted as expressions of unconscious desire, the analysand might be seen as an active force in the story rather than a passive victim of circumstances. For other narrative therapies, the central goal is a `self-authoring’ by which the individual might be seen to take control of the stories governing his or her identity (see Epston, White & Murray, 1992). This contrasts with Schafer’s method which, despite an emphasis on agency, still grant the analyst the role of principle narrator.

More recently, narrative psychology has been incorporated within the broader movement known as constructionism. Put simply, this school of thought investigates selfhood as the product of public discourse rather than internal psychic processes. In their collection, Texts of Identity, Shotter & Gergen (1989) presented constructionism as a demythologisation of the dominant text of identity ¾`the centrality and sovereignity of the individual’ (p. viii) ¾by revealing the social practices involved in its reproduction. For instance, Kitzinger (1989) identities two liberal humanistic texts for the construction of lesbianism ¾romantic love and individual fulfilment ¾as means of denying the possibility of political choice in one’s sexual orientation. When identity is seen as a construction rather than a representation of what already exists, ethics becomes a possibility.

Constructionism informs the various studies collected by Rosenwald and Ochberg in Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding (1992). They argue a performative theory of identity in which life stories do not simply reflect actual events but actively shape who an individual is. Thus the particular conventions which govern the telling of self-narratives are critically important in the kinds of choices one makes in a life. The critical import for the editors is to `enlarge the range of personal narrative’ partly by elaborating stories of individuals who find themselves outside conventional frames of intelligibility. In doing this, they propose a dialectic between social conventions and individual desire which leads to life stories that have claim to uniqueness within an intelligible frame. For instance, Reissman (1992) presents the case of a woman who divorces after an incident of `marital rape’. The author attends to the devices used by the `victim’ to win an audience for her story, though the anger this unleashes has difficulty finding a narrative form. Reissman identifies here the limits of narrative conventions in representing the breadth of human experience. Storied Lives differs in tenor from Texts of Identity by presupposing an individuality outside and in tension with its social constructions.

Research in narrative psychology generally consists of a case study which reveals individual strategies in negotiating stories with a particular audience. Such an approach is difficult to quantify because the interest in agency demands that an individual’s claim to uniqueness is respected.

While the link between narrative and agency is rich source of inquiry, the delineation of what constitutes narrative in a human life is often imprecise. In most cases, the use of narrative is linked indiscriminately with other forms of self-representation: stereotypes, text, social discourse, etc. It is rare to find narrative identified as a circumscribed faculty of individual identity. One means of doing this is to spatially identify the aspects of a life which are granted eligibility for narrativisation. Young (1989) uses the concept `Taleworld’ to identify that domain of life which is brought into being by the act of storytelling. The purpose of this concept is to identify where conflict occurs not in the content of the story but in what it deems as `narratable’. Her case involves a transgression of the `taleworld’ defined by the routines of a medical examination: the internal experience of the body and the political dimension, in this case Auschwitz. In her analysis, Young implies the importance of the ontological dimension of narrative: the way it isolates certain elements as eligible for telling.

It is this spatial dimension which presents a particular challenge to conventional psychology. Without it, narrative risks operating within an abstract frame of individual identity which is little different to other conventional modes of understanding. To illustrate this point, this chapter is organised as a contrast between two dominant spatial paradigms at work in psychological theory: the laboratory and the club. The aim is to show how narrative psychology might illuminate the fundamental limits that determine what in a life is tellable.


The narratological significance of the space known as the `laboratory’ concerns the forms of agency within its borders and their effect on agency once the individual is outside, in normal life. This description of a typical social psychology experiment demonstrates the narratological limits of the laboratory:

Female undergraduates were first given a test of self-esteem. Next, they worked on an involved conceptual task under one of two conditions: alone or in the presence of an audience. In the audience condition, two visitors sat behind the subject during her performance, occasionally whispering and shifting their chairs to remind her that she was being observed. All this was arranged to make the subject feel self-conscious. … In the audience condition, high- and low-self-esteem subjects differed in their perceptions of their task performance. This is particularly noteworthy, since the actual performance of the groups did not differ. It appears then, that people interpret their behaviour in a way that reinforces their characteristic expectation ¾no matter what the outcomes really are.[2]

