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Thursday Review: “Narrative and the Self as Relationship” (Parts III and IV)

On the surface, genre seems like a tidy and arbitrary way to organize story. We as people and everything that happens to us is complex. This seems a long way off from all those middle school worksheets asking for a single, correct genre.

The counterargument to this is that there are only so many stories. In particular, there are only so many ways to organize information about ourselves into a story. Gergen and Gergen emphasize that the ways we organize our own lives into narratives isn’t just an internal, psychological mechanism. The stories we tell about ourselves are organized socially and publicly.

In Parts I and II of the essay, the authors discuss the ways the structure of telling a self-narrative is social. In Parts III and IV, they dive into how we use these structures to navigate the world. Narrative constructions, the authors argue, are essentially linguistic tools with important social functions.

In this light, speaking about a “genre” or a “category” of self-narrative makes sense. Those social functions—broadly speaking—inform ourselves and others whether we are stable, improving, or worsening.

The least interesting of these, in a dramatic sense, is the primitive narrative of stability. In other words, when we present ourselves as having a fixed identity, set patterns of behavior, or ability to act despite external changes, we’re engaging in stability narratives.

When we select elements from our lives that conclude in a general sense of change or improvement, we’re presenting ourselves with a progressive narrative. The authors present the self and stories as primarily relational, and accordingly, progressive narratives are fundamental to relationships. In relationships, people desire to demonstrate how their undesirable characteristics have diminished over time.

The authors only briefly present regressive narratives. Gergen and Gergen mention a worsening self-narrative only in the context of learning a lesson for the sake of self-motivating change. A regressive narrative, though, could be one of the most interesting of all. It’s certainly the most relevant to hearing a patient in a medical context. The authors are primarily concerned with our self-narratives of personal characteristics or behaviors. A medical narrative, though, is a kind of regressive narrative about our own body. There is some undesirable characteristic which has appeared or worsened over time, and we need to seek help to find its remedy.

One of the most direct discussions relating illness to the self, like the work of Eric Cassell1, teaches us that illness is an existential threat, or a threat to our “personhood”. What we possess of our own personhood is our self-narrative. All of us feel we have priority in self-definition, in other words, we all get to tell our own story first.

At the same time, there is a large cast of supporting characters in everyone’s story. Gergen and Gergen are primarily concerned with the narratives of our actions, but their analysis of our reliance on others’ stories lining up with our own is just as valid in a bodily context. A medical encounter is an event in which an almost complete stranger can completely upend our interpretation of ourselves. In society as well as in the clinic, our ontological security is a matter of public domain.


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 Cassell, Eric J. 1991.The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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