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Journal of Constructivist Psychology
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The Problem of Narrative Coherence
Dan P. Mcadams
Northwestern University, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Evanston, Illinois, USA Published online: 16 Aug 2006.
To cite this article: Dan P. Mcadams (2006): The Problem of Narrative Coherence, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 19:2, 109-125 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10720530500508720
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Ricoeur. and therapists agree that people create meaningful selves through the individual and social construction of coherent life stories. reflect the culture within which the story is told and the life is lived. 1986. Evanston.edu 109 . The preparation of this article was supported by a grant to the author from the Foley Family Foundation to establish the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. Most criteria for coherence. IL 60208. USA Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 A growing number of psychological theorists. McAdams. theorists. 1985.1080/10720530500508720 THE PROBLEM OF NARRATIVE COHERENCE DAN P. 2006 Copyright Taylor & Francis Goup. Cohler. 1984) and social scientists (Bruner. Northwestern University. E-mail: dmca@northwestern. or can be made to resemble. McAdams. USA. A narrative psychology of human lives began to emerge in the 1980s as social philosophers (MacIntyre. Illinois. MCADAMS Northwestern University. and practitioners in the United States and Europe have begun to explore stories and storytelling in a systematic and critical way. a coherent story holds a great deal of intuitive appeal. Address correspondence to Dan P. therefore. The idea that a human life resembles. Evanston. 1988) proposed that people make sense of their own lives in terms of self-defining life stories—integrative Received 4 September 2005. 2120 Campus Drive. Sarbin. life stories exist to be told or performed in social contexts. Program in Human Development and Social Policy. Polkinghorne. 1981. Program in Human Development and Social Policy. and (3) advance socially-valued living action. LLC ISSN: 1072-0537 print / 1521-0650 online DOI: 10. 1986. After all. accepted 25 November 2005. (2) reflect the richness of lived experience. 1982. it is quite likely that people have been telling stories about lives for thousands of years. 19:109–125. Like all stories. researchers. But what is a coherent story? And are good life stories always coherent? This article addresses the problem of narrative coherence by considering the propositions that coherent life stories (1) provide convincing causal explanations for the self.Journal of Constructivist Psychology. But it has only been within the past two decades that psychological researchers.
almost by definition. 2004. Stories presuppose a basic scenario of human sociality: a Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . & Josselson. a “good” story. or incoherent? And why is coherence such an important property of stories? Many strong voices in the narrative study of lives—from sociologists to developmental psychologists to clinicians—suggest that a coherent story is. 1981. It follows. Lieblich. The many different approaches to the narrative study of lives that have emerged in the social sciences and the helping professions over the past 20 years tend to share implicit constructivist assumptions about human behavior and experience (Josselson & Lieblich. People construct stories to make sense of their lives. 1993). Spence. 2001. P. furthermore. McAdams narratives of self that reconstruct the past and anticipate the future in such a way as to provide life with identity. lives become meaningful and coherent (or not) amidst the welter of social constructions and discourses that comprise contemporary postmodern life. therapists and their clients co-construct new narratives to replace disorganized or incoherent stories of self. and therapists of many different stripes underscore the importance of constructing coherent narratives of the self. group. But what is a coherent narrative? What makes a life story coherent. 2004). that story construction—at the level of the individual. 1990). researchers. who now began to conceive of therapy as a process of life-story re-formation and revision (Schafer. cognitive scientists began to consider human information processing in terms of story scripts and autobiographical scenes (Mandler. meaning. 1988). 1984). Shortly thereafter. Neimeyer. new approaches to counseling and psychotherapy began to emerge under the banner of narrative therapy (White & Epston. 2000). 1982). the 1980s witnessed a turn toward narrative among many psychoanalysts. and coherence. McAdams. and even culture—moves (ideally) in the direction of coherence (Linde.110 D. Theorists. Around the same time. and developmental psychologists began to study the emergence of narrative understanding in children (Nelson. On the practitioner side of the ledger. Neimeyer & Raskin. a movement that continues apace today (Angus & McLeod. 1993. But are coherent life stories always good? And to what extent must a good life story be coherent? Basic Storytelling The most fundamental property of stories is that they exist to be told.