Those who have taken the role of subject in a psychology `experiment’ will find nothing very unusual in this typically sober account. But take this account out of its academic context, and it no longer appears so unremarkable. Regardless of how humiliating or abnormal the actions required of one, if they occur in the confines of a laboratory they have no official bearing on one’s identity in real life. The psychology experiment is officially a reversible event. As Milgram’s studies of obedience dramatically demonstrate, one can even commit murder without leaving a trace on one’s public character. The audience is strictly limited to a profession of researchers who inscribe one’s actions into the academic archive.[3]

This audience is normally policed by an ethics committee whose role as gatekeeper ensures that conditions of anonymity are met. This procedure prevents the flow of information out of the laboratory. The only official good which the subject is free to retrieve from the experiment is a small fee or course credit. Like the revolving door in modern architecture, the rule of anonymity means that subjects arrive and depart from the experiment as private individuals. There is no question that subjects might join together to subvert the authority of the scientist or alter the course of the experiment, or impose their own interpretations on the events staged for the benefit of the psychologist.


By contrast, the narrative space of the `club’ contains a permeable border with life outside. The agency established within it thus has implications for individual powers in normal life. A fictional account of an English club marks this contrast:

Other clubs stubbornly deny that they try to supply their patients with new identities. They insist that they merely reveal an identity which has been pushed out of sight. Thank God, gentlemen, we shall never be like them! We are proud to know that we are in the very van of modern development, that we can transform any unknown quantity into a fixed self, and that we need never fall back on the hypocrisy of pretending that we are mere uncoverers.

Captain Mallet is outlining the principles of the Identity Club during its summer session in an English country mansion. Mallet is himself a fictional character, invented by Nigel Dennis for his novel Cards of Identity (1955). Using techniques borrowed from psychotherapy, Mallet constructs new identities for local villagers ¾fortunately their spent lives offer little resistance to his transformative techniques. In his speech, Mallet takes the approach that identity is stamped rather than cultivated: identity is imposed from without rather than unfolded from within.

In an exaggerated form, what Mallet’s organization shares with other clubs is an irreversibility of action. This irreversibility is partly due to the permeable boundaries between the club and the outside world. While membership of the club is contingent on certain basic commitments about one’s contribution while inside it, it plays a part in the identity one presents to the outside world. Even membership of a hobby club, which demands minimal dues and time, is open to interpretation by non-members: belonging to a stamp collecting club suggests a care for small details and lack of interest in larger political issues.

Importantly, whatever happens inside the club can have lasting consequences in one’s personal history. Thus a member has something to gain from the club that goes beyond monetary reward. It would be as ridiculous for a subject to pay for participation in an experiment as it would be for a club to pay its members for joining. Likewise, it is as unlikely for subjects to question the authority of the experimenter as it is for a club to be without factions. While the atomism of identity in the experiment guarantees reversibility, the possibility of political relations within the club works against it.

The field of social psychology is divided into two competing schools of thought; these provide us with alternative models for understanding how identity is constituted in space. These schools look to quite different domains: the cognitive model studies what is found in the heads of individuals and the ethogenic acknowledges only what those heads do together with other heads. In reference to the locations used so far, the cognitive inhabits the laboratory and the ethogenic looks to the club.

In the cognitive school

The position of an individual in the cognitive school is analogous to the role of the experimenter in the laboratory. Like the experimenter, the business of the individual is to construct theories that predict the behaviour of others. Unlike the professional, however, the amateur psychologist includes him or herself in the theory. For the layman, truth is not the sole master of information processing: the individual’s welfare depends on an ability to control his or her environment. As revealed in the fundamental attribution error, this need to control might occasionally overwhelm the truth. This control always remains a private matter: the cognitive school conceives the individual as a lone subject whose control of their environment depends purely on internal processes.[4] Fiske & Taylor (1984, p.136) enunciate this principle as follows: `The potential for control depends fundamentally upon the perception that one is able to perform a given action’. There are no other percep­tions to consider in this explanation.

