Module 1: 3 Hour element: 1


Narrative Therapy in the world: History

There are many stories of the growth and spread of Narrative Therapy. One such Tale of Narrative Therapy is attached. See also:

1. A Proposal for a Re-authoring Therapy: Rose's Revisioning of her Life and a Commentary by David Epston, Michael White and Kevin Murray.

2. Commonly asked questions about narrative therapy as answered by the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide.

3. Introductory chapters to Alice Morgan's book – the essential text for this course.

the story offered of their own introduction to Narrative Therapy by Freedman and Combs in Freedman, Jill & Combs, Gene 1996 Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities, W W Norton, New York.

The following are some questions for reflection:

  1. What do you find most interesting or useful about these stories?
    1. Why do you think Narrative Therapy has developed the way it has?
    2. What story is not being told?
    3. What do these stories help you understand about the ways of thinking that Narrative Therapy embraces?
  2. Explore the following:
    1. How do these stories show the stance of Narrative Therapy ?
    2. In what ways is this stance the same or different from the stance of other therapeutic approaches?
    3. What is the meaning of these stories? For you personally? For you as a therapist? For you as a client?


Susanna Chamberlain

[This is only one view of the growth of Narrative Therapy; only one of many stories.]

There are many stories which could be told about Narrative Therapy. The description or story which follows is concerned with the questions: what is Narrative Therapy? How widespread is it? Who practices Narrative Therapy and in which contexts? Why here? why now? This is just one of the stories which could be told of the rise and growth of Narrative Therapy. Perhaps an equally significant story is that of the struggle for recognition, the numerous events by which the Narrative Therapeutic framework was developed, or the pivotal confrontations through which White and Epston had to examine the direction of their work.

What is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative Therapy is the name used to describe several different streams of therapeutic theory and practice developed in the past two decades in the United States, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. While the American practices have drawn strongly upon the Australian innovations, the European stream has drawn very strongly upon a more immediate postmodern theoretical framework and from sources such as the literary ideas of Bakhtin.

In Australia and North America, the name Narrative Therapy refers to a set of practices and theoretical guidelines developed during the late 1980's and 1990's by Michael White, David Epston and an increasing group of Narrative practitioners and teachers. Although White and Epston had been developing these ideas during the eighties, the name Narrative Therapy was coined by the American publishers who reprinted their key work 'Literate Means to Therapeutic Ends' (1989, DCP) as 'Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends' (1990, Norton).

How widespread is Narrative Therapy?

Since 1980, Michael White and David Epston have taught or trained some 30,000 attendees of workshops, intensives, and training programmes worldwide. There have been approximately 3,000 trainees at Dulwich Centre in Adelaide over the past fifteen years, either undertaking the two-year programme or participating in Intensives. In Auckland, David Epston runs a similar centre where training is offered. Since the mid 1980's Michael White's overseas teaching has taken Narrative to an impressive list of countries, apart from Australia and New Zealand: Israel, United States of America (at least 15 times), Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Republic of South Africa, Japan, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Denmark and Norway.

Training courses in Narrative Therapy are provided in at least four Australian Universities, several in the United States (JFK and Antioch), at least one in New Zealand and one in South Africa. Outside of the Universities, there are privately run Narrative Therapy training and clinical centres in Adelaide, Auckland, California, Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, London and Israel.

Articles on Narrative Therapy have appeared in a wide range of professional journals (Family Process, Journal of Family Therapy, Family Therapy Networker, American Psychologist, ANZ Journal of Family Therapy, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Feminist Journal of Therapy etc.). In addition, Dulwich Centre Publications, which is owned and managed by Cheryl White, has published a Journal (formerly Dulwich Centre Newsletter) since 1986 that has a broad circulation throughout North America, Europe and the Pacific. Since 1996, a second Journal (Gecko) has been devoted to Narrative clinical practice, while the DCJ is concerned with the publication of thematic issues. DCP usually publishes four new books each year, some of which are reprints of interviews or articles, but the majority is new work for the field.


Initially, Narrative Therapy was taken up by white middle-class professional counsellors, social workers and family therapists as an additional set of techniques. However, the profile of Narrative Therapy practitioners has altered substantially over the past decade as issues of power, discrimination and social justice have moved closer to the centre of Narrative practice.

Because of its strong social justice orientation, Narrative Therapy has been taken up by various ethnic groups such Aboriginal people in Australia, Latino communities in California, people of colour in a number of countries, and by communities of common experience, such as young people who oppose bullying, pro-feminist men's organizations, people with disabilities, person who are lesbian, homosexual or of bisexual orientation. Some organizations are now requiring Narrative Therapy training of recruits within Australia.

Today the practice of Narrative Therapy has spread beyond the narrow frame of clinical practice and is being incorporated into a diverse range of areas such as: social work, community work, schools, workplaces, community health and mental health programmes, training and mediation. The range of clinical issues addressed extends from anorexia and bulimia, to grief and loss, sexual and other forms of child abuse, domestic violence, HIVAIDS, addiction, schizophrenia and other mental health disorders, relationship difficulties, bedwetting and tantrums, as well as family problems.

