Narrative Therapy: Making Meaning, Making Lives


Edited by: Catrina Brown & Tod Augusta-Scott

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    We would like to thank all of the contributing authors in this project for their thoughtful work. We also appreciate all that we have learned and continue to learn from our clients.

    I (Catrina) want to thank Sarah Larsen, Shauna Melanson, and Elizabeth Stephen for the child care and support they offered during the work on this book. I want to acknowledge Zoe for her willingness to relinquish her mummy, however ambivalently, to this project. Special thanks to Tod for our many engaging conversations. Tod's graciousness, generosity, and flexibility allowed for the tremendous ease with which we were able to work together. Finally, I am thankful to my parents, who both demonstrated and encouraged thoughtful critical engagement with the world.

    I (Tod) want to thank the many readers who reviewed my work for this project. Specifically, I appreciate the thoughtful feedback of Chris Augusta-Scott, Tionda Cain, Alan Jenkins, and Penny Moore. I especially want to thank Catrina for inspiring me with her intellect, rigor, and bravery, with which she disrupts dominant discourses.

    I also want to extend my appreciation for those who have worked with Bridges, a domestic violence counseling, research, and training institute. Specifically, I want to extend my appreciation to my colleagues Marilee Burwash-Brennan, Art Fisher, and Sara Lamb, for their creativity and innovations in developing narrative ideas and practices in our work. Finally, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the volunteer board of directors at Bridges: Blanchard Atkinson, Dan Criss, Jeff Hunt, Nathalie Jamieson, Eric Johnson, Mark Scales, and Debbie Walker, for their vision and courage to support narrative ideas and practices in the field of domestic violence.

    Introduction: Postmodernism, Reflexivity, and Narrative Therapy

    CatrinaBrown and TodAugusta-Scott

    Rooted in social constructionism and emerging initially from family therapy, narrative therapy emphasizes the idea that we live storied lives (White, 1995). Within this approach, we seek to make sense of our lives and experiences by ascribing meaning through stories, which themselves arise within social conversations and culturally available discourses. From this view, our stories do not simply represent us or mirror lived events—they constitute us, shaping our lives and our relationships. The narrative metaphor conveys the idea that stories organize, structure, and give meaning to events in our lives and help us make sense of our experiences. Stories are transmitted largely through socially mediated language and social interaction within specific cultural and historical contexts. The meanings that we attach to events are thus never singular, individual, or simply subjective, never outside the social, but have shared or intersubjective meaning within a cultural nexus of power and knowledge.

    Influenced by feminist, postmodern, and critical theory, this book contributes to the field of narrative therapy by offering a critical discussion of the often unexamined epistemological contradictions evident in therapeutic work that remains, however ambivalently, positioned in modernism. Michael White's (1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2001; White & Epston, 1990) view that stories must not only be told and retold, but reconstructed, has shaped our approach to narrative therapy. A creator of narrative therapy, White (1994) is clear that there are no neutral stories. Not only are there no neutral stories, there is no neutral hearing of stories. He advocates a therapeutic alliance that is a partnership between active, embodied subjects, who together coauthor more helpful and less oppressive stories.

    White's (1995, 1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2004a, 2004b; White & Epston, 1990) focus on the relationship between knowledge and power in the social construction of discourse and his belief that no stories exist that are independent of the social world is underscored in this book. In addition to White, other narrative therapists' attention to the political nature of social discourses has influenced this book. Madigan and Law's (1998) contribution to narrative therapy situates substantive issues within political discourse. Jenkins's (1990, 1996) work identifies the political context in which violence plays out in intimate relationships and which also shapes the alliance between the therapist and client. Hare-Mustin's (1994) postmodern analysis of “discourses in the mirrored room” elucidates the dangers of simply reinforcing dominant discourses, such as gender, in therapeutic conversations. Building upon these influential works, we will explore the important contributions narrative therapy makes to clinical practice, while also interrogating its unreconciled positioning within a modernist and postmodernist knowledge base.

    This book was born out of our conversations about the politics of narrative practice within our respective fields, Tod Augusta-Scott working in the field of “domestic violence” and Catrina Brown working with the continuum of eating “disorders” women experience. We began to observe significant areas of overlap in these cultural articulations of gendered subjectivity or notions of self. It became clear to us that gender essentialism—taken-for-granted and often biological assumptions about gender—and modernist approaches to understanding power produced similar limitations in our respective fields of work. In the field of “domestic violence,” dominant gender stories led people to essentialize or naturalize men as violent perpetrators who want only power and control. Similarly, in the field of eating “disorders,” gender stories essentialize women as compliant victims of the social pressure to be thin. Both of these dominant social stories are “surface” descriptions. Paradoxically, in both instances, these stories are invoked with the intent to advance positive social change, yet they are constrained or limited by gender essentialism. Our observations of these inadvertent limitations within our predominantly gendered fields of practice inspired this project's focus on a reflexive postmodern narrative practice.

    In bringing these chapters together in this book, it is our intention to contribute to a narrative therapy that resists essentializing or naturalizing the subject—and by extension the experiences, emotions, knowledge, identity, or stories of the self. Furthermore, we wish to avoid producing subjectivist (or individualizing) and depoliticized accounts of individuals' problems by writing out the social. Through a postmodern lens, this book challenges the “either/or,” binary constructions that constrain our understanding of stories about individuals' problems and the creation of alternative realities, such as Black/White, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, body/mind, and self/society. Recognizing that knowledge and power are joined in discourse challenges relativist (no position is taken; all ideas are treated as though they were equal) and, subsequently, depoliticized approaches to therapy. We also wish to avoid unwittingly reproducing or reifying dominant socially constructed practices by being reflexive about these ideas. This book attempts to illustrate that politicized, or anti-oppressive, practice necessarily takes a stance, is necessarily positioned—abandoning the fiction of neutrality and the limitations of relativism. To not unpack, or deconstruct, dominant stories is to leave dominant social discourses and social relations of power intact. Aligned with the philosophy of Michael White, it is our view that narrative therapy is, then, a political process. A self-reflexive narrative therapy will turn a postmodern lens back upon itself and be aware of how we put ideas into play through processes of thinking and talking. By putting ideas into play, we all participate in organizing and sustaining particular stories of social reality. Often, dominant stories or discourses prevail, maintaining particular versions of reality. Such taken-for-granted dominant discourses close off possibilities of other interpretations.

    This book is organized into four sections, which build upon each other. We begin in Part 1, “Writing in the Social,” by arguing for the need to challenge individualizing or subjectivist approaches to understanding the struggles individuals bring to therapeutic conversations. In Part 2, “Self- Surveillance: Normalizing Practices of Self,” we examine the role of self-regulation, ways in which we observe and correct ourselves, as normalizing practices of self in culture. Part 3, “Challenging Essentialism,” exposes the limitations of essentialist discourse in therapeutic conversations. Finally, Part 4, “Re-Authoring Preferred Identities,” explores the creation of preferred identities within narrative therapy. Within this book, we illustrate a range of narrative styles of practice and, in so doing, emphasize that there is no one formulaic application of narrative therapy. Themes such as eating “disorders,” trauma, depression, violence, and working with the family are addressed. The writers contend with central theoretical constructs in the process of illustrating their therapeutic work in these areas, including the problems of essentialism, binary constructions, situating knowledge and power, externalization, and highlighting the importance of agency and audience.

    History of Narrative Therapy

    Narrative therapy emerged from the lenses of cybernetics, interpretive anthropology, and postmodernism. Specifically, White (White, 1984, 1986, 1991; White & Epston, 1990) was influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson (1972, 1979), Edward Bruner (1986a, 1986b), Jerome Bruner (1986, 1987), Clifford Geertz (1973), and Michel Foucault (1973, 1980a, 1980b, 1984, 1988, 1995). Bateson's (as cited in White & Epston, 1990) interpretative method within the social sciences, which emphasized that “we cannot know objective reality, all knowing requires an act of interpretation” (p. 2), provided an early influence on White. As we cannot have direct knowledge of the world, narrative therapy is centered on “lived experience.” White and Epston (1990) ask, “How do persons organize their stock of lived experience? What do persons do with this experience in order to give it meaning and to make sense out of their lives? How is lived experience given expression?” (p. 9). The therapeutic narrative metaphor originated for White through the work of both Jerome Bruner (1986, 1987) and Geertz (1973). Interpretive anthropologist Geertz shaped White's approach to the interpretation of story-making process within culture. From Geertz, White brought forward the idea of seeking “thick description” in therapeutic conversations in place of the often unhelpful thin descriptions that suppressed alternative story possibilities.

