Narrative Therapy was initially developed during the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Australian Michael White (Dulwich Centre) and his friend and colleague, David Epston, of New Zealand. Their approach became prevalent in North America with the 1990 publication of their book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, followed by numerous books and articles about previously unmanageable cases of anorexia, ADHD, schizophrenia, and many other problems. In 2007 White published Maps of Narrative Practice, a presentation of six kinds of key conversations.
Narrative therapy holds that our identities are shaped by the accounts of our lives found in our stories or narratives. A narrative therapist is interested in helping others fully describe their rich stories and trajectories, modes of living and possibilities associated with them. At the same time, this therapist is interested in co-investigating a problem's many influences, including on the person herself and on her chief relationships. By focusing on problems' effects on people's lives rather than on problems as inside or part of people, distance is created. This externalization or objectification of a problem makes it easier to investigate and evaluate the problem's influences. Another sort of externalization is likewise possible when people reflect upon and connect with their intentions, values, hopes, and commitments. Once values and hopes have been located in specific life events, they help to “re-author” or “re-story” a person's experience and clearly stand as acts of resistance to problems.
The term “narrative” reflects the multi-storied nature of our identities and related meanings. In particular, re-authoring conversations about values and re-membering conversations about key influential people are powerful ways for people to reclaim their lives from problems. In the end, narrative conversations help people clarify for themselves an alternate direction in life to that of the problem, one that comprises a person's core values, hopes, and life commitments. That said, along the way a narrative conversation turns to the socio-political sources of problems such as destructive assumptions about gender roles. People find it useful to know that problems are much larger than themselves, and to realize that those problems are constantly fed by society.
In Narrative therapy a person's beliefs, skills, principles, and knowledge in the end help them regain their life from a problem. In practice a narrative therapist helps clients examine, evaluate, and change their relationship to a problem by acting as an “investigative reporter” who is not at the centre of the investigation but is nonethless influential; that is, this therapist poses questions that help people externalize a problem and then thoroughly investigate it. Intertwined with this problem investigation is the uncovering of unique outcomes or exceptions to its influences, exceptions that lead to rich accounts of key values and hopes--in short, a platform of values and principles that provide support during problem influences and later an alternate direction in life.
The narrative therapist, as an investigative reporter, has many options for questions and conversations during a person's effort to regain their life from a problem. These questions might examine how exactly the problem has managed to influence that person's life, including its voice and techniques to make itself stronger. On the other hand, these questions might help restore exceptions to the problem's influences that lead to naming an alternate direction in life. Here the narrative therapist relies that, though a problem may be prevalent and even severe, it has not yet completely destroyed the person. So, there always remains some space for questions about a person's resilient values and related, nearly forgotten events. To help retrieve these events, the narrative therapist may begin a related re-membering conversation about the people who have contributed new knowledges or skills and the difference that has made to someone and vice-versa for the remembered, influential person.
In this particular narrative practice or conversation, outsider witness/es are invited listeners to a consultation. Often they are friends of the consulting person or past clients of the therapist who have their own knowledge and experience of the problem at hand. During the first interview, between therapist and consulting person, the outsider listens without comment. Then the therapist interviews them with the instructions not to critique or evaluate or make a proclamation about what they have just heard, but instead to simply say what phrase or image stood out for them, followed by any resonances between their life struggles and those just witnessed. Lastly, the outsider is asked in what ways they may feel a shift in how they experience themselves from when they first entered the room (White, 2005, pp 15).
Next, in similar fashion, the therapist turns to the consulting person, who has been listening all the while, and interviews them about what images or phrases stood out in the conversation just heard and what resonances have struck a chord within them. In the end, an outsider witness conversation is often rewarding for witnesses. But for the consulting person the outcomes are remarkable: they learn they are not the only one with this problem, and they acquire new images and knowledge about it and their chosen alternate direction in life.
Briefly, narrative approaches hold that identity is chiefly shaped by narratives or stories, whether uniquely personal or culturally general. Identity conclusions and performances that are problematic for individuals or groups signify the dominance of a problem-saturated story. Problem-saturated stories gain their dominance at the expense of preferred, alternative stories that often are located in marginalized discourses. These marginalized knowledges and identity performances are disqualified or invisibilized by discourses that have gained hegemonic prominence through their acceptance as guiding cultural narratives. Examples of these subjugating narratives include: capitalism; psychiatry/psychology; patriarchy; heteronormativity; and Eurocentricity. Furthermore, binaries such as healthy/unhealthy; normal/abnormal; and functional/dysfunctional ignore both the complexities of peoples’ lived experiences as well as the personal and cultural meanings that may be ascribed to their experiences in context.
