Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct

By Theodore R. Sarbin | Go to book overview

accounts cannot be expected to satisfy the same criteria which we apply to predictive accounts. The reason is simple enough: stories cannot be tested like hypotheses because authentic events cannot be replicated under controlled conditions. However, mankind has developed both formal and informal methods for testing stories. Consider jurisprudence: Trials try to establish responsibility, settle disputes, and impose some redress. The procedures used in this mode are halfway between those of narrative and those of scientific theorizing. For example, the evidential procedures used in trials resemble both stories and theories. Consistency and credibility are required, but cross-examination and verifiability are also entailed. However, since the events under judicial review cannot be repeated, that is, replicated as required in tests of theories and hypotheses, decisions are frequently based on precedents. That is essentially a process of pattern matching. The judgment of likeness may be more rigorous in trials because several constraints are specified, but it is still the same process used in storying. Equivalent procedures are used informally in checking the stories we encounter in everyday life. Thus, there are accepted ways of evaluating the completeness, coherence, plausibility, and applicability of any story. Given the limitations on absolute proof imposed by the circumstances of everyday life, we believe that postdictive narrative cognition fully qualifies as a rational process.

Two other points may be made about the validity and utility of narrative thinking. First, where practical choice and action are concerned, stories are better guides than rules or maxims. Rules and maxims state significant generalizations about experience but stories illustrate and explain what those summaries mean. The oldest form of moral literature is the parable; the most common form of informal instruction is the anecdote. Both forms enable us to understand generalizations about the social order because they exemplify that order in a contextualized account. Second, stories can also be used as tests of the validity of maxims and rules of thumb. That is, stories can function as arguments. Stories are natural mediators between the particular and the general in human experience. We should strive to improve and refine this mode of thinking, not eschew it.


REFERENCES

Barnes D., Britton J., and Rosen H. ( 1971). Language, the learner and the school ( rev. ed.). New York: Penguin.

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