then. Prior events are seen as causing. Otherwise. causality. instruct. goal. or in a way that defies the audience’s expectations regarding how human affairs should unfold in time. a story may build to a climax. or at least incomplete. admonish. The storyteller cannot avoid. 1967). or inspire the audience. the problem of narrative coherence is the problem of being understood in a social context. the entire scenario falls apart if the audience cannot make sense of what the performer conveys. A story that begins at the chronological end. In a similar manner. a story that depicts events or happenings in a random way. tension is resolved and the listener experiences a sense of closure (Kermode. just passing the time of day. which leads to a consequence or reaction on the part of another character. In a social context. As one event leads to the next. The plot structure needs to articulate a deviation from the course of humdrum. 1972). Mandler (1984) argues that many stories follow a predictable grammar: An initiating event evokes a response in the protagonist. by the end. The teller may seek to entertain. no matter how simple the message (Labov. 1982). why tell a story? Stories that defy structural expectations about time. then there is no point in telling the story in the first place. Whatever the motive or function behind the storytelling effort. or the teller may merely be trying to stave off boredom. and so on. A character wants something or intends to accomplish something and the story chronicles that effort over time.Narrative Coherence 111 teller narrates or performs a story in a social context. to or for an audience. In the most basic sense. may be deemed incoherent. intention. moves forward two years Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . stories must be coherent enough to communicate something. A story told in a foreign language is incomprehensible to a native audience. this implicit question: Am I being understood? If the answer is no. 1990). who then acts to accomplish a goal. or closure may fail to elicit curiosity and interest and may strike audiences as incoherent. everyday life in order to create suspense and elicit the audience’s curiosity (Bruner. or at least leading up to. which leads to another attempt. subsequent events. jumps then to the chronological beginning. Stories are typically structured to capture and hold an audience’s attention and to elicit from the audience certain emotional responses (Brewer & Lichtenstein. Ricoeur (1984) and Bruner (1986) write that stories convey the vicissitudes of human intention organized in time.
think. more narrative details. If. Our shared expectation is that as people get hungrier. In response to these kinds of stories. If the narrator does not do this. stories that depict characters whose actions seem to have no motive or goal. Of course these kinds of accounts could be made coherent (the girl lives in a universe wherein eating depletes the body’s resources. listeners may do it for themselves. but in their present form they defy what most audiences under- Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . they typically seek to eat.” While coherence. and end. McAdams from that point.112 D. or lay out plot lines that seem to go nowhere. and want may seem as incoherent as one that violates structural norms. or you will ask for more information. feel. my friend suffered an abusive childhood. imposing a coherent temporal structure onto an account that seems to lack one (Mandler. A story that depicts events or happenings that defy the listener’s understanding of how the world works and how human beings typically act. concluding that the story simply does not make sense. and this expectation is typically couched in terms of time or chronology. Or listeners may just give up. or if I tell you how my friend once loved a woman so much that he felt he had to kill her. you are likely to say that my tales do not quite make sense. P. “I just don’t get it. or satisfying sense of an ending may also seem incoherent. may refer to the structure or form of a story. Of course. The listener expects a story to have a beginning. it may also pertain to a story’s content. middle. and then forward 10 years may be difficult to follow. we also expect that as a person’s love for another increases. he or she typically does not seek to kill the object of that love. so now he associates love with violence). more context to render them more coherent than they initially seem to be. and then moves backward one month. or never reach a culmination. a skilled narrator may be able to toy with these expectations to good effect. 1984). or fail to provide a causal account for a sequence of events. but (James Joyce notwithstanding) he or she will still need to provide enough information so that the listener/reader/ audience can eventually piece together a rough chronology of events. audiences end up scratching their heads and wondering: What was that story about? Why did that happen? What was the point? And concluding. for example. resolution. I tell you a story about a young girl who was so hungry that she no longer wanted to eat. In a similar vein. then.
Among many evangelical Christians in the United States. about Christians’ being taken up to heaven while all others are left behind. Causal Explanations Bruner (1986) suggests that the rational and material-cause logic of what he calls the paradigmatic mode of human thinking is best suited for explaining how the physical world works. in terms of the kinds of food eaten yesterday—are viewed to be highly coherent and meaningful in a rural Indian village. Within a given society. For millions of other Americans. the facts of the natural world. Shweder and Much (1987) document how storied explanations for behavior that would make little sense to most Americans and Europeans— narratives that explain today’s behavior. characters. What happens in the story does not make sense.Narrative Coherence 113 Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 stand to be human nature. But many other expectations about what kinds of plots can be told and what kinds of characters can be depicted are socially constructed and articulated according to local norms. the story’s content renders it incoherent. and stories in order to explain why people do what they do. and about a great war between the forces of God and the forces of Satan in “the last days” hold tremendous power and coherence. storytellers are constrained by content expectations that people the world over likely have regarding human nature and social relationships. In the examples of the hungry girl and the love-strickenfriend. for example. different narrative traditions offer their own standards of coherence. Narrators cast themselves as protagonists in the stories they tell to explain . stories about Christ’s “second coming” to earth. that the story of the hungry girl would make as little sense among hunters and gatherers in the Australian outback as it initially does among well-educated Europeans. Millions of Americans deeply believe these stories to be true. these stories make no sense whatsoever. but when people seek to explain human behavior and experience they resort to the narrative mode. If the paradigmatic mode searches for the one true answer to a question about physical reality. how people typically relate to each other. They seem unbelievable. incoherent. for example. and so on. for example. In all cultures. and even delusional. moreover. It is quite likely. Bruner’s narrative mode entertains a range of plots.
