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.

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