    We make sense of our lives through stories, and, according to White and Epston (1990), “It is this storying that determines the meaning ascribed to experience” (p. 10). Jerome Bruner's (1986) approach to stories provided a temporal landscape for understanding the meaning of events across time. The reflexive questioning that links actions (landscape of action) and meanings or beliefs (landscape of consciousness or meaning) within the larger context of relationships and culture also reveals parallels with Milan and post-Milan family therapy approaches (Hart, 1995). From Foucault, White drew his understanding of the relationship between knowledge and power and the normalizing techniques of power often intrinsic to therapeutic practice, including the dividing practices and objectification of persons through diagnoses and labeling. Of tremendous significance, White (1984) adapted Foucauldian philosophy to therapeutic conversations through his development of “externalizing the problem.” His emphasis became less pragmatic or solution focused as he shifted toward emphasizing the externalization of stories of the self and internalized cultural discourses (Hart, 1995). These externalizing conversations subsequently enabled a process of reconstructing or re-authoring identities (Hart, 1995). Not only are subjugated knowledges resurrected through the articulation and thickening of alternative stories, dominant cultural stories are challenged. In this way, White offers to narrative therapy attention to the discursive mechanisms by which power is woven throughout people's stories of self within culture.

    Through the influence of these thinkers, White extended his training as a family therapist, shifting from a cybernetic approach to a narrative metaphor (Freedman & Combs, 1996, Hart, 1995; Parry & Doan, 1994). Since White's narrative work surfaced in the late 1980s, many other postmodern therapy texts have emerged, including Anderson (1997); Epston (1989, 1998; Epston & White, 1992); Freedman and Combs (1996); Gilligan and Price (1993); Gremillion (2003); Hoyt (1998); Jenkins; (1990); Madigan and Law (1998); Maisel, Epston, and Borden (2004); Parry and Doan (1994); Strong and Paré (2003); White (1991, 1995, 1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2004a, 2004b); White and Denborough (1998); Monk, Winslade, and Crocket (1996); and Zimmerman and Dickerson (1996). While narrative therapy is undoubtedly influenced by postmodern philosophy, it is not a homogeneous field. As such, narrative therapy approaches differ epistemologically in their specific blend of modern and postmodern conceptualizations and practices. Thus, there are significant distinguishing features within narrative therapy, and, correspondingly, some are more likely to reify dominant social reality (Brown, 2003).

    While narrative therapy is distinct from other approaches to practice, it is often compared to the collaborative work of Harlene Anderson (1997) and the solution-focused work of Steven de Shazer (de Shazer, 1991, 1993; de Shazer et al., 1986; Molnar & de Shazer, 1987). White and Anderson are both influenced by postmodern theory, but they follow different paths: Anderson leans toward relativism, while White argues for the importance of recognizing the politics of therapy. Whereas Anderson advocates that the story should be told and retold, White argues that the story must often be told, retold, and rewritten. Neither Anderson nor de Shazer is concerned with disrupting dominant social discourses or uncovering alternative stories that resurrect the suppressed voice and support preferred realities. White and de Shazer are often conflated because they both follow “strengths-based” approaches, seeking solutions to problems and looking for, in the case of de Shazer, exceptions to the problem and, in the case of White, unique outcomes or stalled initiatives. Through the identification of these exceptions or unique outcomes, it is conceived that one is able to move past the problem. Beyond this description, however, there are marked differences in their theoretical foundations, which are evident at the level of practice and politics. Although de Shazer abandons the idea of the expert and the problem-saturated story, he advances a primarily modernist foundation, compared with White, who is significantly influenced by postmodernism.

    One significant difference is White's exploration of the social organization and meaning of people's stories and de Shazer's arguably modernist pragmatic focus on behavior, goals, and solutions. Beyond this description, however, we see marked differences in practice and epistemology between de Shazer's solution-focused therapy and White's narrative therapy. As Hart (1995) notes, White focuses on “meaning, narrative and power,” whereas de Shazer focuses on “behaviour, goals and pragmatics” (p. 5). Furthermore, White highlights a fluid relationship between past, present, and future, whereas de Shazer is largely disinterested in the past. He is thus uninterested in the construction of the story and only superficially interested in its disruption. The abbreviated approach to solution-focused therapy is strategic, pragmatic, and mechanical via its line of questioning in the search for solutions. The approach does not center on how the meaning of experience is constructed within a cultural context; and thus, as it is often pointed out, there is little attention given to the social and historical contexts that shape individuals' problems. There is no provision for the analysis of power within de Shazer's schema or for challenging dominant social discourses. De Schazer's work focuses on the individual, whereas White's work situates the individual within the larger social context (Chang & Phillips, 1993).

    Furthermore, the influences of J. Bruner (1986, 1987), E. Bruner (1986a, 1986b), Gergen and Gergen (1984), Geertz (1986), and Foucault (1972, 1973, 1980b, 1988, 1995) create a very different sensibility within White's work. We see de Schazer's solution-focused therapy as grounded in a primarily modernist foundation, at least in part because there is no unpacking of concepts such as power, knowledge, self, or experience.1

    Blending Modernism and Postmodernism

    This book offers a blend of modernist and postmodernist approaches to knowledge and power (Brown, 2003; Payne, 2000; White, 1995). We continue to draw upon modernism's commitment to social critique and emancipatory projects, which can envision a more just society. Modernism thus allows us to continue to take a stance toward social justice and eradicating social oppression. However, we also rely upon a postmodern sensibility toward deconstruction and reflexivity, which means that no ideas are beyond inquiry or escape scrutiny. This blended form of narrative practice is then reflexive about organizing concepts of therapeutic practice such as experience, self, and identity, which are themselves discursive productions, representing socially and historically constructed stories. By discursive productions, we are referring to social processes of “talk” in which we make meaning. As we story or talk about experience, self, and identity, we create them: We form them as we speak them. We abandon the modernist reliance upon essentialism and binary thought and the postmodernist tendency toward relativism. Therefore, within narrative therapeutic conversations, not only clients' stories, which are situated within their social and historically specific contexts, need to be unpacked but also the discursive or socially constructed therapeutic conceptual tools used for understanding these stories.

    A Postmodern Lens

    Postmodern narrative therapy represents a fundamental divergence from modernist psychotherapy perspectives. Unlike psychotherapy grounded in modernist constructions of knowledge, power, truth, knowledge, experience, emotion, reason, self, and identity, the postmodern lens that shapes narrative therapy means these central foundational constructs to therapy are interrogated rather than taken as is. As Flax (1990) observes, modernist foundational assumptions about reason, truth, knowledge, and the self are destabilized by postmodernism. For postmodernism, there is no one truth, no one universal, discoverable truth that exists outside human existence. There is no stable, fixed, knowable, or essential self or identity, as self and identity can emerge only within linguistic, cultural, and relational practices. Truth is only ever partial, located, and invested. What we take for granted to be true, reasonable, and normative are in fact social constructions that emerge within social and historical contexts and cannot be separated from human meaning-making processes. Knowledge is thus never innocent, but always culture bound. When it comes to social life and human experience grounded in social life, all knowledge is interpretative, valued based, and woven into the matrixes of power that shape the organization of society itself. And while human beings are socially created, this is a dialectical process in which they are simultaneously produced by and produce the world in which they live (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Gergen, 1985a, 1985b; Shotter, 1993).


    Therapy itself is a social construction with a particular kind of social agenda and role. “Therapeutism” is a dominant form of discourse that guides ways of living with the difficulties and conflicts of contemporary society (Epstein, 1994). It is an ideological discourse that focuses on individuals' emotional problems and promises to “do good,” while performing the social roles of surveillance, regulation, and control of moral and appropriate social behavior (Epstein, 1994). According to Epstein (1994), the therapeutic idea

    is the preponderant influence on the composition of normative standards for how we conduct ourselves, how we judge people, how we decide who to get involved with, who to avoid, where we take a job, bring up children, deal with illness, our bodies, our minds, all our social relations, (p. 2)

    In other words, the discourse of the therapeutic idea pervades daily life. Therapeutism, then, is a central discursive practice that organizes our social world, one that ensures people are socialized “into occupying the appropriate places in social structure and behaving in right ways” (Epstein, 1994, p. 6). For the most part, narrative therapy disrupts the modernist basis of the therapeutic idea—that the therapeutic is “transhistorical, scientifically objective, apolitical” (p. 3). Yet like most therapy, narrative therapy is likely to claim that “it is good for you” (p. 3). This is qualified, however, for while narrative therapy may suggest that it can be helpful in rewriting problem stories and re-authoring identities, a postmodern and reflexive approach within narrative therapy rejects the promise that therapy can provide self-emancipation or discovery of the “real” self.

