Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct

By Theodore R. Sarbin | Go to book overview

Introduction and Overview

Like many of my contemporaries, I became disillusioned with the outcomes of social psychological research and theorizing carried out under the guiding postulates of positivism. In the mid-seventies, the disillusionment was described as a "crisis" ( Elms, 1975), and some behavior scientists talked about a malaise, the cause of which was the low predictability and lack of generality of conclusions drawn from traditional research. The influence of the positivist ethos on the discipline was reflected in the entrenched belief that social behavior could be dissected into its elements in the laboratory.

In a time of "blurred genres," to use Geertz's felicitous phrase, I extended my search for metaphors that would attenuate the crisis and enliven the discipline. Clearly, mechanical, spatial, and energy metaphors - the customary sources of dimensions for those who were committed to making social psychology a science - were worn out, no longer capable of generating interesting concepts. I had already raided humanistic studies for metaphors to guide my work. The drama was the source of metaphors for my earlier proposals that social behavior could be more meaningfully described and explained as role enactment ( Sarbin, 1943; Sarbin, 1954; Sarbin & Allen, 1968).

From the drama as a basic metaphor to the narrative was but a short step. Since the drama is embedded in narrative, the transition to the study of narrative required no great revision of my study program. To look upon human conduct from the perspective of narrative was facilitated by my encounter with Hayden White Metahistory ( 1973), which is cited by several contributors to this volume. His demonstration that history writing was a form of storytelling convinced me that the narrative process could be applied to psychological analysis.

Having been influenced by Stephen Pepper's root metaphor method, I entertained the hypothesis that the narrative functioned as a root metaphor ( Pepper, 1942). Without identifying it as such, I had been using the "narrator principle" for many years. In my teaching of abnormal psychology, I had found it more useful to report on and analyze life histories, that is, stories about concrete individuals, than to review the experiments done on nameless, faceless subjects, the results of which

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