easily marked the principles or rationales behind their responses. including stories of both positive and negative events with caregivers. a young woman decided to become a physician or why a middle-age man regrets not having married his high-school sweetheart. 142). adults whose accounts were judged to be less secure—those showing dismissing and preoccupied attachment orientations—tended to be “relatively incoherent in their narrative transcripts. If a life story is to make psychological sense. McAdams Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 their lives and to make meaning of their own thoughts. The stories narrators provide to explain their lives (for themselves and others) cannot be proven true or false in the same way that paradigmatic arguments can often be assessed. 143) Insecure orientations were also indicated by narrative passages relying on “bizarre thought patterns” and “magical causality” (p. In a number of studies. 1991. and struck judges as both collaborative and truthful” (Main. showed few departures from usual forms of narrative or discourse. slips of the tongue. then. desires. But the stories still need to sound convincing. Being able to tell stories about childhood that themselves provide plausible causal accounts regarding the impact of parents on the self is a key indicator of a secure attachment orientation . it must explain how a person came to be (and who a person may be in the future). adults whose accounts indicate a secure/autonomous attachment orientation “focused easily on the questions. metaphor or rhetoric inappropriate to the discourse context. anomalous changing in wording or intrusions into topics. inability to stay with the interview topic. p. contradictions between general descriptors of their relationships with their parents and actual autobiographical episodes offered. feelings. In their research on adult attachment orientations. By contrast. and inability to focus upon the interviews. Main (1991) and her colleagues ask men and women to recall important incidents from their childhood involving relationships with their parents and to consider how those incidents may have impacted their current functioning. and behaviors extended over time. The narrators with secure attachment histories provided more coherent accounts of their childhood. 145). apparent inability to express early memories.” They exhibited logical and factual contradictions. It must provide a causal account of how. P.114 D. for example. (p.
2004). for example. that they may eventually find a life partner and perhaps have children. Different societies and different subcultures hold different expectations about the life course. and they internalize society’s expectations and assumptions about the human life course. For example. The internalization of this societal knowledge provides what Habermas and Bluck (2000) describe as a sense of autobiographical coherence—an implicit understanding of the typical events and their timing that go into the construction of a typical life story. What Habermas and Bluck (2000) call temporal coherence typically emerges before the age of five. that people often retire in their 60s. A number of theorists argue that people are not typically able to construct full life stories that provide convincing causal explanations for how they came to be who they are until they have reached their late-adolescent or young-adult years (McAdams. as children learn to recall and recite single events in their lives as little stories with beginnings. Temporal coherence refers to the ability to put the happenings of a single event into a sensible order. 2004). Singer. What Habermas and Bluck (2000) call causal coherence emerges in adolescence as people now become able to link separate events into causal chains. middles. 1985. Habermas and Bluck (2000) demonstrate that the full expression of narrative identity awaits the consolidation of four different cognitive skills. children learn about what events typically make up a normal life writ large. As they grow older. They may learn. expectations that are also strongly shaped by gender and class (Stewart & Malley. each linked to a form of narrative coherence. that they may leave home to continue their schooling or get a job after that. The person may come to see his or her own life as a variation on a general autobiographical script. Such accounts strike the listener as sensible and believable. and so on.Narrative Coherence 115 in adulthood. and endings. that children live with their parents through most of their teen-aged years. The events themselves become the key episodes to explain a current aspect of self or a future goal. a young man may now be able to explain why he wants Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . that they may live as long as age 90 or more. they provide coherent causal explanations for how a person believes he or she has developed over time. Reviewing research on life-storytelling and narrative understanding. argues Main.