    White (1997, 2001) suggests that narrative therapy is not an avenue for discovering the emancipated self. Indeed, he refutes the idea of an emancipatory psychology, arguing that within this view, the self is naturalized and formulated as though it had escaped historical and social forces. In writing out the social, the transcendental subject produces a subjectivist, essentialist, depoliticized analysis (Smith, 1999). Having escaped social forces, the self just is. White (1997, 2001) critiques the idea that therapy can free people to live according to their true natures or real, authentic selves. Such emancipatory psychologies are predicated upon the idea of a fixed, immutable, essential self. We live in a culture absorbed by the creation of self, whereby through social processes of subjectification (Foucault, 1984), we turn ourselves into subjects, endlessly attempting to shape, manage, improve, and understand ourselves. Psychological discourses center on the internal private life—experience, need, emotion—as though it were separate from the external world. Embedded within social constructionism, narrative therapy views self-stories as interpretations of lived events and thus challenges essentialist (naturalized), subjectivist (individualized and decontextualized), and ultimately depoliticized views of the subject. Our reflection, our gaze, turns inward in subjectivist understandings of the self, permitting a focus on the individual that obscures social and political analysis. A reflexive postmodern narrative therapy recognizes ways in which all therapy participates in “therapeutism,” while also seeing therapy as a potential social site of resistance through the challenging of internalized dominant social discourse and in coauthoring more helpful stories.

    Therapy is, of course, for Foucault, a modernist strategy or mechanism of power. Therapy relies upon the modes of objectification of the subject delineated by Foucault, whereby under the gaze of science and classification, we come to understand ourselves “scientifically.” Power and knowledge are not separate from the formation of the subject. Therapy is a socially legitimized arena for turning our gaze inward, disciplining the docile body, and ensuring we are self-constraining. Dividing practices of traditional therapy include medicalization, labeling, stigmatization, and pathologization. Systems of classifying and labeling individuals rely upon the nexus of truth and power, legitimized by “experts” such as therapists, and are often dividing practices or strategies of power that determine which people are normal or abnormal, good or bad, strong or weak, moral or immoral.

    Taken together, these processes enable the governance of subjects. Yet, for Foucault, the process of subjectification involves both power as constraint and domination and power as productive and constitutive. Thus, in making ourselves into subjects within the context of culture, we are both constrained and creative. Within this process there are, then, sites of resistance. This can be said of discourse, and in particular, discourses of self. Narrative therapy exploits these sites of resistance, unpacking the constraining aspects of our self-stories and resurrecting the suppressed voice by recognizing and emphasizing the agency and creativity available to individuals in re-authoring their identities.

    We believe that while therapy can indeed invoke conservatizing, normalizing, and regulating processes of self in its operation as a social strategy of power, it can also be an effort to challenge the discursive practices of power and knowledge that have become problematically embedded within people's lives. Within narrative therapy, it is believed that changing people's stories about their lives can help to change their actual lives. Furthermore, changing these stories often involves challenging larger social stories within people's problem-saturated stories about themselves and their lives. All individual stories are social stories: There is never a sole author. When social stories leave unquestioned dominant social relations of power, coexisting and prevailing assumptions of truth and power remain intact. Narrative therapy can disrupt those dominant discourses that operate in tandem with power and thus sustain dominant social reality, which benefits only a few. We agree with White (1997), however, that there is nothing revolutionary about these narrative practices—they do not stand outside of the discourses of culture (p. 231).

    Part 1: Writing in the Social

    We begin this book with a critical examination of dominant social discourses that often shape therapeutic work, in terms of their influence on both clients' stories about themselves and therapists' interpretations of these stories. These discourses often reveal naturalized, biological, individualized, and decontextualized explanations of people's problems. Taken-for-granted dominant accounts of addiction, eating “disorders,” depression, and violence are themselves often constituted by larger organizing discourses that rely on assumptions about truth, knowledge, power, experience, the self, identity, and gender. Prevailing discourses such as these regularly find their way into therapeutic conversations and are, therefore, unpacked in this book. In this way, we wish to highlight the complex creation and transmission of stories within our culture (Shotter, 1993). Surface readings, thin descriptions or interpretations of stories that do not also unpack organizing concepts in stories such as those identified above, are likely to deconstruct only the surface story. Instead, like interpretive anthropologists, we are interested in discovering rich or thick descriptions of people's experiences (Geertz, 1973). Exploring the multiple, complex, and overlapping scaffolds that structure stories will not only enable a more extensive deconstruction of stories but also enable a richer redescription in the process of reconstructing more helpful stories (White, 2004b). We are not, however, invoking the traditional psychotherapy notion of uncovering the “deeper truths” that are taken to explain surface expressions of psychopathology (see White, 1997, p. 62).

    The stories we tell about our experiences are not separate from the larger social stories that circulate as universal representations of truth while remaining largely unquestioned. For example, dominant stories often presume that alcoholism is a chronic primary disease that necessitates abstinence, that depression is a product of either biochemical imbalances in the brain or oppressive life circumstances, that eating “disorders” are caused either by the influence of media images of thinness or genetic vulnerability, or that men use violence because they want power and control. So embedded are these stories, clients often present them as truths woven into their accounts of their experiences, and therapists wishing to legitimize clients' experiences leave the foundational presumptions of these stories intact. What this means is that together, the client and therapist may inadvertently constrain the possibility for creating alternative stories.

    The process of externalizing within narrative therapy, or separating a problem from the individual, is itself discursive. As such, it is a political process that requires the therapist to interpret and take a stance about the stories presented. The therapist, like the client, will have been exposed to many of the same dominant social stories about the problems individuals and families bring to therapy. As such, they have not escaped, and cannot escape, the meaning-making process of which they themselves are a part.

    As well, these stories often hold onto deeply conservatizing processes of individualizing and pathologizing that strip people of agency and self-control. It is not just the need to deconstruct these larger social stories that becomes important to narrative conversations that seek to externalize people's problems, it is all the other organizing ideas that remain unchanged when stories are taken up at face value: the self, identity, and experience. Too often, revealing its modernist origins, therapy presumes there is a real or discoverable essential self. According to White (2001), this naturalizing of identity poses many hazards, as “these naturalistic accounts obscure the contexts of people's lives, including the politics of their experiences” (p. 44). If, for instance, therapy presumes that it will uncover the “real self” in conversations of sexual identity, it presumes an essentialized self, a discoverable, preexisting, and fixed entity—an essentialized sexual identity. When, similarly, therapy presumes that if it peels back the layers of gendered or racial oppression, for example, it will discover the real unencumbered self, it presumes there can be a “real self” outside the social world. In this case, therapy naturalizes and decontextualizes social categories of gender or race, presuming there is a “real woman” or a “real Black woman.” The collection of chapters in this book illustrates narrative conversational approaches that attempt to not essentialize or leave intact foundational social categories. The “self,” identity, and experience are taken up as fully social (Smith, 1999). We assume that accountable therapeutic conversations are reflexive about their grounding assumptions.

    Social Constructionism

    While we are created by social life, we also create social life (Durkheim, 1966; Marx, 1978; Mead, 1977; Smith, 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1999). This view conflates with the narrative story metaphor, for while we live our stories, our stories live us; we create our stories and are created by them (White & Epston, 1990). Indeed, “stories make meaning” (E. Bruner, 1986a, p. 140). However, we do not, and cannot, create our stories by ourselves, as they can emerge only within a preexisting context of meaning. This context of meaning is always social, as meaning cannot exist independent of social life. The human capacity to produce meaning and to attach it to social events and experiences requires social interaction.

    White (2001) emphasizes that our stories do not simply represent us or reflect back, like a mirror, a discernable reality; instead, our stories are active—they constitute us. The stories we tell are the stories we live. When we write new stories of our lives, we live new stories. By telling unhelpful or oppressive stories about our lives, we keep these stories alive, and with them, often misery, unhappiness, and injustice. According to Jerome Bruner (2002), “We gain the self-told narratives that make and re-make ourselves from the culture in which we live” (p. 87). Yet we are not simply products of our stories or of a culture from whence our stories are made possible, but cocreators of ourselves through the creation of our stories and our culture. The narrative process of therapeutic conversation, then, centers clients as active subjects, agents in their own lives. This therapeutic approach is one of possibility, of hope, enabling the rewriting and subsequent reliving of one's lives through more helpful stories.