Social cognition presumes a region in which atomised individuals attempt to predict the actions of others and thus exert con­trol over them.[5] McIntyre (1984) suggests these are the conditions in which one finds the character paradigm of `manager’: a role which is dependent on an ability to make the actions of others predictable. Once the nature of this predicability is known, then that person’s actions may be manipulated by those in possession of such know­ledge.[6]

Narrative fits into this picture as a second-order theory. Unlike scientific theory, narrative contains an element of contingency which deprives the outcome of certainty. Given that narrative, in this manner, entails chance occurrences, it operates as a less rigorous theory than one grounded on scientific principles. When Robinson & Hawpe (1986) compare the different products of scientific theory and story, the latter is defined as: `context-bound, concrete, and testable through ordinary interpersonal checking’. (p. 114) One makes do with stories if one is able to tolerate contradictions or unable to eliminate ambiguities. In the end, though, stories must be tested.

This interiorisation of narrative finds a therapeutic place in more recent forms of psychoanalysis. Roy Schafer’s (1978) reference to narrative as `visions of reality’ shares with the cognitive school the assumption that individuals are made largely of the pictures they carry around in their heads. The problem for Schafer, however, is not the issue of truth but of control. A poor narrative reduces one’s agency to that of a victim who passively suffers injuries inflicted by fate. The task of psychoanalysis, for Schafer, is to provide a more central position for the analysand in the story so that choices might emerge where before there were only events.

Both psychoanalysis and the cognitive school offer narrative a place in the head of an isolated individual. There is no allowance here for the actual telling of the story. Instead, narrative is apprenticed to truth ¾it is yet to show the maturity of scientific reason.

Both schools not only purport to reveal and promote the narratives of its `clients’, but are themselves a form of telling. Cognitive psychology presents the events of the `laboratory’ according to certain narrative conventions borrowed from the talk-telling practices of the physical sciences (revealed for example in Latour and Woolgar, 1979) .

In the ethogenic school

The ethogenic school locates the individual in a space directly outside that offered by the cognitive school. Here, the individual is nothing but how he or she appears in the eyes of others. Harré & Secord (1972) contrast their ethogenic project with the Humean model of causation where external stimuli are impressed on passive objects, the so-called `subjects’. In their agenda, `Action is to be treated as the realization of a potentiality created in space in the neigh­bour­hood of active things’ (p.68). The individual is not the sole active being in a world of objects, but is rather a socialised agent whose actions require the cooperation of other fellow individuals.

From the ethogenic perspective, action has meaning in the eyes of an audience. For Sullivan, this is essential: `…in the end there must be some audience, however, sparse, to make the judgement of the sig­nificance of a human act.'(1984, p.46). Action externalises itself as accountability. Shotter (1984) proposes that human agency is defined by the picture one presents, not to oneself, but to others. The intelligibility of action is a matter of collective knowledge, not internal mental schemas.

Today the ethogenic school finds a wider sympathetic voice in the social construction movement, especially in the arguments mounted by Kenneth Gergen. Gergen (1985) introduces Austin’s theory of performative speech to recast the function of language from a reflection of the world to its very constitution. Rather than a world of inert objects, the ethogenic school places the individual in a world made of words¾a conversation. Harré, Clarke & de Carlo (1985) refer to convers­ation as the `basic reality’ in which subject­ivity and under­standing are housed. The inquiry they outline examines the relation between this public ritual of commenting on things and the private reflections that occur in its absence. And in a parallel move, Gergen (1989) emphases the significance of a `warranting voice’ where one’s participation in the conversation is dependent on authorisation within a shared set of values.

Here, the intimate understanding established between psychoanalyst and analysand is severely limited because it is confined to the couch. More appropriate to ethogenic principles are those family therapies which set out to win from the client’s reference group an acknowledgment of any character transformation (see Epston, White & Murray, 1992). Transformation of identity is not a matter of self-revelation but of dramatic plausibility.

Narrative enters the ethogenic school not as a picture but as an act. One needs a story to participate in the conversation that defines one’s identity. Thus it is not only the teller but also the audience which determines identity. The participation of a listening audience moulds the narrative according to the values that define the group: in end, the story must offer a meaningful point (see Labov & Waletzky, 1967). The ethogenic school shifts the locus of action from the individual to the social, from the inside to the outside.

This school has no trouble with reflexivity. It recognizes itself as a provider of narrative forms, and invites the participation of all concerned in the tailings.