By conceptualizing a non-essentialized identity, narrative practices separate persons from qualities or attributes that are taken-for-granted essentialisms within modernist and structuralist paradigms. This process of externalization (White & Epston, 1990) allows people to consider their relationships with problems, thus the narrative motto: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” So-called strengths or positive attributes are also externalized, allowing people to engage in the construction and performance of preferred identities. Operationally, narrative involves a process of deconstruction and meaning making achieved through questioning and collaboration with the clients. While narrative work is typically located within the field of family therapy, many authors and practitioners report using these ideas and practices in community work (Dulwich Centre, 1997, 2000), schools (Winslade & Monk, 1999; Lewis & Chesire, 1998), and higher education (Nylund and Tilsen, in press).
The term "Narrative Therapy" has a specific meaning and is not the same as Narrative psychology, or any other therapy that uses stories. Narrative Therapy refers to the ideas and practices of David Epston, Michael White and other practitioners who have built upon this work. The Narrative Therapy focus upon narrative and situated concepts is the therapy. The Narrative Therapist is a collaborator with the client in the process of discovering richer ("thicker" or "richer") narratives that emerge from disparate descriptions of experience, thus destabilizing the hold of negative ("thin") narratives upon the client.
Although different Narrative Therapists work somewhat differently (for example, Epston uses letters and other documents with his clients, though this particular practice is not essential to narrative therapy), there are several common elements that might lead one to decide that a therapist is working "narratively" with clients.
- The assumption that narratives or stories shape a person's identity, as when a person asseses a problem in her life for its effects and influences as a "dominant story";
- An appreciation for the creation and use of documents, as when a person and a counsellor co-author "A Graduation from the Blues Certificate";
- An "externalizing" emphasis, such as by naming a problem so that a person can assess its effects in her life, come to know how it operates or works in her life, relate its earliest history, evaluate it to take a definite position on its presence, and in the end choose her relationship to it, as in "What does Depression want your life to look like?";
- A focus on "unique outcomes" (a term of Erving Goffman) or exceptions to the problem that wouldn't be predicted by the problem's narrative or story itself.
- Cultural Psychology & Anthropology
- Constructivist epistemology
- Literary Criticism and Hermeneutics
- Cooper, M. & Lesser, J. Clinical Social Work Practice: An Integrated Approach, 2nd ed., pp. 162. (New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005).
- Diabetes Counseling (2006). Outsider Witness Register. Retrieved November 23, 2006, from http://www.diabetescounselling.com.au/witness.html
- Epston, David & White, Michael. Experience, Contradiction, Narrative & Imagination: Selected papers of David Epston & Michael White 1989-1991 (Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications, 1992).
- Freedman, J. & Combs, G. Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996). ISBN 0-393-70207-3
- Freeman, J., Epston, D. & Lobovits, D. (1997). Playful approaches to serious problems: Narrative therapy with children and their families. (New York: Norton, 1997). http://www.narrativeapproaches.com
- Morgan, A. (2000). What is narrative therapy? Retrieved November 25, 2006, from http://dulwichcentre.com.au/alicearticle.html
- Narrative Therapy in Practice, The Archaeology of Hope, edited by Gerald Monk, John Winslade, Kathie Crocket, & David Epston. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997). ISBN 0-7879-0313-2
- Payne, Martin. Narrative Therapy, An Introduction for Counsellors. (London: Sage Publications, 2000).
- Winslade, John & Monk, Gerald. Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000). ISBN 0-7879-4192-1
- White, M. (2005). Workshop Notes. Retrieved November 25, 2006, from http://dulwichcentre.com.au/Michael%20White%20Workshop%20Notes.pdf
- White, M. & Epston, D. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990). ISBN 0-393-70098-4
- White, M. and Epston, D. Literate Means to Therapeutic Ends. (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 1989).
- White, M. Maps of Narrative Practice. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).