he thought. too). the narrator tries to explain a general self-attribution in terms of a recurrent theme that can be traced through different scenes in the life story. The story is coherent to the extent that the listener is convinced that the different scenes indeed express the same theme. revealing what Habermas and Bluck (2000) call thematic coherence. Litigators argue cases. McAdams to become a lawyer. It all began. but the coherence of the account relies largely on the narrator’s powers of Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 .” A young man may survey very different episodes from school.116 D. and experiences with friends to demonstrate that “I tend to have problems with commitment. The aspiring lawyer is able to put these events together into causal chains. In a related fashion. family life. In high school. Working in Bruner’s narrative mode of thought. putting an end to a rival career aspiration. Whether the scenes really happened the way the narrator recalls and tells them is not a trivial issue (coherent stories should be credible. A young woman may describe different events from childhood and her teenaged years that all converge on the conclusion that “I am a brutally honest person. I am a brutally honest person) in terms of an explanatory narrative. he talked with his girlfriend’s mother. in junior-high school when he realized that he enjoys arguing with his teachers. Should he eventually change his mind and decide to go into the ministry. or spin the same ones in a different way. His interest was piqued further through college classes in political science where he learned more about how laws are made and changed. 1999). about what lawyers do and what law school is like. who is a practicing lawyer. the person links together different scenes in his or her life to explain who he or she is (Baerger & McAdams. adolescents and young adults are also able to extract from a series of narrated events an overarching theme or general message. he suggests. in order to provide a coherent explanation for a new life goal. creating an explanatory narrative. These developments dovetailed with the growing recognition (in high school) that his baseball skills were probably not strong enough to get him to the major leagues. he will need to choose different events. the narrator justifies a conclusion about the self (I want to be a lawyer. maybe I might be good at that.” In both these examples. In both causal and thematic coherence. P. especially when I really care about the people involved.
than an incoherent story. She shows that the tendency to display causal and thematic coherence in life stories is positively associated with independent measures of psychological well-being.Narrative Coherence 117 Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 reconstruction. In a similar vein. Among the most coherent and convincing life-narrative accounts are those that show how a protagonist gains insight. Stories about lessons spell out how a protagonist applies what he or she learns from past events to similar new events whereas insight stories reflect on the larger implications of the event for one’s construal of self or relationships with others. in the sense described to this point. a therapist may work with a patient to transform a disorganized and scattered life story into one that expresses more causal and thematic coherence (Dimaggio & Semerari. in which narrators draw lessons about the self. Lived Experience In a clinical setting. a life story that explains clearly how a person came to be who he or she is—a narrative that successfully integrates a life in time—is “better” than one that does not. suggesting that these kinds of narrative accounts are especially coherent and convincing. over stories about specific lessons. friends. and coworkers to the broader social settings and institutions that comprise the social ecology within which a person’s life is embedded. People differ substantially with respect to their abilities to tell life stories exhibiting causal and thematic coherence. . always enough? Josselson (2004) describes a clinical case in which a patient articulated a very clear and convincing life story whose rejection. to make sense to the important audiences in a narrator’s life—from family. important relationships. According to these researchers. and synthesis. But is coherence. or self-understanding from a series of reconstructed life scenes. Thorne. 2004). or life in general. listeners are more positively inclined toward insight stories. All other things being equal. McLean. wisdom. Pals (in press) has examined individual differences in the extent to which adults justify selfattributions and draw conclusions about the self from autobiographical memories. and Lawrence (2004) distinguish between specific lessons learned and general insights gained in life-narrative accounts. Such a story suggests a modicum of self-insight and is more likely. imagination. Blagov and Singer (2004) identify integrative memories in life stories.