Methods of difference

Here we have a choice between two spaces for the location of narrative in an individual life. One sees narrative as a mental space which serves the progress of an individual through the world, whereas the other makes narrative part of that very world. How does one make a choice between what lies inside the individual and what resides outside? My guess is that readers of this volume are likely to ally themselves with the latter approach. The ethogenic line appears to grant individuals the capacity to speak for themselves, whereas the cognitive approach offers a more closed understanding¾the ideal of scientific reason promotes a scepticism to any accounts by social actors, since a fortiori, they do not conceive themselves as moved by the causal mechanisms imagined by cognitivists.

There is an important reason, however, why this choice should not be prematurely taken. Once narrative is seen to constitute social reality, its place as a specific domain of meaning is lost. The challenge in understanding how narrative is incorporated into social construction is to identify its relation to what is not narrative. Without this antithesis, we face the threat of sic nulla omnia: when narrative is everything, it is nothing.

Fortunately, there are two theoretical frameworks which embrace the difference between the individual and the social, the laboratory and the club. Each makes progress towards a dualistic system where both are seen to have a place. The categories adopted by Jerome Bruner and Rom Harré construct psychological theories of meaning which grant the space of narrative an opposition to more rational forms of understanding. Let’s review these categories before exploring how they might be linked.

Two generic narrative forms

[KM1] Following Propp (1968) and others we can see a common pattern to all unself-conscious and commonplace narratives, a pattern we might call `predicament and resolution’. Bruner (1986) and Harré, (1993) have made more or less the same distinction between two main ways in which this common pattern is realized in the stories through which our actions are made intelligible and warrantable.

Bruner: `Narrative’ and `paradigmatic’

Like the founding figures of psychology, Bruner’s career includes significant contributions to both the scientific and literary approaches. Soon after his pioneering article on person perception (Bruner, 1958), Bruner published Essays for the Left Hand (1962), where he proposed the existence of a `library of scripts’ which are available to members of a culture as repertoires of understanding. In his later contribution to narrative psychology (Bruner, 1986), these two strands of thought are brought together in the opposition between paradigmatic reasoning and narrative thought

Paradigmatic reasoning shares with scientific explanation the mode of inductivism. Through it one sees a world of objects which interact in regular patterns. Narrative thought, by contrast, attempts to maintain a subjective perspective on the world it represents, incorporating aims and fears into the picture. It incorporates both a knowledge of the world and the point of view which beholds it.

Bruner differentiates between paradigmatic and narrative on a number of dimensions. In language, the paradigmatic favours the indicative mode, describing a world of fact, whereas the narrative uses the subjunctive mode to construct a point of view which is capable of hope and fear. The paradigmatic works towards a synchronic picture where all is present at the same time, while the narrative entails change over time, particularly through crisis. The paradigmatic is an explicit form of reasoning whereas narrative incorporates unspoken knowledge which is implied in the telling. Narrative differs from paradigmatic as enthymeme differs from syllogism.

According to scientific ideals, the narrative system of meaning always comes off second best. By looking to their developmental roots, Bruner attempts to restore equity between the paradigmatic and narrative modes. In doing this, Bruner explores whether narrative is a `wired‑in’ cognitive property or a culturally acquired conven­tion for communicating events. Bruner deals with this question through a division between expression and its cause: whereas the particular forms which narrative understanding takes are culturally specific, the origins of narrative lie in early childhood development prior to socialization. Bruner refers to the narrative mode as `…a primitive category system in terms of which experience is organized.’ (1986, p.18) He sees the perception of causation by six‑month old infants as integral to the later under­standing of intention that finds its full development in the narrative mode of ordering reality. The intersubjective realm is thus reduced to the individual.

Bruner marries the paradigmatic with the natural world and the narrative with the social (he cites the US Navy adage to illustrate this: `Salute if it moves, otherwise paint it’.[7]). His handling of the opposition manages to grant individual and social modes their difference: there’s a time for both. But, for our purposes, there is not enough time. Eventually, Bruner returns to the laboratory to look for narrative inside the head of an individual, and thus rejoins the stream from which he seemed to be so creatively diverging.