    The social constructionist approach is central to narrative therapy.2 From this view, Berger and Luckmann (1967) maintain that human constructions are “real” as they take on the properties of a material world, in that they have an essence or existence of their own, with concrete social effects and an ability to shape behavior. Although stories begin as social constructions, they have real effects as people live them. For Berger and Luckmann, what is defined as real, is real in its consequences. As meaning does not exist in the external world, in and within itself, acts must be given meaning through the process of consciousness, language, and social interaction (Mead, 1977). Over time, that which is socially constructed becomes detached from human creation, and social objects are taken to originate in the nature of things independent of human creation (Durkheim, 1966). Meaning is presumed to be universal as it becomes sedimented in the cultural, whereby social life becomes naturalized, dehistoricized, and depoliticized. Through such processes, social reality is transmitted and reproduced.

    Knowledge, Power, and Discourse

    Narrative therapy leans on social constructionism as well as postmodern discourse analysis. Following de Saussure (as cited in Weedon, 1997), for example, “Meaning is produced within language rather than reflected by language” (p. 23). Meaning does not already exist, but comes into being through the use of language. The work of de Saussure (1974) takes apart modernist concepts of language, knowledge, and reality. He disrupts conventional notions of the signifier and the signified, language and reality, arguing that language is constitutive rather than reflective of social reality. Similarly, White and Epston (1990) argues that we live storied lives; our stories constitute us. From this view, we live our stories, and our stories live us. Discourse analysis means taking apart how meaning has been constituted through acts or practices of talk, through speech or text. According to Foucault (1972), discourses are social “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (p. 49). For Foucault (1980a), knowledge and power are joined through discourse.

    Drawing on Foucault, White and Epston (1990) state, “We are subject to power through the normalizing ‘truths’ that shape our lives and relationships” (p. 19). While power is often understood as negative, repressive, or constraining, power is also formulated by Foucault as positive, productive, or constitutive. Thus, dominant discourses or normalizing truths shape the stories that clients bring to therapy. These stories, situated within cultural discourse, do not escape power and are indeed constituted by power, thus revealing power as both constraining and constitutive. While within our culture, there is a willingness to see power as repressive, there is much more reluctance to see the constitutive or productive effects of power, because this requires humans to confront how power is implicit in our very subjectivity, that which people wish to honor and privilege as individual, private, and outside the social (Foucault, 1995). As knowledge and power are inseparable, “a domain of knowledge is a domain of power, and a domain of power is a domain of knowledge” (White & Epston, 1990, p. 22). For Foucault, power produces knowledge: They “imply one another” (Redekop, 1995, p. 314). Yet while knowledge and power are co-implicated, they cannot be reduced to each other; knowledge is more than simply an instrument of power (Tanesini, 1999, p. 195).

    As stories are discursive, the living and telling of them are inseparable. We form or constitute our experiences as we speak of them, and as we speak of them, we experience them. The narrative metaphor moves away from the idea of representationalism to one of constitutionalism and thus shifts from the idea that stories simply describe social life to the idea that stories create and reflect social life (White, 1995). Stories are not, then, simply factual representations of an external world outside of human creation. The “constitutionalist” perspective advanced by White (1993) informs this collection:

    The constitutionalist perspective that I am arguing refutes foundationalist assumptions of objectivity, essentialism and representationalism. It proposes that an objective knowledge of the world is not possible, that knowledges are actually generated in particular discursive fields. It proposes that all essentialist notions, including those about human nature, are ruses that disguise what is really taking place, that essentialist notions are paradoxical in that they provide descriptions that are specifying of life; that these notions obscure the operations of power. And the constitutionalist perspective proposes that the descriptions that we have of life are not representations or reflections of life as lived, but are directly constitutive of life; that these descriptions do not correspond with the world, but have real effects in the shaping of life. (p. 125)

    In this first section of the book, “Writing in the Social,” five chapters will explore the limitations of subjectivism: the individualizing, depoliticizing, and medicalizing of individuals' experiences. The chapters focus on the relationship between knowledge and power, depression among women, genetic accounts of eating “disorders,” disease model accounts of addiction, and the tensions involved in practicing psychiatry from a narrative approach.

    Catrina Brown argues in her chapter, “Situating Knowledge and Power in the Therapeutic Alliance,” that rethinking power includes challenging the ways in which both practitioners and clients keep oppressive stories alive. In this chapter, Brown argues that the therapeutic re-authoring of alternative stories necessarily involves questioning the dominant discourses that shape unhelpful stories. In addition, therapeutic practices themselves rely on dominant discourses of knowledge, power, and the self. Therapeutic practices often reflect the modernist dualistic assumption that either one has knowledge or one does not and one either has power or one does not. Contemporary binary constructions of therapy seek to maximize clients' power through positioning the client as “expert,” which often implicitly requires the practitioner to abdicate knowledge and power by adopting a “not-knowing” position.

    For Foucault (1980a, 1980b), power operates in both constraining and constitutive ways, for example, through the ways people story their lives. From a narrative perspective, we can see this clearly in the way people internalize dominant social discourses as their own, when these stories contribute not to greater power and agency, but less. Relying on Foucault's view that knowledge and power are joined in discourse, this chapter argues that the “not-knowing” stance is not effective for challenging oppressive dominant discourses, deconstructing identity conclusions, or rewriting alternative preferred identities. A postmodern narrative approach to the therapeutic alliance accentuates that therapy is a partnership of active, embodied subjects who join knowledge in their work together.

    In their chapter, “Re-Storying Women's Depression: A Material-Discursive Approach,” Michelle Lafrance and Janet Stoppard elaborate on their work with women who suffer from depression, presenting an analysis grounded in a postmodern material/discursive approach. This chapter draws upon the authors' qualitative research on women's experiences of being depressed. The research is positioned within a feminist social constructionist perspective that recognizes the embodied character of depressive experiences. Based on a discursive analysis of women's accounts, the chapter presents an understanding of becoming depressed and moving away from depression as experiences that arise at the intersection of discourses on femininity and the practices of femininity that such discourses entail. Implications for the theory, practice, and policy of situating and understanding women's depression within this material-discursive framework are discussed. This approach suggests strategies for dealing with depression and sadness by moving beyond the mind/body and culture/biology binaries.

    Karin Jasper's chapter, “The Blinding Power of Genetics: Manufacturing and Privatizing Stories of Eating Disorders,” critiques limiting genetic stories that situate eating “disorders” within individuals and outside dominant discourses and their social and historical contexts. Through examining the genetic discourse on eating “disorders,” Jasper illustrates the manufacturing and privatizing of this ubiquitous social problem faced by contemporary women. Jasper elaborates upon the blinding power of genetic discourse and demonstrates the way it disqualifies and renders invisible other interpretations and possibilities for understanding and working with women's struggles with these problems. She addresses this dominant discourse and its potential implications for prevention and treatment, demonstrating the value of alternative narrative-based strategies.

    Colin Sanders exposes the disease metaphor of the dominant addictions discourse, which renders invisible other alternative interpretations and possibilities for treatment, in his chapter, “A Poetics of Resistance: Compassionate Practice in Substance Misuse Therapy.” Taken-for-granted, disease-based ideas about addiction are often reproduced within modernist frameworks. He discusses the continuing influence of the disease model discourse regarding substance misuse practices and proposes a perspective that evolved from 1989 to 2003 in his work at “Peak House,” a coed, 8-week residential treatment program for young persons struggling with substance misuse and their families. In this chapter, Sanders recounts and remembers influences and inspirations contributing to what he refers to as a “poetics of resistance,” a compassionate practice arising in response to the pathologizing discourse associated with the disease model metaphor. A poetics of resistance represents a counterstory to the story of hopelessness and self-doubt associated with the disease metaphor. Influenced by White and Epston (1990), Sanders's work at Peak House moved away from deficit-pathologized identities toward re-authored identities, including a re-visioning of difficult and demeaning experiences and the surfacing of preferred, more hopeful stories.

    Normand Carrey's chapter, “Practicing Psychiatry Through a Narrative Lens: Working With Children, Youth, and Families,” explores the tensions that emerge in his efforts to blend psychiatry and narrative therapy; and, in doing so, he challenges the dominance of biological explanations of people's problems. He combines a narrative approach with the three traditional stages of psychiatric intervention: “the psychiatric interview,” “the diagnosis,” and “treatment.” As he seeks to work collaboratively with families, he emphasizes the language they use to describe their lives, rather than using only psychiatric language. Specifically, narrative practice assists him to move away from traditional notions of his role as “the expert,” particularly through the traditional use of diagnostic labels, toward a more collaborative approach with families. Through case examples, he illustrates how psychiatric intervention from a narrative perspective can help children, youth, and families coconstruct alternative and more helpful stories and preferred identities.

    Part 2: Self-Surveillance: Normalizing Practices of Self

    Narrative therapy is indebted to French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault and his work that demonstrates the relationship between knowledge and power and the ways in which normalizing processes of self-surveillance have the effect of regulating and homogenizing human behavior, shaping our thoughts, preferences, and values. For Foucault, culture is regulated through strategies or techniques of power that regulate or discipline its members through the construction and internalization of dominant truths or discourses.