“I will be home this weekend and I’ll listen to my mother tell it as a story. For all its coherence and clarity. 114). Heidi’s story was not her own. for a therapist’s empathy and desire to help can often result in a “rush to coherence. Throughout her life. became the central goal of psychotherapy. p. Life is messier and more complex than the stories we tell about it. furthermore. 2004. Bruner (1986) argues that stories ultimately seek verisimilitude—the lifelikeness that is conveyed when a story seems to capture well what subjective human experience is really like. but. “What Heidi was missing were not the cognitive components but the imagination necessary to make her story go beyond logical. however transitory or provisional the shape may be” (Josselson.118 D. Josselson came to realize that Heidi was now looking to her. 125). Heidi functioned as the protagonist in a story narrated by somebody else. Researchers such as King and Raspin (2004) and Pals (in press) show that the ability Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . Yet the stories need to convey some of that complexity if they are to be viewed. whether the evaluation takes place in therapy or research. it became clear that the story Heidi told was not of her own emotional making. 15). Heidi hinted that she was not the narrator of her own life. her own “lived experience” (White & Epston. p.” Josselson wrote (2004. the therapist. Even in the first session. Heidi replied that she did not know for sure. p. it was the story that Heidi’s mother narrated for her. She weaves it into a plot with logic and a goal” (Josselson. Josselson counsels therapists to hold back when necessary and to be willing to experience with the patient “the anxiety of sitting with undigested elements of experience until they take meaningful shape. 112). Heidi presented a well-ordered autobiographical account of a bright. to narrate a new story for her. p. The case of Heidi points to a larger problem in evaluating life narratives. Instead. Asked how she had decided to come to therapy in the first place. A 19year-old woman referred to therapy for alcohol abuse.” Nonetheless. In therapy. Josselson found it sometimes difficult to resist. Heidi looked to her mother and other important authority figures to tell her what her life meant. high-achieving college student who enjoyed a full life with friends and family. 2004. as credible and life-affirming. she said. Her story did not reflect her own subjectivity. P. however. In essence. Over the course of therapy. by the self and by others. 1990. McAdams nonetheless. causal coherence to a story rooted in subjectivity.
emotions. giving full expression to a complex and shifting dialogue among the many voices of the self. Perspectives on narrative identity that prioritize multiplicity offer a range of attitudes about coherence. subjective experience is animated by contrasting voices. more interesting and three-dimensional” (p. 284). or I-positions. trends. Different voices. As Hermans (1996) has argued. (Hermans & Kempen. despite the existence of parts that try to maintain or even increase their relative autonomy. but they may also be seen as working together by virtue of participating in the same self-defining conversation. the critic to criticize. as a continuous attempt to make the self a whole. For the establishment and organization of this community. Hermans claims. pp. As long as these characters are involved in their activity. Stories that succumb to a single. Rosenwald (1992) writes: “Better stories tend to be structurally more complex. but he suggests that a kind of self-coherence can nonetheless be realized in the multivocal dialogue itself. assert their separateness and autonomy. and points of view. however. For Hermans. Hermans conceives of the dialogical self as a synthesizing activity. Their intentions require a certain degree of autonomy. Hermans maintains. that is. another centripetal. The centrifugal force refers to the tendency of the different parts to maintain and increase their autonomy: The lover wants to love. the artist to express. The nature and function of this synthesizing activity can best become understood if we discern two antagonistic forces in the self. they are not concerned with the strivings and longings of the other characters. and idiosyncratic expressions.Narrative Coherence 119 Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 to dig deep into painful experiences and to narrate personal suffering in an honest and convincing way is indicative of psychological health and maturity in adulthood. Life stories that achieve verisimilitude express the full panoply of discordant strivings. are too simplistic to be true. the achiever to excel. The well-formed narrative identity is like a polyphonic novel. 1993. 92–93) . attempts to bring these tendencies together and to create a field in which the different characters form a community. one centrifugal. the synthesizing quality of the Self is indispensable. Hermans (1996) rejects the simple consistency of a univocal self. more varied and contrastive in the events and accompanying feelings portrayed. dominant perspective. The centripetal force. the dialogical self incorporates both centrifugal and centripetal features—forces that promote both separateness and coherence. no matter how coherent they may seem to be. they fail to reflect lived experience.
or they may open an infinite number of parentheses without ever closing them while hundreds of characters come onto the stage competing with each other for the floor. Gergen may be exaggerating to make a cultural point.120 D. For many people living in contemporary. Gergen (1991). Therefore. they are likely to be unstable. even “multiphrenic” Gergen (1991) asserts (p. 2004. modern life creates a saturated self. characterized by thought themes and emotions that get mixed together without any apparent sense. Life stories should resist dominant cultural narratives and strive instead to portray the rich diversity of lived experience. Dimaggio and Semerari (2004) write that many psychotherapy patients relate stories that are confused. and Raggatt (in press) argue that the modern self is bombarded with so many diverse stimuli and shifting demands that it simply cannot assume a coherent form. are less sanguine about the self’s powers to create coherence. competing with each other. 267) Many life stories portray “the crowding together of a multiplicity of voices. Raggatt (in press) asserts that the imposition of coherence upon modern life constitutes a hegemonic insult. (p. indeterminate. 7). lived experience is chaotic. and incomprehensible. drowning each other out. Advancing Living Action A life story is more than a mere literary production. but clinicians are indeed quite familiar with the kinds of life stories he depicts. p. therapists need to help patients construct stories with fewer characters and simpler plots. Sampson (1989). P. however. if life narratives are true to lived experience. postindustrial societies. McAdams Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 Other theorists. life stories can be too true to lived experience! When the self’s synthesizing powers break down. For Gergen (1991). struggling to get heard. For these therapists. confusing. in the hope that more coherent life stories will translate into more coherent and more effective lived experience. and incoherent. and subjecting a listener to an unintelligible whir” (Dimaggio & Semerari. disordered. 268). It is a story of the self told by a living person whose actions affect others. Patients may provide descriptions of the same character that are intense and at the same time opposite and mutually incompatible. It is .
Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . When traumatic events undermine the ontological and moral assumptions upon which a life story is based. theorists. 2001. the life stories they construct are grounded in moral assumptions and ideological convictions regarding how the world should work and how human beings should relate to it and to each other (McAdams. Life stories are never value-free. 284). always evaluated with respect to explicit and implicit norms about what is good and what is not. society—rest content with the narrative identity this man presents? Researchers. that is. But is this coherent story a good story? Should the audience—friends. 1981). That action will be evaluated within moral communities. Narrators make implicit moral claims when they construct stories to convey their lived experience and to explain who they are (Linde. Some writers argue that a coherent life story presupposes a clear moral perspective on the part of the narrator/protagonist (MacIntyre. the narrator faces the daunting challenge of reworking those assumptions in order to make new meanings in a world that now seems meaningless (Neimeyer. For social life is always moral in some sense. For a life story to be considered coherent. The problem of narrative coherence. The stories we live by must be evaluated with respect to their influence on how we live. 1995). the argument goes. His story may fully express the deep lows and the exalted emotional highs he has experienced.Narrative Coherence 121 a story whose form and contents hold real-world significance. Tedeschi & Calhoun.” Rosenwald (1992) writes. all human communities. family. it needs to be implicitly based on a recognizable set of human values. 1993). It may effectively give voice to the many different characters who populate his story. It may fully express his lived experience. values. and clinicians continue to struggle with the question of how life stories do and should relate to social life itself. The perspective should advance the living action of a moral agent. Furthermore. “Satisfactory [life] stories. and it needs to be told from a recognizable moral perspective. A paranoid and self-absorbed middle-aged man may present a life story that convincingly and coherently explains how he came to be who he is and where he is going in the future. therefore. 1985). therefore. The issues raised in this inquiry transcend the literary and the psychological to encompass morality. “advance living action” (p. and the meaning of a good life. extends to the issue of living action.
transforming suffering into advantage. & Mansfield. de St. Perhaps a more sensible assertion would go like this: Good life stories need to be coherent. but the stories we tell do not need to relate easily to the lives we live. Human beings are storytelling animals. their lack of ambivalence. Redemptive life narratives portray an innocent but deeply principled protagonist who journeys forth into a dangerous world.122 D. self-help narratives about recovery and the actualization of human potential. as Sartre (1965) understood. The redemptive narratives told by highly generative American adults in their midlife years appropriate some of the most cherished (and contested) discourses running through American cultural history— Protestant conversion narratives. Downloaded by [Universidad de Chile] at 13:19 02 May 2013 . We live and we tell. 1997) shows that midlife American adults who score especially high on measures of generativity—indicating a highly productive and caring approach to social life—tend to construct highly coherent life stories whose main themes constellate around the idea of redemption. broader discourses about manifest destiny and the chosen people. and therapists have argued that people who do indeed love. Sartre maintained. theorists. McAdams (2006. It may suggest that we are stretching the notion of coherence too far. narratives of liberation and freedom. struggling with contrasting desires for freedom/ power and community/love. and ultimately seeking to give back to others for the blessings enjoyed along the way. These kinds of stories are widely recognized in American society as coherent and convincing accounts of the good life. Rosenwald. narrative coherence may signify what Sartre called bad faith. 1990). On the other hand. 1992. P. McAdams This all seems a tall order for the concept of narrative coherence. even as they are sometimes critiqued for their presumptuousness. White & Epston. 1992. and who do make especially positive contributions to the world around them. and their exuberant celebration of the expansive individual self. If stories are to advance living action. and live well. if they are to inspire lives wherein protagonists love deeply and work effectively. Diamond. lives in which people make positive contributions to the world around them. then life stories must express more than mere narrative coherence. do tell especially coherent stories about their lives (Colby & Damon. work. McAdams. some researchers. Too much telling can get in the way of living. but coherence is not enough. rags-to-riches stories about the American dream. For example. Aubin.
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