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Thursday Review: “Narrative and the Self as Relationship” (Parts V and VI)

One of the wonderful things about storytelling is its universality. At the same time discussions about using narrative to construct a personal identity make sense, they can become abstract fairly quickly.

In the last section of Gergen and Gergen’s paper, one of the most incomprehensible things about ourselves is made wonderfully concrete with an example everyone’s been through.

The authors recap their work studying emotion and relationships. In one experiment, participants were asked how they might respond if a friend entered the room and made a statement of clear emotion, such as “I’m really angry at you!” or “I’m so happy!” As the authors write, As a result of preliminary analysis it became apparent that such expressions would engender only a single form of reply, that of an inquiry into the cause.

This is a part of common experience, although it’s rarely articulated this way. When confronted with an unambiguous and unexpected emotion, the only possible reply is, “Why?!”

This isn’t a social nicety. The point the authors are trying to make is that in order for an emotion to be intelligible, it must be a part of a narrative context. If a friend has a burst of emotion, our instinct is not to understand the emotion in a vacuum, but to ask about the story that lead to that outburst of emotion.

Gergen and Gergen discuss the shortcomings of the search for a universal, biological basis for emotion. They also summarize how nebulous any discussion of emotion as simple cultural conditioning is, as well as how reductive discussions of emotion as some kind of heightened cognition or “general arousal” tend to be.

In previous sections, the authors discuss how our attempts to make ourselves intelligible to ourselves and others have to be placed in some kind of social or historical context. This context depends on shared values by listener and hearer.

Emotion is another one of the personal elements that is completely unintelligible, unless it’s placed in a narrative context. Emotion is not a biological certainty, or necessarily determined by culture. Emotion is a reaction to a turn in a person’s narrative which prompts them to some kind of response in relation to other people. In Gergen and Gergen’s words, emotion is a transient social role.

Discussing all of these elements which connect us, our experiences, our emotions, and the telling of our stories, the author’s ideas are all summarized in the word “storyhood”. There is a growing medical understanding of how important it is to preserve “personhood” in the face of seemingly impersonal medical procedures.

Gergen and Gergen show us that that personhood exists as and is expressed by storyhood.

In this context, it’s not misplaced to have a discussion about emotions in medical conversations. A conversation about emotions doesn’t have to focus on the intangible, internal experience. It’s completely possible that a conversation about a strong emotion will offer clues to concrete events in the individual’s past, including those that might be useful in any kind of medical context or history.


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.

Featured Image: “Joe Bradley taxidermy portrait 030214” by Flickr user whitney waller, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license