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Thursday Review: “Narrative and the Self as Relationship” (Parts I and II)

At first glance, calling a story a “form of accounting” seems awfully mundane.

On the other hand, it’s very descriptive. The accounting for/of the activity is not the actual activity: it’s a kind of summary, a high-level overview of everything which actually occurred. A little like a financial report, everything in this account has a function and a proper place. Everything not relevant to the query is omitted or summarized, if it’s interesting enough.

Writing in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary M. Gergen go much further than comparing stories to spreadsheets. The authors begin at the point where we use stories to make ourselves comprehensible to other people, as well as explaining patterns of our behavior and existence to ourselves.

This is an interesting and important idea, but a fairly commonplace one. What the authors are driving at is that “self-narrative”, the ways we select and link events in our own lives, belongs to a social story. Instead of seeing narrative only as some kind of internal organization, we’re encouraged to see that our relationships are ordered in a narrative way, as well.

…theorists in each of these cases [discussing self-narratives] have tended to focus on psychological structures that enable people to understand or organize inputs into narrative structures or to interrogate the relevant rule, grammar, script, or schema for indications of proper or appropriate conduct. In contrast to these accounts, we view self-narratives as properties of social accounts or discourse. Narratives are, in effect, social constructions, undergoing continuous alteration as interaction progresses. … In this sense, self-narratives function much as histories within society do more generally. They are symbolic systems used for such social purposes as justification, criticism, and social solidification.

The means by which we are intelligible to ourselves and others is narrative. According to the authors, though, the rules for narrative aren’t so much psychological structures as they are societal expectations. This is encapsulated in the idea that what the study of history is to our larger society, our own narratives are to our existence. The raw data of the events themselves may not change (unless new information comes to light). What does change is our relationship to those events, the scope and context we see them in, and the willingness to see the results of those events. That process is vitally dependent on the social processes in which people are immersed.

The shift from an individual understanding of narrative to a societal one is the first important notion in the paper. The second one is a structural component of narrative “truth-telling”.

The most common analysis of a story moves from beginning to its end. This kind of understanding focuses on how the teller creates interest immediately and frames the remainder of the story. Gergen and Gergen’s well-made self-narratives begin at the end: one must first establish the point of the story. This end point of a story feeds back into their understanding of self-narratives as social narratives. The goal or lesson at the end of a story has to have some kind of shared value for the teller and the listener. Stories balance the relation of events that happened with “nonobjective” values: stories contain what happened and some value judgment about what it means.

The authors’ discussion of what we collectively perceive as a true story imports research done in courtroom testimony. In 1981, Bennett and Feldman1 determined that (as one might predict) people are unable to tell the difference between a true testimony and a completely fabricated one. Research participants believed that the testimony was true, as long as the testimony was well-constructed: Stories believed to be genuine were those in which events relevant to the end point were dominant and in which causal linkages among elements were more numerous.

We perceive a story to be true if:

  1. There is a cause and effect link between the parts of the story. That is, when we hear a story, is there an immediate perception that the story is “going somewhere”?
  2. The elements of the story are selected on the basis of the “goal state”, i.e., the end of the story. In other words, if the story is going somewhere, did it get there?

In the opening sections of this paper, the authors bring up Nietzsche twice. Both times, they mention how Nietzsche’s understanding of story directly relates to life and our own selves. The first is structural and the second is dramatic. The authors cite Nietzsche saying2 that the ideal life is structured like the ideal story: each act is coherently related to all others and there is nothing to spare. Later, they quote him as saying, Live dangerously, it is the only time you live at all.

The way we overcome our obstacles and relate the pieces of our lives to all the other pieces is part of what makes our social story the story of ourselves.


The article reviewed: Gergen, Kenneth J. and Mary M. Gergen. 1988. “Narrative and the Self as Relationship.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 17–56.

1 Bennett, W. L., and M. S. Feldman. 1981. Reconstructing Reality In The Courtroom: Justice And Judgment In American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

2 Nehamas, Alexander. 1986. Nietzsche, Life As Literature Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Featured Image: Sand Sculpting by Flickr user Hernán Piñera, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license