    Such strategies of power engage individuals in active self-surveillance and in processes of normalization of the self. In other words, people primarily regulate themselves. For the most part, force is not required in regulating the populace, so committed are people to self-management.3 A primary means of accomplishing this is through the stories they tell about themselves and their lives. Jerome Bruner (2002) highlights the balancing act of the self-story,

    A self-making narrative is something of a balancing act. It must, on the one hand, create a conviction of autonomy, that one has a will of one's own, a certain freedom of choice, a degree of possibility. But it must also relate the self to a world of others—to friends and family, to institutions, to the past, to reference groups. But the commitment to others that is implicit in relating oneself to others of course limits our autonomy. We seem virtually unable to live without both autonomy, and commitment, and our lives strive to balance the two. So do the self-narratives we tell ourselves. (p. 78)

    Perhaps the most important contribution of narrative therapy is its belief that new or different stories, accounts, or representations are always possible. The process of unpacking and exposing unhelpful stories through the way they have been put together over time enables the discovery of alternative stories that have been disqualified or rendered invisible. Within narrative therapy, there is, then, no simple binary between the known and the unknown.

    Discourses of the Self

    Within a postmodern narrative therapy, the self is fully social; there is no transcendental subject. A postmodern lens reveals that the daily and ongoing reproductions of self-stories are not sacred or untouchable: They are, in fact, implicated in power. Following Foucault (1980a, p. 11), when we talk of ourselves, we put ourselves into discourse and, in so doing, draw on culturally available meanings. The social reproduction of dominant social discourse requires our participation, and one powerful vehicle is through our self-stories. At the same time, we are not without agency. We can disrupt these discourses. According to Foucault (1980a),

    Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. In like manner, silence and secrecy are a shelter for power, anchoring its prohibitions, but they also loosen its hold and provide for relatively obscure areas of tolerance. (p. 101)

    We are reminded that the telling of self-stories is flawed and circumscribed. The stories are not, and cannot be, perfect accounts or representations of “what is” or “what was.” Thin descriptions of life experience, or self-stories, are interpretative and, as such, are necessarily incomplete or partial. In narrative therapy, the pursuit of thicker description recognizes this idea. Reflecting Foucault's view, postmodern narrative therapy is aware that there is no binary between what is told and what is untold. There is a distinct and complex relationship between the dominant self-stories people tell about themselves and those they disqualify. Narrative therapeutic conversations unpack what is said and are deeply curious about what is not said, that which has not made it into the story. Foucault (1980a) observes,

    Silence itself—the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which types of discourse are authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses, (p. 27)

    Stories of the self are creations involving selective information about what is included and what is excluded. They are, therefore, only ever partial. Rather than actually representing an essential self, stories of self are constitutive.

    In the second section of the book, “Self-Surveillance: Normalizing Practices of Self,” the authors focus on the process of self-surveillance in society and how subsequent self-regulation is part of normalizing practices of self in which the self is a vehicle of social power. The section begins with Catrina Brown's exploration of the tension between discipline and desire that underscores performances of self within our culture and how socially constructed normalizing processes of self and associated internalized negative identity conclusions are often at the heart of clients' stories. In her chapter, “Discipline and Desire: Regulating the Body/Self,” Brown explores ways in which women regulate themselves as social subjects. Influenced by Foucault's notion of the “docile body” and of “disciplining the body,” Brown examines the way women use their bodies as an illustration of one cultural form of self-regulation, illuminating the tension between the discipline of and capitulation to desire and need in contemporary culture. The body is not stable, constant, asocial, ahistorical, or “natural.” It is, as Foucault suggests, in “the grip” of cultural practices, including relations of power. Abandoning the tendency to naturalize the body, this discussion of women's struggles with eating and body size serves as an example of normalization processes of the self. Challenging the oppressed/oppressor modernist formula of power, this analysis concedes that practices of power are often centered in such practices of self-regulation or “self-surveillance and self-correction to norms” (Bordo, 1993, p. 27) rather than conspiracies of power or coercion. Women's active use of the body is, then, situated within the context of gender, power, and cultural practices. Women's self-regulation or disciplining of desire is socially organized as part of the organization of a disciplined social body. Controlling their bodies can be seen as both compliance and resistance to cultural hegemony. As such, the body tells stories of women's struggles in culture.

    In his chapter, “Watching the Other Watch: A Social Location of Problems,” Stephen Madigan illustrates the process of self-surveillance in which one watches oneself through the eyes of others. In this way, self-surveillance is never solitary or private, as it always involves the judgment of an imagined social audience. People's views about themselves as persons, including how people conceptualize and where they locate “psychological” problems, are influenced through many institutional and professional discourses. People's relational conversations with themselves, “speaking” to themselves, are subject to the act of internal self-surveillance (looking, monitoring, and judging). A narrative therapy practice of counterviewing, therapeutic letter campaigns, and the creation of communities of concern are investigated as sites of resistance to dominant cultural and professional discourse about persons and problems, a means of “re-membering” alternative selves, and crucial for a dialogue of hope to respond and replace a dialogue of despair.

    Glenda Russell draws on the analogy of the Mobius strip to illustrate the inseparability of the person and the social in her chapter, “Internalized Homophobia: Lessons From the Mobius Strip.” Self-surveillance and the normalization practices of self are illustrated through Russell's discussion of internalized homophobia. She addresses the construct of internalized homophobia from two perspectives. The first and more standard perspective represents internalized homophobia as the psychic consequence of an individual's internalization of the homonegative attitudes in society at large. The construct in this form is almost always used in reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and is often regarded in pathological or quasi-pathological terms. The second perspective offers a postmodern understanding of internalized homophobia. This perspective suggests that homophobia (and, by extension, internalized homophobia) cannot be understood as resident within individuals. Rather, homophobia in the world and internalized homophobia or, more aptly, homonegating processes, flow inexorably and inevitably between persons and their social worlds. The Mobius strip is used as an analogy to illustrate this inseparability of the person and the social. In this view, homonegating processes cannot be regarded as individual phenomena, but must be understood in reference to social context. All people, whatever their claimed sexual orientations, participate in incorporating and transmitting homonegating processes. Russell discusses both client- and therapist-initiated explorations of internalized homophobia and offers a therapeutic case that illustrates her postmodern perspective.

    Part 3: Challenging Essentialism

    Narrative therapy approaches reflect the social constructionist position that experience is always social (Smith, 1999). However, therapy that has simultaneously sought to avoid the therapist as expert and the pathologization of the client has often found its remedy through reverting to the flip side of the equation. In this new schema, the client is the expert, and therapists self-consciously avoid any exercise of power for fear it marks them as oppressive. Experience, or “first-voice” stories, have subsequently been privileged as authoritative truth. For narrative therapy influenced by postmodernism's destabilizing notions of truth, experience, and self, there is a pivotal, irreducible tension between the need to respect and value experience and the simultaneous desire to situate the self as fully social, as socially and historically constructed. This tension within postmodern narrative practice offers new possibilities for exploring alternative approaches to experience.

    Although individuals are active participants in the creation of their stories, these stories draw upon available social discourses and therefore consist of both subjugated and dominant knowledges. Importantly, as our experiences exist within a field of knowledge and power, no story is outside power (Foucault, 1980a; White & Epston, 1990). Self-stories of experience are constructed through a selective process, including what information is left out. Influenced by larger stories around us, self-stories of experience are unable to embody the full complexity of lived life, its gaps, contradictions, and silences. First-voice stories or self-stories, then, are not inherently “truer” than other stories and thus cannot be privileged as beyond inquiry. Therapy, like most social processes, is constantly and actively involved in meaning making, but its assigned task is to also make sense of the self-stories that clients tell that not only do not work, but that often reinforce both negative identity conclusions and dominant social discourses. Taking a neutral stance to such stories is likely to further reinforce negative identity conclusions and dominant social discourse.

    As narrative therapy grows out of a social constructionist approach to understanding social reality, the self, experience, and identity are all seen as social constructions, and as such they are not inherently true or real. Resurrecting the subjugated voice of the oppressed, marginalized, and even traumatized means bringing the suppressed voice into view. Uncovering subjugated or disqualified knowledges or experiences often means having to deconstruct the “thin descriptions” that reinforce dominant social stories and taken-for-granted, everyday discourses that are often organizing threads of people's own self-stories. There is no transcendental self-story, just as there is no transcendental subject. In other words, there is no self outside the social world. As the self is at all moments social, there is no experience that has not been socially organized. Experience is always “ideologically cast” (Fuss, 1989, p. 114). There are, therefore, no inherently legitimate or true stories, no self-legitimating stories. A postmodern and constructionist approach to knowledge necessitates this position. Yet this in no way suggests that all stories are equal.