Harré: Expressive versus practical

In Social being (1979, 1993), Rom Harré opposed two domains of social action which match the opposition between paradigmatic and narrative: practical and expressive. The later version explicitly claims that both practical and expressive are both patterns of narrative. While Harré uses the term `narrative’ to refer to the way meanings are attached to actions, the focus in this chapter concerns narrative as a space of contingency rather than necessity¾indeed where action is itself possible. This use of `narrative’ points to spheres of life such as `adventure’, `test’, `crisis’ or `art’ where an outcome is anticipated that cannot be predicted in advance. While acknowledging that all action requires a discursive flesh to be meaningful, it preserves a critical difference between a front stage where action is anticipated and a backstage filled with predictable routine.

The practical order concerns the acquisi­tion of resources necessary to sustain certain forms of life, and the expressive domain of meaning deals with how one stands in the eyes of another. Like Bruner, Harré finds this opposition manifest within language: practical meaning is constructed by the use of verbs (in saying what one does) whereas the expressive is revealed adverbially (in saying how one does it). While ethogenic research is mainly located in the expressive domain, Harré attempts to deal with the cultural conditions of their relationship, how and in what conditions one register of meaning dominates or displaces the other.

Harré contrasts cultures which emphasise the expressive domain of meaning (e.g., Trobriand Islanders, Melanesians and contemporary Western culture) from cultures which privilege the practical (e.g., Victorian England). Harré claims that at most times and in most societies short-term expressive gain will be preferred to long-term practical benefits.[8] Though Harré does not appear to ad­dress this question directly, his text implies that there is little historical evolution governing this differentiation.

Harré’s approach provides significant steps towards developing a dynamic account of this difference in allowing for the circulation of meaning between the practical and expressive: how practical gains may be rhetorically trans­formed into expressive credits, and vice versa.[9] However, in the end, like Bruner, Harré reduces the expressive to the practical in the attempt to identify a function (whether on the level of species or society): the display of status. The line of sense which has been identified as ethogenic-narrative-expressive should not be reduced to its complement if the dualism is to be successful. He seems to suggest that in the end all intelligibility creating constructions are prudential, or `for the sake of’ tales. To resist this collapse of registers a third term is required that mediates between the practical-expressive opposition and prevents its eventual reduction into one of the terms. Where is the story-line to be found which acknowledges the distinction between `practical motivation’ and `expressive motivation’ and yet is not itself an instance of the `for the sake of’ pattern? There are some candidate terms from other disciplines, such as structuration in sociology (see Giddens, 1984), or differance in literary theory (see Derrida, 1976, p.23). For strategic reasons, it is more useful to take our concept from the discipline of psychology itself, particularly from one of its paradigmatic fields of research¾perception.


The differentiation of figure and ground is a mainstay of research into visual perception. From the perspective of ecological research, however, this differentiation goes much further than pictorial representation. From an ecological point of view¾that of an active perceptual subject¾partitioning is used to describe the process that divides the world into what is given and what can be taken. Partitioning names the process by which the environment is held still by the obser­ver in order to make perceptible the object of interest. This process renders a world `pickup-able’: it constructs a stable background against which action occurs. At an abstract level, Johansson, von Hofsten & Jansson (1980, p.30) define the purpose of partitioning as being to establish `…figural relations which are constant (or invariant) under transform­ation of the figure.’ In these terms, partitioning can apply to symbolic processes such as the perception of talk where the manifest meaning of the utterance provides a stable reference against which intonation can convey the emotional state of the speaker (Shepard, 1984).[10]

For our purpose, it is necessary to extend partitioning beyond individual perception to the symbolic space in which narrative is possible. As a contingent figure stands out of a necessary ground, so expressive meaning may be seen to present itself in a context of practical space. From this perspective, narrative exists only by virtue of its difference from the paradigmatic, and vice versa. The point at issue is how and when the practical becomes the expressive¾how and when the predictable world gives way to narratable action; this is the particular variety of differentiation we term `narrative partitioning’.

