Theoretical Resources for Narrative Therapy

Narrative Therapy pursues the goal of, at least, resolving conundrums. In this sense, like many other therapies, it is a 'talking cure'. But at the same time it is distinctive in drawing on what have come to be called 'postmodern' theoretical writings: writings and theories as to what language is like; what we can accomplish with it; and what it can accomplish with us. It has an ethical and political stance. It draws on notions of 'power', 'position', 'subjectivity' and 'resistance'. Narrative therapists such as Stephen Madigan in Vancouver, for example, hold fast to princples of practice such as:

'Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political 'double bind', which is the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures' (Foucault, 1982: 216).

These are difficult ideas, and hard to live and practice by as well.

Narrative Therapy is built on the notion that people are not the problem, but that the relation a person has to a set of resources for making sense of their situation can position people 'in' problems. But further, many of the ways that have previously been elaborated to 'help' people come to successful terms with these problems actually conspire to keep them in those problems, and re-in-force the strength of the problem over the person. This happens because the language we have inherited in our (particularly Western) cultures provides resources for making ourselves and our relation to our world 'mean' who we are in certain ways. At this point in time they tend to provide us with the meanings that interpret our problems as there 'being something wrong with ourselves.' Many therapeutic practices, and western medical ones that 'medicalise' certain of our relations with our problems as being a state of our selves, base themselves in this unarticulated presupposition that the self or individual are the sites to which problems should be attributed. And so they help to position people as 'having something wrong with them'.

For example, consider the notion of a 'talking cure' that was inoccuously 'slid into' these words at the outset. These two words might be thought to capture something about 'therapy'. They imply that someone has a problem, and this problem needs to be cured. The therapist is thus something like a doctor, who can diagnose what it is that must be cured. Doctors are trained to be experts at this. When the 'doctor' finds out what the problem really is, then she can apply her expert definition of 'what is truly happening here' to decide on a course of action that will put things to rights. And so the 'someone' who had a problem will no longer have it, as things have been put right, and they can now, hopefully, live a little bit more happily ever after. This is to caricature 'modernist' views of language and practice.

In articulating postmodern approaches, a number of questions might have been asked here: 'Who determines what is right and what is wrong?'; 'What effect does it have for someone to be told to submit to the expertise of another?'; 'By what means does one person have the right to have their knowledge taken more seriously than someone else's?'; 'Does language act in concert with the scientific method so as to bring us closer into contact with the genuine facts of nature?'; 'Or does language act in more constructive ways, and create and sustain some problems 'by itself''?'. There is now a large body of work that has been built from considering these questions.

This work has been developed in a number of areas. Most of these share a concern with the nature of relations between people, and how language is used in constructing, maintaining and enabling us to make sense of these relations. Many of us in psychology are used to finding these relations discussed in textbooks. Here are some chapter headings from a standard text of the 1960's by Paul Secord and Carl Backman (1964): Person perception; Interpersonal attraction; The individual and the social system. If you look at the index, you will find a whole column listing pages that refer to 'facts' about these persons. In those days, few students noticed that there was anything peculiar about this way of conducting psychology, or defining its topics in a text. But nowadays, a lot of people do. 'Who are these persons?' in this psychology, you might ask. It's hard to work it out. There is no mention of 'men' or 'women'; there are no listings of these terms in the index. There appears to be a clear assumption that everyone is essentially the same. And this assumption helps to define what issues there are to be investigated, and how they will be written about.

These texts were, and generally still are, written by men. They establish a way of defining everyone as equal in terms that are loaded. They essentialise:

Essentialism is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the 'whatness' of a given entity (Fuss, 1989: xi).

Few could, at that time, see what it was that the language of these texts were loaded with. But 30 years on, we might notice that there has been a 'womens movement'. That 'half of the 'people'' who use language have begun to articulate that language is loaded with biases. And these biases act to position some groups of people in more or less powerful positions, and then, in their own terms, act to sustain those positions in the name of the rational claims these loaded tools can justify. Language has come to be recognised as not being 'just' a neutral set of resources for talking about 'the world' as it inevitably is. Rather, it is a human activity that constructs much of the background 'common sense' we have of the world, and our positions in it, the way we feel, and the way we are judged. We have come to realise what Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in the preface to his novel Mother Night (1965) that 'We are what we pretend to be: and so we must be careful about what we pretend to be'.

We hope you find this emerging set of resources useful.


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