    This third section of the book, “Challenging Essentialism,” focuses on challenging essentialism in therapeutic discourse. In her chapter, “Dethroning the Suppressed Voice: Unpacking Experience as Story,” Catrina Brown deconstructs the essentialized and decontexualized conceptualization of experience as it is commonly taken up in therapy. Such approaches to experience treat experiences as though they were truth (i.e., “It's my experience, so it must be true”). Doing so includes taking apart routinized assumptions in practice that naturalize emotions and privilege and authorize and decontextualize clients' experiences, separating them from their social construction. Drawing on the work of Joan Scott (1992) and Dorothy Smith (1990a, 1990b, 1999), experience is deeply problematized, as is, subsequently, the privileging of the suppressed voice within practice. Within this work, experience is seen as an interpretation that needs interpretation. While resurrecting the suppressed voice is critical in developing alternative stories, it is argued that the suppressed voice reflects both subjugated and dominant knowledges. The suppressed voice does not represent or lead us to the “real self.” Along with White (1997, 2001), Brown argues that narrative therapy is not a process for discovering the real or authentic self. Experience stories are not self-legitimizing and are not inherently more true. As experience does not escape the social, it must, like all other stories, be unpacked and new more helpful stories reconstructed. If we wish to move beyond the limitations of subjectivism, experience must be taken up in narrative work as fully social (Smith, 1999).

    In his chapter, “Conversations With Men About Women's Violence: Ending Men's Violence by Challenging Gender Essentialism,” Tod Augusta-Scott deconstructs gender essentialism in his conversations with men who abuse their partners. The essentialist gender construction that holds that women are not strong or powerful enough to perpetrate abuse is often held by men in counseling for perpetrating physical violence and by the domestic violence field itself. For those men who are abused by their female partners, acknowledging these experiences can help men take responsibility to stop their own abuse. Augusta-Scott illustrates how this process can challenge excuses and justifications that influence men's choices to perpetrate abusive behavior, challenge gender essentialism, and create conversations with men that are respectful to both men and their partners.

    In the next chapter, “Challenging Essentialist Anti-Oppressive Discourse: Uniting Against Racism and Sexism,” Tod Augusta-Scott explores the limitation of essentialist understandings of race and gender. He unpacks anti-oppressive discourse to find ways of uniting people from across various social locations to address issues of racism and sexism. He de-essentializes race and gender by describing a process of identifying differences in people's experiences from various social locations as well as their common values and aspirations to address issues of injustice. Then, within this context, people are invited to explore the oppressive practices they employ that lead them away from these values. People also explore the effects of these oppressive practices to develop the motivation to change.

    These interventions to address racism and sexism involve deconstructing anti-oppressive discourse that leans upon essentialist constructions of race and gender (Bell, 1992; Cose, 1993, 1997; Mclntosh, 1998; Tatum, 1997; West, 1993; Wiley, 1993). As well, this process involves working in a helpful manner with issues of shame, pride, and anger as people address oppressive practices. Finally, in therapy groups and workshops to address racism and sexism, Augusta-Scott uses an invitational approach rather than engaging people with oppositional confrontational practices.

    Section 4: Re-Authoring Preferred Identities

    Narrative therapeutic conversations involve a process of deconstructing unhelpful problem-saturated stories, reconstructing alternative stories, and re-authoring preferred identities. As this approach centers on the meanings attached to people's stories, it resists linear, mechanical, or formulaic interpretations that focus on technique. The process of deconstruction involves externalizing the problem and the socially constructed discourses that shape the problem, and it helps the client take a position on these stories. Toward this end, unique outcomes or stalled initiatives (times when the problem story has not dominated people's experiences), are identified as an entry point for creating alternative stories.4

    Restructuring or re-authoring identity stories supports people's preferred identities. A process of re-authoring preferred identities also involves historicizing unique outcomes by tracing or mapping the history of these exceptions. White and Epston (1990) draws upon Jerome Bruner's (1986) idea that narratives emerge within a temporal landscape that includes both the events or experiences that occur and the meaning that we ascribe to them. Intertwined, these dual landscapes include a landscape of action and a landscape of consciousness, in which the knower and the known are inseparable (Bruner, 2002, p. 27; White, 1995, p. 31). The narrative form, according to Jerome Bruner (2002), is not only interactive: “Storytelling becomes entwined with, even at time constitutive of cultural life” (p. 31). Dependent on language and social convention, storytelling is necessarily intersubjective, both reflecting and reproducing shared social meanings.

    White and Epston (1990) state, “I have been interested in how persons organize their lives around specific meaning and how, in so doing, they inadvertently contribute to the ‘survival’ of, as well as the ‘career’ of, the problem” (p. 3). Experience and meaning questions first map out the landscape of action or the history of events. The landscape of action describes what has happened: the sequence of events and incidents and the who, what, where, and when of a story. In the landscape of action, the experience is relived and retold.

    The landscape of meaning (or consciousness/identity), in contrast, refers to the meanings we attach to experiences or events. Narrative therapy wishes to not only explore the historical map of events as they unfold and contribute to conclusions about the problem and identity but also reflect on the meaning of these events. E. Bruner (1986a) suggests,

    Stories give meaning to the present and enable us to see that present as part of a set of relationships involving a constituted past and future. But narratives change, all stories are partial, all meanings incomplete. There is no fixed meaning in the past, for with each telling the context varies, the audience differs, the story is modified…. We continually discover new meanings, (p. 153)

    Reflective questions are asked about what the landscape of action means, what it says about a person, what it reveals about a person's desires, values, beliefs, intentions, and motives. While landscape of action questions reveal what happened, landscape of meaning questions allow for deeper exploration about the meaning of these events for people and how they have been significant in shaping their consciousness and identities.

    Deconstructing the Story

    The concept of externalizing conversations in therapy was developed by Michael White (see White, 1984, 1986). White and Epston (1990) proposed that externalizing

    is an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. In this process, the problem becomes a separate entity and thus external to the person or relationship that was ascribed as the problem, (p. 38)

    Deconstructing begins with externalizing the problem, which includes ideas, feelings, problems, practices, and interactions. Often this process focuses upon externalizing negative identity conclusions. The process of separating the person from the problem often separates the person from problematic identity conclusions and dominant social discourses. Externalization or externalizing turns the problem into an object outside the person, emphasizing that the person is not the problem. Narrative therapists often use metaphors as a way to turn the problem into an object, for instance, “The Depression,” “The Anger,” or “The Robot.”

    The objectified problem is then located in discourse by identifying the ideas and practices that strengthen and weaken the “problem.” Conversations will explore where particular ideas were learned and uncover the effects of the discourse. Externalizing affects people's views of themselves and impacts upon their views of relationships, emotions, social, work, and life. The process of externalizing examines the influence of “the problem” on the person's past, present, and future. It explores how one is recruited into the story, as well as the cultural supports for the story. Exploring the history of the problem, one asks, how did the person learn the ideas that contribute to his or her story, and what events in the person's life have contributed to the story? The objective is then to uncover the influence of the problem on the person, the impact/effect of the problem on the person and his or her life, and then to move beyond problem saturation. It is important to uncover parts of the story not told by interrupting the dominant discourse and its ongoing performance.

    Externalizing conversations unpack the dominant story or narrative about events or themes in people's lives and the meaning given to them. They, therefore, involve externalizing the internalized conversation. Externalization helps people separate from “truth” discourses and the notion of one universal or unitary knowledge. The problem is constructed as the performance of oppressive and dominant knowledge. The history of the effects of these truths can be explored in order to gain a reflexive perspective on one's life. New options can become available through challenging the “truths,” and people may replace the stories into which they have been recruited with stories that work better for them. Through resurrecting subjugated, hidden, or obscured knowledges, the myth of a knowable, observable, universal knowledge is disrupted. Disqualified or alternative truth claims may emerge, making previous unseen conflict and struggle visible (White, 2001). Jerome Bruner (2002) explores the motives for studying the narrative, suggesting that one reason “is to understand it so as to cultivate its illusions of reality, to ‘subjunctivize’ the self-evident declarations of every-day life” (p. 11).

    Externalizing the problem is at the center of deconstructing the problem and reduces the effects of labeling and pathologizing. It also helps to reduce guilt, shame, and blaming; contextualizes the problem; achieves separation from the dominant story; fosters a working relationship to resolve the problem story; and reflects an empowerment focus—shifting from inaction or being trapped by the story to active participation in re-authoring the story. The process of deconstruction will explore what events have occurred that support the dominant problem story and what events have challenged this story. There will be events in a person's life that helped to produce stories, such as “I am worthless,” “I am unlovable,” or “I am bad.”