The direction in which `narrative partitioning’ takes us has parallels with the ethnomethodology outlined by Goffman in Frame analysis (1975). Goffman’s concept of `primary frameworks’ refers to the basic contexts which render action readable. As a primary framework, the phenomenon nominated as narrative partitioning deals particularly with the contextualisation of action as outside everyday life. This particular condition is evident most directly in Goffman’s (1968) analysis of the way the maintenance of an asylum entails the re-framing of inmate’s behaviour so that intention is no longer a valid guide for understanding action: the asylum thus becomes a laboratory with no way out. Goffman’s taste for the ironies of social life has limited his cases to the tragic and embarrassing confrontations with framing practices.

Regrettably, our narratological approach lacks Goffman’s sense of human foibles. Instead, it focuses on the more neutral architectonic properties of framing: how space is organized to contain experience which is outside everyday life. As Harré’s (1979) concept of `tests of hazard’ demonstrates, this space contains opportunities for acquisition of agency as much as its loss. Harré presents the soccer fight as a singular opportunity for expressive action that stands out from the predictable tedium of a working week. From this line of sight, other such spaces become visible: the disaster, the job interview, the wedding, etc. What is critical for our inquiry is the transaction which occurs in the border between expressive opportunities and practical life . To assist this inquiry, it is useful to draw from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose concept of `chronotope’ operates in this very border region.


Narratology finds an odd fellow traveller on the other side of the iron curtain. As a semiotician in a Stalinist Soviet Union, Bakhtin was cut off from theoretical exchange with the west. This isolation does, paradoxically, seem to have given him freedom to follow lines of thought that are creatively idiosyncratic, particularly those inspired by the novels of Dostoevsky and the school of Russian formalism. For this very reason, Bakhtin’s oeuvre is greeted by many in the west as a source of fresh ideas and new theoretical angles.[11]

The terms most often borrowed from Bakhtin, such as `carnivalesque’ and `heteroglossia’, celebrate anti-authoritarian virtues. Our own choice, `chronotope’, operates within a more formal concern for the basic parameters of meaning. Bakhtin borrowed chronotope from mathematical biology to describe the regularities of time and space in the novel. Rather than see time and space as abstract containers of action, Bakhtin takes a neo-Kantian perspective within which `chronotope’ operates as a synthesis of time and space. His framework is a way of avoiding the simple rationalist understanding of life as an even plane of action; instead, certain spaces are seen to have their own indigenous narrative logics.

In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.[1981, p. 85]

Bakhtin’s analysis accords special significance to the particular dramatic logic of places such as the road, the corridor and the public square. Reversibility , chance and consciousness are dimensions by which these chronotopes might be distinguished. In his 1941 essay, Bakhtin contrasts the Greek romance of the sixth century with Latin novels such as Apelius’s The golden ass. In the Greek romance, the character of the hero moves through a distant world where events have little effect other than to demonstrate the traits of the hero through ordeals; action is private, reversible and results from chance. In the Latin romance, the hero suffers transformation which brings forth encounters in everyday life that enable the redemption of the hero; action is private, irreversible and occurs through intention. In summary, the chronotope of adventure which entails travel beyond the limits of everyday life is shown by Bakhtin to have developed from a static demonstration of individual traits to a dynamic evolution of self-consciousness. The critical advantage of Bakhtin’s analysis is that it introduces history into the understanding of how life is interpeted within different narrative frames.

Though Bakhtin makes no claims for the presence of such chronotopes in life outside the novel, his psychology is based on the axiom that forms of expression determine experience (Volosinov, 1973, p. 85). As such, it is possible to think of parallels between the literary chronotopes identified by Bakhtin and their real life equivalents. The Greek romance, for example, corresponds with a one-off chance excursion into a higher realm: imagine winning a raffle whose first prize was dinner with the President of the United States. The Latin romance, by contrast, finds its real life equivalent in a private and deliberate experience of transformation: joggers who decide to enter a marathon often do so as a deliberate attempt to increase their self discipline (see Murray, 1985 & 1989).

`Chronotope’ is a useful concept here in moving narrative away from the heights of abstract schema to a more concrete, constructed level. On the ground level, narrative manifests itself in the partitioning of particular spaces defined not only by what happens inside but also how it relates to outside . Partitioning might be visualised as a membrane which filters certain information in and out of the narrative space.[12] The most direct way of investigating this process is to examine a space where `something happens’ and track what comes in and what goes out. Already, our confrontation between laboratory and club has touched on some of these differences, but we have been limited to generic types of space. Far better to actually study the act of narrative partitioning `live’ in order to judge how significant it is in the formation of individual identity.