Perhaps more significant is the spread of Narrative Therapy outside of the clinical realm into the area of social justice and activism. From an early concern with gender, and the influence of feminist writers and clinicians, Narrative Therapy has provided an accessible analysis of structures of power and the constraints of political and social power that impinge on person's lives. Within the literature of the field and in the practices of Narrative Therapists a wide range of social and political issues are being examined. These include: gender politics, heterosexual dominance, bisexuality, men's' culture, women's culture, racism, racial and cultural political location, the needs of indigenous people, or people of colour, the rights of consumers of mental health provision, issues around ageing or disability, class, children and young people's issues, poverty and deprivation, therapeutic and other forms of abuse.

Geographical and historical location

There are two questions to ask of the development of Narrative Therapy as a phenomenon – why here? Why now? That is, why should a significant challenge to dominant knowledges emerge in the Antipodes, the periphery rather than the Centre of the world political and economic system, and what conditions have made Narrative Therapy ideas so attractive at the present time.

There are some clues in the biographies of White and Epston. Michael White was born in 1948, into a white Australian working class family in Adelaide. His father was a returned soldier, his mother a housewife. On leaving school, Michael found his first employment in a draughtsman's office, later working as a landscape gardener and labourer. In his early twenties, he trained in Social Work and found employment at Royal Adelaide Children's Hospital as a clinical social worker. It was here that his already developed political awareness focussed upon the inequities within therapeutic practice as he experienced them in the hospital system. These inequities, both within the hierarchical practices of the hospital administration and within the ways in which clients were treated as objects of study, led him to begin to challenge practices of power. In the late 1970's he left the public system and entered into private practice with another social worker, establishing a precedent in the delivery of clinical therapy by other than psychologists and psychiatrists in Australia. He has continued in private practice to the present time, establishing training programmes for therapists and undertaking teaching on an ever-widening world stage. Michael and Cheryl White established Dulwich Centre, and created Dulwich Centre publications in the mid-1980s. Cheryl White plays a significant role in the development of Narrative Therapy, as the publisher of Dulwich Centre Journal, Gecko, and a growing list of books, as a full partner in the Centre, with responsibility for the training programme, and as Michael's life-partner and a strong influence upon his ideas and work. They have one child, now in early adulthood.

David Epston was born in Canada, another of the 'baby-boomer' generation. Originally trained as an anthropologist, David turned to social work and emigrated to New Zealand. He also worked for a time within the public system, in a hospital in Auckland, developing a practice which focussed upon children and adolescents. Around the end of the 1970's he also left the public system and went into private practice. David's anthropological training had given him a keen sense of the significance of social connections between people, and his practice was strongly influenced by family therapy approaches. David and Ann Epston have a long-established life and business partnership; they have no children.

Both were baby-boomers, that generation born in the immediate post-WWII period that grew up with the threat of imminent nuclear war and the looming potential destruction of the planet. Both had participated in political action during their early adulthood, and had been part of the generation's rejection of those structures of power which had placed the world in jeopardy. Each brought, in his own way, that capacity for critique of political dominance to his work as a clinician, and to the frameworks of power in which therapy is undertaken within existing systems. Both men are married to strong feminist women who have played significant roles in influencing the direction of the work, and whose support and challenges are often acknowledged in the writings. Each became involved in the late 1970's in the flowering of Family Therapy within Australia and New Zealand; Michael was the first editor of the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy.

The historical location, the 'why now?', of the rise of Narrative Therapy is partly explicable in terms of the influences upon the therapeutic field that have been identified within the biographies of White and Epston. Many contemporary therapists are also baby-boomers, born in the post war period, raised with the ever-present shadow of nuclear holocaust, and politicised as a generation into challenging the established norms of psychiatry. In addition, the de-colonization processes of the past half-century have brought awareness of the structures of oppression which were institutionalised into the lives of persons of colour, or within colonial states. The extension of awareness of oppression into the lives of women even in first world countries gave rise in the late 1960's to the feminist movement, in a similar vein the Gay Pride movement of the 1970's took up the cause of heterosexual dominance. A group of therapeutic practices and ideas which privileged persons' lives while acknowledging the struggles against oppressive structures could emerge and be well received within the cultural milieu that these challenges created.

With these social factors providing a context, the development of postmodern thought, particularly the ideas of Michel Foucault, has given a theoretical grounding to political resistance to dominant structures of power. Foucault's influence has pervaded the social sciences, from philosophy to anthropology and sociology. The linking of practice-based observations of peoples' stories and lives with Foucault's theoretical insights is one of the key contributions of Narrative Therapy to the realm of clinical counselling practice. Here postmodernism enters the field previously reserved to Psychology through the gateway of clinical practice and in so doing challenges the authority of the almost Scholastic adherence to theories of biological or essentialist conceptualizations of persons as objects. For many, both clients and therapists, this challenge is timely as the new millennium occurs. Over the past thirty years, the growth of family therapy, feminist therapies or metaphysical counselling practices has underlined the growing discontent, voiced by people like R.D. Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement, with practices which disempower clients.