    The following questions explore the history, influence, and effect of the problem on the person and are meant to be illustrative rather than read as is. All therapists must find ways of asking questions that are “genuine” to their own styles of working and speaking in the world. It is also important to ask questions in ways that are accessible, nonjargonistic, and avoid sounding detached:

    • What brings you to therapy?
    • What has been the effect of the problem on everyday life?
    • How has the problem affected relationships with people you are close to?
    • How has the problem affected how you see yourself?
    • How have you been recruited into this way of seeing yourself?
    • When do you remember the problem first occurring?
    • Can you describe some of the times it has been present?
    • How have others reinforced the problem?
    • When has the problem been the strongest? The weakest?

    After uncovering the history, influence, and effect of the problem on the person in a process of separating the person from the dominant story, options and choices begin to emerge. Relative influence questions explore when the problem was the weakest and when it was the strongest. From here, narrative therapy explores what people would prefer for themselves and their lives. This is called a statement of position. Statement-of-position questions explore the experience of the effect of problem and determine a preferred stance. According to White (1991),

    As persons separate themselves from the dominant or totalizing stories that are constitutive of their lives, it becomes more possible for them to orient themselves to aspects of experience that contradict these knowledges, (p. 29)

    “Taking a position” on the problem story or negative identity conclusion requires a process of self-reflection on taken-for-granted ways of thinking in order to determine whether this is a preferred view of one's life and of oneself. White (1997) emphasizes that although preferred views do not exist outside culture, it is important to explore taken-for-granted assumptions as a way to produce alternative possibilities. This often involves “editing in” the context of the problem that has been “edited out” of the dominant story. This helps to thicken, or expand, the client's story.

    Re-Authoring Alternative Stories

    The process of deconstruction is ongoing in narrative therapy, making possible the reconstruction and re-authoring of unhelpful stories. Re-authoring explores how a person has influence on the problem rather than simply being influenced by the problem. The process of re-authoring an alternative story is based on curiosity and builds upon those events or experiences that fall outside or contradict the dominant story. Re-authoring, then, involves developing a more helpful story, one that allows for a life outside of the problem. In re-authoring or rewriting the story, the emphasis is on opening up other options and possibilities. While in the process of deconstructing the problem, narrative therapy uncovers the influence of the problem on the person; in the rewriting of more helpful stories, narrative therapy explores the influence of the person on the problem—in the past, present, and future. These events that contradict the problem-saturated story (often of the person's identity) are referred to as unique outcomes. Unique outcomes are the entry points for re-authoring alternative stories.

    These unique outcomes, or exceptions to the problem stories, are at the heart of developing new life stories and help in the development of supports for the enactment or living of a preferred story. A term taken from Erving Goffman (1961), unique outcomes identify the parts of experience that “fall outside the dominant story” (White & Epston, 1990, p. 15) and are thus not oppressed by the problem. This aspect of experience is able to reveal protest and resistance to the problem. Furthermore, unique outcomes become a way to explore what a person values or stands up for. Through deconstruction and reconstruction, narrative therapy enables the resurrection of the alternative or previously disqualified story. The dominant story brought to therapy has the effect of rendering invisible other possibilities or other stories. Narrative therapy suggests that there are alternative stories attached to every unique outcome:

    In other words life experience is richer than discourse. Narrative structures organise and give meaning to experience, but there are always feelings and lived experiences not fully encompassed by the dominant story. (E. Bruner, 1986a, p. 143)

    Only one unique outcome is needed to begin the re-authoring or reconstructed story process: It can be a fleeting thought. The unique outcome is identified by the client and invites the individual to notice intentions and/or actions that contradict the problem-saturated story. Unique outcomes can arise from a client's history or past, or they may emerge in the actual events of the session. The re-authoring process involves questioning clients in search of alternative interpretations necessary for rebuilding more helpful stories.

    Narrative therapy questions will invite a client to make sense of unique experiences and produce dialogue about changes, turning points, and progress made in life. This will promote a history of struggle or protest against oppression by the problem. These questions come from the identification of a unique outcome. Identifying unique outcomes promotes a history of struggle, protest, or resistance against participating in constraining discourses:

    • Tell me about a time that you stood up to, said “no” to, or resisted the problem?
    • How was that situation handled differently?
    • Have there been times recently when the problem has not played a role in your life?
    • Can you think of any time in the past when the problem could have played a role in your life and it did not?
    • Do you remember other times in the past when you have stood up to the problem?
    • How did it feel when you stood up to the problem?
    • How have you been able to keep the problem from getting worse?

    Unique outcomes, events, or experiences outside the problem-saturated story are identified. Clients are then encouraged to analyze how these exceptions feel and to explore what they mean. Therapy develops the meaning and significance of the unique outcomes and unique accounts through a redescription of selves, others, and relationships. Furthermore, questions help people to be aware of experiences that nurture the alternative story. Questions explore how people feel or think about these revelations about themselves and their perceptions of how others may view them in relation to this reevaluation:

    • What does it say about you that you were able to do this?
    • What does it say about your future that you stood up to the problem?
    • Who else knows this about you?
    Building an Audience for the Preferred Story

    As people begin to develop preferred stories about their lives and identities, it is important that these stories are circulated or shared with others in the world. This is very important for the life of the alternative story and helps to bring forward the preferred story, making it the “new reality”. Seeking out an audience can reinforce and support a person's preferred story:

    • Who would be least surprised that you stood up to the problem?
    • What do they know about you that allows them to not be surprised?
    • Who else knows?
    • Who else should know that you were able to do this?
    • What difference would it make to their attitudes toward you if they knew this?
    • How could you tell them?
    • What do you think this might reveal to me about what you value most?

    Thickening the story involves developing an audience, circulating the new story, and beginning to understand how the new story might affect one's future life:

    • What difference will this make in the future?
    • As you continue to change, how will other people in your life respond to you?
    • How would knowing this affect how you live your life?
    • How would knowing this affect your future?

    White (1997) developed the idea of “re-membering” practices to support the development of an audience for the preferred alternative identity stories. Re-membering practices involve inviting people to consider who from the past may have noticed their preferred identity stories and who might support the circulation of these stories. According to White (1997), “Re-membering practices provide the opportunity for persons to resist thin descriptions about their lives and to engage with others in the generation of rich descriptions of the stories of their identity” (p. 62).

    In the final section of this book, “Re-Authoring Preferred Identities,” three chapters illustrate narrative, processes of unpacking unhelpful identity conclusions and the creation of preferred alternative identities. Jim Duvall and Laura Béres begin their chapter, “Movement of Identities: A Map for Therapeutic Conversations About Trauma,” with their philosophical therapeutic position, followed by a map for guiding therapeutic conversations about the trauma of sexual abuse toward preferred story lines. The philosophical position advanced emphasizes the importance of giving voice to experiences of trauma, a respect for the “unknowable” aspects of others' experiences, and the recognition that both memories and hope are situated in the present. The conversational map comprises five elements: points of stories, backdrop, pivotal events, evaluating effects, and a summary and is illustrated through a case example.

    In the chapter “Letters From Prison: Re-Authoring Identity With Men Who Have Perpetrated Sexual Violence,” Tod Augusta-Scott illustrates his work with a man who sexually abused his daughter. He shares the correspondence this man has sent him from prison, which reflects on and illustrates the process of re-authoring identity. An important part of this process involves re-authoring his identity in a manner that highlights his agency, values, and preferences in relationships. The process of re-authoring identity reflects the postmodernist notion that identity is fluid and therefore moves away from static modernist notions of identity. This process also involves inviting him to study the effects of being victimized by violence and facing shame. Finally, the chapter also addresses the process of making amends, which, in turn, creates an audience for his re-authored identity.

    In her chapter “Talking Body Talk: Merging Feminist and Narrative Approaches to Practice,” Catrina Brown explores how a feminist approach may be blended with a narrative approach through a focus on women's struggles with eating and their bodies. Merging feminist and narrative therapy centers on rewriting women's identity stories to escape limiting cultural meanings and descriptions. The re-authoring of women's body talk involves a shift toward preferred stories that include women speaking about their experiences of conflict and distress in the world directly, rather than through their bodies. The feminist narrative approach to women's body talk presented here explores how women participate in normalization processes of the self through struggles with eating and the body. Together, feminist and narrative approaches enable an analysis and practice that address the construction and performance of gendered subjectivities through culturally available discourses. A feminist narrative approach to body talk acknowledges the ways in which women resource their bodies as forms of both compliance and resistance to dominant cultural ideas, including those of feminine subjectivity. Within this approach, the narrative process of externalization will move the story beyond the individual, locating these struggles within gendered cultural practices and discourses emphasizing the body as a site of both social constraint and protest. Brown's discussion of externalization underscores the importance of not reinscribing women to essentialist and pathologizing descriptions as weak, passive victims of social forces at the expense of acknowledging women's agency, power, and resistance (Ussher, 1989). This chapter illustrates the importance of recognizing agency, power, and resistance in re-authoring women's body talk.