For the western middle class, travel has often been seen as an exotic domain of experience that is contained in an ordinary life. The question which the concept of narrative partitioning asks is whether such travel is seen to change one’s identity: is the traveller who returns home the same person as the one who left? To think of this as problem of narrative partitioning, it is useful to refer to the anthropological work on rites of passage, particularly the `vision quest’ of the Thompson Indians in northwest America (Pettit, 1946). This anthropology depicts a community where young male initiates leave home to spend time in the forest left entirely to their own resources. Time in the forest is marked by not only ordeals of hunger and exposure, but also special dreams. On return, elders interpret the dreams as predestinations of individual biography which establish a new identity of the initiate in the tribe and determine future responsibilities. We expect nothing so ritualised in a modern world, yet the task still remains to negotiate the re-entry of a traveller back into his or her home circle. This re-entry is established discursively by the narration of travellers’ tales, told and heard according to quite specific narrative conventions and realizing traditional story-lines (rain in England, `bottom pinching’ in Italy and so on).[13]

Partition breaks

Since the Protestant overturning of the division of religious and secular life, much cultural energy has been devoted to defining and redefining the separation between sacred and profane spaces: art and life, stage and audience, dream and reality.[14] From a metaphysical point of view, this activity is underpinned by a drive to make the world present in one place and in one time — a world where the individual is infinitely mobile. The modern manifestation of this in the gathering of things as resources is defined by Heidegger as `enframing’ (1977, p. 24). Given the impossibility of this quest — an argument we might forgo for the moment — narrative partitioning as a kind of spatialisation remains an unstable element of contemporary culture.

This instability is evident in a range of `partition breaks’. In what is called `postmodern fiction’, the consciousness of the author which is normally located in a life outside the book is incorporated into the fiction itself by writers like Italo Calvino, especially his popular work If on a winter’s night a traveller…. In popular culture, a figure such as Madonna makes her reputation by transgressing the boundaries between art and life. Her 1992 book Sex, contains a photograph of the singer standing naked not in a studio but by a highway, in a public space. This is part of her `queer’ politics which partitions sex as a private fantasy rather than a potentially shameful mirror of one’s public self. The problematic effect of this kind of partitioning is reflected in commercial practice of phone sex where women use their voices to provide erotic stimulation for men they will never meet in person. One occupational hazard of phone sex is a difficulty in reconciling the experience of listening to the disturbed fantasies of clients with moralities in everyday life.[15] The process of de-briefing entails constructing partitions to confine such traumatic experiences.

Perhaps the most volatile region for partitioning is in the emerging visual technologies. The use of video in weddings extends its space to include future viewers at distant times and places. Studios specialising in wedding videos model their products on `glamorous’ images from television creating a leak between group experience and popular culture.[16] In the video a new kind of narrative style has entered everyday life, much more broadly than the home movie ever did. Weddings are set up so as to sustain a video narration. Which is the social reality? A further study to be pursued is the narrative forms of virtual reality (Haraway, 1991) but not here.


Whether located in consciousness, conversation or wordless action, narrative need not be seen simply as a given modality of sense. As a sphere of life, it requires the boundary construction of gates and fences before it can be read back into normal life. Literary theory operates inside this space occasionally tracking the intervention of real life forces as narrative sub-structure. It’s the business of narrative psychology here to take the other side of the fence, monitoring the flow of fiction back into life. A spatialised theory of meaning, for which every inside has an outside, enables us to talk to those over the fence without losing the distinctive project of our inquiry. Since the line of demarcation today is rapidly shifting into new virtual realms, it is a significant challenge for this fledgling school to patrol the new terrain and monitor the changes therein and thereout.


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1In the preface, Sarbin announced that narrative was an `organizing principle’ in the way individuals made sense of the world.

[2]Wegner & Vallacher (1977), p. 246

[3]See Foucault (1973)for a history of the clinic of which the psychology laboratory is a variant.