Two technological advances of the late twentieth century have also played a part in the dissemination of Narrative Therapy: the expansion of international air travel and the information technology explosion of the past decade. Through both of these means it has become possible for the ideas developed in the Southern hemisphere to be accessible throughout the world, with personal teaching appearances and through internet publishing.

All of these factors indicate why Narrative Therapy could emerge at this time, but the question remains why did it emerge here? What were the conditions in Australia and New Zealand that could give rise to a new therapeutic direction for a field which had been dominated and directed for a century from Europe and North America?

One could argue that is precisely because Australia and New Zealand are located on the Periphery of the World System that the growth of new ideas is possible; the Centre (Europe and the USA) being so steeped in tradition and bound by structures of power which resist change as to make difficult any dynamic challenges. Yet Foucault emerged at the Centre, as did Derrida, Bourdieu and the other prophets of post-modern thought; and Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement was strongest in Britain. So what part being Peripheral may have played in the emergence of Narrative Therapy is somewhat questionable.

Perhaps what is more germane is the nature of Australian culture as an influence on White, and the response Epston may have had to Canadian and New Zealand cultures.

There certainly exists within white Australian culture a deep sense of discontinuity with the past, most white Australians and New Zealanders have little historical sense of a personal tradition going back beyond colonization, and few families have paid attention to more than three or perhaps four generations since migration. For the whites of both countries the traumas of migration are relatively recently experienced and the knowledge of ancestors or a sense of place as integral to identity is rare. For the indigenous people of both countries the dispossession by the invaders has been reinforced by government policies of wholesale abduction of children under the guise of 'welfare policies'. The migration process continues to have impact, either through the increasing number of immigrants from Asian or African countries or through the practice of white Australians migrating form state to state in search of work, warmth, or somewhere to settle. Many children are born in one state, raised in another, live in two or more others as young adults. The disconnection of families from those who persons and places continues.

There are two particular impacts of these experiences that I wish to draw attention to: the development of identity and the attitude of suspicion towards authority. Where identity is constructed in the Old world, or the New World of America, as much by connections over generations with particular places, or through knowledge of ancestry going back over hundreds of years, in Australia and New Zealand (with the exception of the Maori people who have retained their whakapapa-genealogies) these connections neither exist nor are they generally valued. The type of individualism which these cultures have produced is one based in a value of the person according to his or her own life, achievements or stories. The person is fundamentally separate from his/her own genealogy, distinct from the appeal to illustrious ancestors and basically on his/her own to make connections or achievements.

The parallel development to this individualization is the ideal of 'mateship', the creation and maintenance of alliances with other atomized entities, originally forged in the necessities of frontier living and now engaged as emotional survival practices. Mateship, as Kapferer (1987) argues, created the basis of the Australian ideology of egalitarianism, the belief that all persons of like kind are worthy of being treated with respect. There are three tensions in Australian culture that derive from mateship and frontier dwelling: that between egalitarianism and individualism, between isolation and community, and between silent stoic heroism and helping each other out in times of trouble.

The second element of Australian culture which is shared by New Zealanders to a limited extent is the irreverence towards authority. While this is easily traceable in Australia to the establishment of the original settlements as penal colonies (cf Robert Hughes (1987) The Fatal Shore) in New Zealand it is a less obvious remnant of being a former colony. The suspicion extends beyond a wariness of extant structures of control, such as police forces, to an all-pervading distrust of politicians, and by indirection to all exert power, and the means by which they maintain systems of control.

In these two elements of Australian culture can be discerned two factors which form part of the ideology of Narrative Therapy. The suspicion of authority is reflected in the challenges to dominant systems of thought, the structures of knowledge which White challenges the supremacy of in a number of texts. Similarly, the challenge to privilege on the grounds of race, class, sexual preference, age, ability or similar frames can, in part, be seen as reflective of a pervading cultural approach.

The question of identity that Narrative frames in terms of the experience of the person, rather than in some privileged theoretical terms, can also be seen to echo the best of the egalitarian individualism of Australian culture. The therapist ceases to be the external expert embedded in a privileged authoritative position and becomes explicitly an equal, a co-creator or co-author working in partnership with the client.

I am not arguing here that there was a deliberate attempt to impose elements of Australian or New Zealand culture on to therapeutic practice, but rather that the culture in which of us is embedded cannot help but be an influence upon us as persons, and on our work. Thus the taken for granted cultural ontology of the prime movers of Narrative therapy has played a significant part in what was paid attention to. The conjunction of Australian concepts of irreverence towards authority and egalitarian practices with the post-modern theoretical conceptualizations of power and the deconstruction of technologies of oppression has given rise to a powerful synthesis within Narrative.


Hughes, Robert, 1987, The Fatal Shore: A History of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Collins Harvill, London

Kapferer, Bruce, 1988, Legends of People, Myths of the State, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London

White, M & Epston, D, 1989 Literate Means to Therapeutic Ends, DCP, Adelaide

White, M & Epston, D, 1990 Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, W.W.Norton, NY.

White, Michael, 2000, Reflections on Narrative Practice, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide

White, Michael, 2001, Folk Psychology and Narrative practice, in Dulwich Centre Journal, No 2, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide

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