    Summary: Reflexive Narrative Practice

    We begin this book with a focus on blending both modernist and postmodernist understandings of problems that incorporates a material-discursive sensibility into therapeutic conversations. The book seeks to conceptualize and work with social problems within a reflexive postmodern narrative framework. The first section of the book applies this narrative approach by emphasizing the importance of writing in the social (Smith, 1999) rather than treating depression, eating “disorders,” and alcohol misuse as problems of individual pathology, in addition to exploring tensions in practicing narrative psychiatry through this lens. The next section of the book focuses on the practices of self-surveillance and the regulation of the self. Taken together, these chapters explore the inextricably interwoven matrices of knowledge, power, and culture in disciplining the self. The third section of the book involves unpacking the essentialism that often informs therapeutic work, specifically as it relates to modernist understandings of subjective experience, gender, and race. Finally, the last section of the book offers some examples of re-authoring people's identities in a manner that is informed by fluid, nonessentializing notions of identity, through focusing on working with those who have experienced sexual trauma, men who have perpetrated sexual abuse, and women who struggle with eating “disorders.”


    1. While Hart (1995) suggests that there are more similarities than differences between White (1995, 1997, 2004a, 2004b; White & Epston, 1990) and de Shazer (1991), we suggest, along with White (1993) and de Shazer (1993), that there are more differences, especially in White's later work.

    2. While emanating from different traditions, there are overlaps between constructionism and constructivism. We are referring to constructionism and its clear position on the social construction of reality and knowledge, and we wish to avoid confusion with constructivism, which has more of a conservative tradition of focusing on the individual. In the case of radical constructivism, for example, reality is constructed in the mind rather than the culture. According to Anderson (1997), it emphasizes “the autonomy of the self and the individual as the meaning maker” (p. 43). In this approach, we are left with an emphasis on individual interpretation or subjectivist accounts of reality, rather than the relationship between the subject and culture emphasized in constructionism. Within constructionism, all knowledge is social.

    3. Narrative therapy has been criticized for its use of reflection teams and the inadequately addressed issues of knowledge and power within this therapeutic practice (Luepntiz, 1992). Luepntiz (1992) suggests that as narrative therapy borrows heavily from Foucault's approach to knowledge and power, the use of the one-way mirror is problematic. She reminds us of Foucault's (1995) description in Discipline and Punish of prisons designed as “Pantopticons,” whereby prisoners were never free from being watched, while also not being able to see those who watched them. Not only does the one-way mirror perform acts of control through observation, not unlike the “Pantopticon,” the one-way mirror is an example of the ways in which individuals as “docile bodies” submit themselves to scrutiny, to the gaze of experts.

    4. An unreflexive approach is evident in the therapeutic stance of “not knowing” (adopted by some postmodern narrative therapists). This stance is an effort to distance oneself from the expert clinician model by emphasizing the client as expert. However, this invocation of a binary construction of knowing is only minimally reflexive. Within this formulation, the only options for “knowing” are to be all-knowing “experts” or to be “not knowing.” The client's knowing position is essentialized and authorized in a decidedly not-postmodern manner through holding out a self-story of self-knowledge as though it were not discursive, as though it had escaped the social processes of construction. De Shazer adopts the same binary focus on clients' strengths exemplified by Saleeby's (1997) “strength perspective,” which, like the concept “resilience,” serves to virtually erase their struggles. Although strengths-based (Saleeby, 1997) and brief solution-focused social work (Dejong & Miller, 1995; de Shazer, 1991, 1993; de Shazer et al., 1986; Molnar & de Shazer, 1987) have emphasized strengths and solutions, we argue that little can be gained by simply supplanting problem talk with strength or solution talk when they clearly coexist. Furthermore, the formulation of “strengths and resilience” is often essentialized (White, 2001).

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  • About the Editors

    Catrina Brown, MA, MSW, PhD, is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, cross—appointed to Gender and Women's Studies and Nursing. Social Work and cross—appointed to Gender and women's Studies and Nursing at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. She is also a feminist psychotherapist in private practice, with a focus on eating “disorders.” She is the coeditor of Consuming Passions: Feminist Approaches to Eating Disorders and Weight Preoccupation. She conducts research in the area of women, eating “disorders,” body image, trauma and sexual abuse, depression, and alcohol use problems.

    Tod Augusta—Scott, MSW, is the program coordinator at Bridges, a domestic violence counseling, research, and training institute in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada. He has taught at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. He works as a consultant on issues of domestic violence for both government and nongovernment organizations. He is currently a member of the editorial board for Canadian Social Work. He publishes and presents his work internationally. His practice focuses primarily on issues of violence, sexual abuse, sexism, racism, and homophobia.

    About the Contributors

    Laura Beres, MSW, RSW, PhD, is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario. The majority of her direct practice experience has been with adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse and with women who have experienced abuse from their partners. She has also been involved in facilitating groups for men who have perpetrated abusive behavior. She is involved in research with the Hincks—Dellcrest Gail Appel Institute and the University of Toronto, examining narrative therapy and training, and with Catholic Family Services of Toronto, examining narrative approaches to working with men who have perpetrated abusive behavior.

    Normand Carrey, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Canada. He is responsible for the family therapy training of psychiatry residents. He also teaches the History of Psychiatry and Reciprocal Influences of Psychiatry and Culture. He is a member of the International Resilience Project and clinical director of the Children's Response Program, a residential program for children. His research interests include developmental psychopharmacology and neu—roimaging of severe disruptive behavior. In his spare time, he writes poetry, film reviews, and short stories. He is also a musician.

    James Duvall, MEd, RSW, is the Director of Brief Therapy Training Centres—InternationalTM (a division of The Hincks—Dellcrest Institute), Director of Training at The Hincks—Dellcrest Institute, and previous clinical director of a children's mental health center. In collaboration with the University of Toronto, Faculty of Social Work, he serves as co—investigator in a research project that focuses on narrative ideas and practices in training and therapy. He serves on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Systemic Therapies. He consults and trains with various organizations internationally.

    Karin Jasper, PhD, MEd, is Clinical Specialist with the Day Program for Eating Disorders at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. She teaches a course on feminist issues in counseling and psychotherapy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto (O.I.S.E./UT) and is coeditor with Catrina Brown of Consuming Passions: Feminist Approaches to Weight Preoccupation and Eating Disorders. She is currently occupied with developing the program at Sick Kids, using narrative and feminist practice to negotiate the tensions between teens' developing autonomy and the oppressive “authority” of the eating disorders in teens' lives.

    Michelle Lafrance, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Thomas University, in Fredericton, Canada. She has recently completed her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of New Brunswick, where she carried out research for her doctoral dissertation on women's recovery from depression. Her research interests are in the area of women's health and wellness.

    Stephen Madigan, MSW, MSc, PhD, opened Yaletown Family Therapy in Vancouver ( as the first narrative therapy clinic and training facility in the Northern Hemisphere. He is a cofounder of the narrative and therapy professionally accredited CE Web site ( and sponsors the annual Therapeutic Conversations Conference ( He is the father of amazing 10—year—old twin daughters, Hannah and Tessa Madigan.

    Glenda M. Russell, PhD, is a psychologist who has worked as a therapist, teacher, researcher, organizational consultant, and activist. She serves as clinical director at New Leaf: Services for Our Community, a not—for—profit, multipurpose counseling center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgen—der community in San Francisco, and as senior research associate for the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is the author of Voted Out: The Psychological Consequences of Anti—Gay Politics and, with Janis Bohan, Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters.

    Colin James Sanders, MA, lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Colin teaches at and supervises the internship clinic for City University and is a therapist with the Employee and Family Assistance Program of Vancouver Coastal Health. He holds an MA in cultural anthropology and is interested in the ways in which theological, philosophical, and literary themes and ideas may be utilized to therapeutic benefit.

    Janet Stoppard, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, Canada. She has worked as a clinical psychologist and has published widely on women, mental health, and depression. She is the author of Understanding Depression: Feminist Social Constructionist Approaches (2000) and the editor (with Linda McMullen) of Situating Sadness: Women and Depression in Social Context (2003).

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