[4] This is support­ed by the ontology of world as picture as it grounds the indivi­dualist ideology, identified by Hogan & Enler (1978) as the ethical ground of much social psychol­ogy. The control of subject over object is located within the subject rather than the way both are constellated.

[5] This relationship between the scientific way of represent­ing the world and individualist ideology is perhaps more readily appar­ent in other repres­entational practices. Arnheim (1977) analyses the social function of urban architecture by reading its implicit theory of space into the individualist work prac­tices. Arnheim sees the relatively anarchic and crowded distrib­ution of buildings in a modern city as being made poss­ible in a community of atomising social relations, where minding one’s own business is complem­ented by a Euclid­ean under­standing of space as an empty container. The occupa­tion of space by one building is seen to have no bearing on the adjacent buildings. The modern structuring of urban space can be seen to reflect the social relations of the city in the same way that the theoretic­al field of agency offered by social cognition is sympathetic to the notion of a world of independently constituted social actors.

[6] An extension of McIntyre’s analysis into social cognition is illustrated in the attempts to ground cognitive science in practical contexts. Clark (1987) presents such an explanation for the ability to reason in terms of means and ends. He claims this form of cognition is a necessary condition of our social relations. He proposes that means‑end reasoning is something `wired‑in’ in order to discern another’s thoughts, `…to enable us to make the best deals we can.’ (p.15) In Clark’s framework, cognition has adapted to the real-life demand to anticipate what another is thinking: Clark presumes an ecology for thought that is similar to the marketplace, where strategies need to be hidden rather than communic­ated.

[7]This adage demonstrates the sharp distinction between an agent that requires expressive action and all other things for which a practical response is demanded.

[8]In a later text (Harré, Clarke & de Carlo, 1984) he states that one of the tasks of social psychology is to disen­tangle the two domains of meaning in a community.

[9]Parallel with the transformations between economic and cultural capital described in Bourdieu’s (1984) survey of French styles of consumption.

[10] The extension of the principle of ecological perception into the social domain would seem an un­problematic move. The understand­ing of what a person `affords’ seems the same type of problem as the actions enabled by a physical object. Yet such a development challenges the cognitivist axiom that social perception is guided by inference. In the words of McArthur & Baron (1983, p.215) an ecological social psychology advises attention to `…the structured stimulation that exists in our social envir­onment’.

Though it is beyond our reach here, this use of partitioning naturally extends into more historical accounts such as Foucault’s (1973) study of the medical gaze. The notion that an ontology may be historically grounded is, of course, one of the main themes in Heidegger’s thought.

[11]His understanding of consciousness as essentially dialogical is used by theorists such as Shotter (see elsewhere this volume) to counter the dominance of the Cartesian subject. Alternatively, critical theorists such as Julia Kristeva (1986)employ Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque to uncover the unstable corporeality of popular culture. Here, we will refer to a concept which has not received as much attention. There are some mentions of chronotope in cultural theory, such as Meaghan Morris’ (1992) essay on the Australian beach.

[12]Latour’s (1988) concept of `shifting-out’, applied to the presentation of Einstein’s relativity theory, attends particularly to the importance of reversibility in mapping the layers of time-space within narrative. Bakhtin’s employment of chronotope goes beyond this by including chance and consciousness as key features of narrative space.

[13]For further analysis of narrative partitioning in travel stories, see Murray (1989, 1991)

[14]See Fredrick Jameson (1988). One of the frequent discursive frames in travel talk was the ascription of overseas travel as like `being in a movie’. The modern emergence of theme parks like Disneyland reveals the mass appeal of this kind of space. To function properly, such space much remain private. Martin Scorsesi’s film King of Comedy portrays the unstable consequences of taking private fantasies seriously — i.e., into the realm of public identity.

[15]The American film maker Robert Altman has very creatively exploited the uncertainties generated by telecommuncation in overriding conventional partitions. In The Player (1991), the character played by Tim Robbins use his mobile phone to call a woman while standing outside her window — one’s visible behaviour is conventionally irrelevant to the phone conversation. And in Short Cuts (1993), conflict in a marriage is created when the husband is unable to successfully partition off the phone sex business his wife runs at home.

[16]This is reflected more generally in the standard format offered by the Funniest Home Video Show in its different incarnations around the world.