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A note on the history of the narrative concept

December 6, 2014

Phillip L Hammack explains that “One of the remarkable benefits of the narrative concept is its appeal to a wide range of scholars. Attention to narrative emerged with the invention of the novel as a particular cultural form (McAdams, 2012). Thus, scholars in the humanities have been at the forefront of theorizing the narrative concept (e.g., Dray, 1971; White. 1987). By the 1980s, it had become clear that narratives were not just for novels, and psychologists increasingly turned to the narrative concept to theorize psychotherapy (Schafer, 1980), human development across the life course (Cohler, 1982), cultural participation (Bruner, 1986, 1990), and the formation of personality and identity (McAdams, 1988). Narrative was seen as a vital humanistic corrective in the psychological literature to the cold, computer metaphor of cognitive science and as a way to restore the idea of human beings as meaning-makers actively engaged in intentional acts (Bruner, 1990). Not surprisingly, when scholars [-p.54] from fields like sociology, politics, and history began to fully engage with the narrative concept, they found this psychological approach of relatively limited value, for its (over)emphasis on human agency and its neglect of a direct statement on the relative power of particular narratives. In other words, true to psychology’s disciplinary biases, early narrative psychologists initially saw narrative as a kind of universal process, with the “absent standard” of its elaboration being the actor at the center of global power – the European American heterosexual male (see Sampson, 1993).
The political psychology of narrative offers a corrective to the psychologist’s penchant for directing his or her conceptual gaze in this hegemonic, universalizing direction and to the non-psychologist’s penchant for neglecting the significance of the individual mind in social and political action.” (pp.53-54)

He also explains that “The underlying assumption of a narrative approach in political psychology is that language, broadly conceived, represents the mechanism through which self and society are mutually constituted (Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). This assumption is rooted in classic and contemporary social science theory that emphasizes the content of mind as socially constructed through interaction and engagement with a system of meaning and signification apparent in language (e.e, Bakhtin, 1981; G. Mead, 1934; Vygotsky, 1934/1962). Narrative explains how concepts long theorized as central to political life – including identities, ideologies, and mentalities – are consolidated in both individual and collective cognition and mobilized to achieve political ends.” (p.54)

Hammack also notes that there is a “need for social scientists of narrative, psychology, and politics to offer practical knowledge that will advance interests of global social justice and the repudiation of violence as a means of silencing some narratives in the interest of domination.” (p.54)

Ref: Phillip L Hammack (2015) Mind, Story, and Society: The Political Psychology of Narrative. pp. 51- 77 in Eds. Michael Hanne, Michael D Crano, and Jeffery Scott Mio Warring with Words: Narrative and Metaphor in Politics. Psychology Press: New York and London

Reference is to:
McAdams, 1988 Power, intimacy, and the life story: Personological inquiries into identity. New York: Guilford
2012 The psychological self as actor, agent, and author. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Dray, 1971 On the nature and role of narrative in historiography. History and Theory, 10(2), 153-171

White. 1987 The content of the form: narrative discourse and historical representation. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press

Sampson, 1993 Identity politics: Challenges to psychology’s understanding. American Psychologist, 48(12), 1219-1230

Hammack & Pilecki, 2012 Narrative as a root metaphor for political psychology. Political Psychology, 33(1), 75-103

Bakhtin, 1981 The dialogic imagination (C Emerson & M Holquist, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press

G. Mead, 1934 Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Vygotsky, 1934/1962 Thought and Language (E Hanfmann & G Vakar, Trans) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Schafer, 1980 Narration in the psychoanalytic dialogue. Critical Inquiry, 7, 29-54

Cohler, 1982 Personal narrative and the life course. In P Baltes & OG Brim (Eds) Life span development and behavior (Vol 4, pp205-241). New York: Academic Press

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