Narrative analysis and critical social work

Sam Larsson


Use of narrative research methods represents an interesting strategy for gaining knowledge and understanding of people’s lives in social work (Elliott, 2005; Larsson and Sjoblom, 2010). The aim of the chapter is to present a narrative analysis for critical social work. The critical discussion is illustrated by references to substance use-related dependency since it is a major research area in social work and many studies have used different forms of narrative strategies when investigating this issue (von Braun, 2013, von Braun et al., 2013a, 2013b; von Braun, in press; Denzin, 1987; Etherington, 2010). The narrative analysis presented in this chapter is based on narrative self-psychology (see Crossley, 2000; Larsson et al., 2001a; Larsson et al., 2013c; McAdams et al., 2007). Personal narratives can be said to represent people’s identities and are relevant for understanding the subjective experience of drug taking (Heyman 2009). In order to understand health issues such as addiction we need a narrative-inspired self-theoretical analysis, which in this chapter is integrated in a multidimensional model that considers the complex person by situation interaction. The dual focus on person and environment can be seen as a hallmark of the social work profession (Barber, 1995: 26). If we apply a critical social work perspective to addiction it is not only the addictive process that needs consideration; it is also important to view the users’ narratives of their lives, or life stories, in a more holistic or multidimensional perspective that considers the person by situation interaction (Barber, 1995: 26; Parrish, 2010). A self-theoretical and multidimensional understanding of use or misuse of alcohol and drugs is an important research topic in social work and psychology' (see Amodeo and Lopez, 2011; Larsson, 1992; Larsson et al., 2001a, 2001b; Larsson et al., 2013a; Parrish, 2010).

Narrative methods can be used as a treatment or therapeutic method helping clients to reconstruct their life or sense of self (see von Braun 2013; von Braun et al., 2013a, 2013b; Larsson et al., 2008; Larsson and Sjoblom, 2010; Larsson et al., 2013c; Miller, 2006; Payne, 2006). However, this chapter is mainly focused on narrative methods as a methodological tool in research. Narrative research methods can be used in qualitative interviews as well as in collecting quantitative narratives or using statistical stories (see Elliott, 2005). A narrative approach can contribute valuable empirical data for analyzing the impact of different issues such as discrimination, oppression, inequality and other problematic circumstances in society (see Elliott, 2005; Patton, 2002; Smith, 2009).

A meta-critical position and the use of narratives

Narrative methods have been found to be fruitful when doing research and evaluation in social work (see Larsson and Sjoblom, 2010; Larsson et al., 2008; Riessman, 2008; Riessman and Quinney, 2005; Shaw and Lishman, 1999; Smith, 2009). There are different dimensions that may serve as elements of a meta-critical social work position when discussing narrative research methods.

  • 1 Theoretical issues: A social work perspective often considers the links between intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions (see Coppock and Dunn, 2010; Hennessey, 2011). A social work model needs to look both outwards to the social context and inwards to the psychology' of the individual, as well as to understand the interaction between the person and the social situation (Brandell, 2011; Hennessey, 2011; Parrish, 2010). Theoretical reasoning based on narrative analysis can convey meaning about the teller and her sense of self and about the social context of which the teller is a part (Crossley, 2000). This dual or multidimensional focus is the hallmark of the social work profession and is necessary in order to understand complex phenomena, such as injustice, oppressive social relationships, discrimination, stigma, addiction, poor health and other psychosocial problems (Brandell, 2011; Coppock and Dunn, 2010; Hutchison, 2008; Parrish, 2010).
  • 2 Practice: One needs to critically discuss the practical implications of a multidimensional theoretical focus including the use of narrative analysis for clinical social work practice (see Parrish, 2010). The theoretical bases of relationship-based social work when working with clients addicted to alcohol and drugs, need to be developed (see Hennessey, 2011; Larsson et al., 2013a). Social work practice is often based on talk and interaction with clients (Larsson and Sjoblom, 2010). Narrative strategies in social work practice have been discussed in the literature (Miller, 2006; Kiessman and Quinney, 2005).
  • 3 Supervision and social support for the social worker: Supervision is a central support system for any worker’s professional development. Supervision represents a forum where social workers can tell their professional narratives and gain support through consulting with colleagues (Raines, 2011), and can critically meta-reflect on their narrative experiences of their professional work with clients including relationship skills in social work (see Hennessey, 201 1).
  • 4 Evaluation and evidence-based social work: There is a need to critically evaluate clinical social work practice (Grinnell and Unrau, 2011; Smith, 2009). Quantitative, qualitative, narrative and mixed designs can be used when evaluating and performing evidence-based social work (Grinnell and Unrau, 2011; Shaw and Lishman, 1999). Using histories, selfstories or life histories in interpersonal direct practice as well as in research and evaluation can be of importance. Narratives and histories are forms of qualitative research that can give voice to clients’ experiences (Smith, 2009: 135—143). It is important to open up many evaluative perspectives, such as the clients’ first order narratives as well as second order narratives represented by the researcher (see Elliott, 2005). The development of collaborative evaluation with service users can be important in order to highlight both actors’ and spectators’ narratives of psychosocial problems (see Evans and Fisher, 1999). Narratives or stories can build knowledge and skills for social work practice, assessment and evaluation (Martin, 1999: 142).

Theory: narratives, critical social work, and the self

Elliott (2005) presents three important aspects of narratives: (1) That narratives are chronological, representing sequences of events, (2) that narratives are meaningful and (3) that narratives are social, in that they are constructed for a specific audience (Elliott, 2005: 4). According to narrative theory, all human beings are engaged in an ongoing process of constructing a life story’ or developing a personal theory that determines our understanding of ourselves and of our position in the social world (Hutchison, 2008: 144). Narrative constructions give information about both personal and social worlds (Elliott, 2005; Larsson et al., 2013a, 2013b, 2013c; Lilja and Larsson, 2003).

There are different areas in social sciences that are influenced by narrative methods (see Atkinson and Delamont, 2006; Elliott, 2005) and relevant in the discussion of narrative analysis and critical social work. One area is narrative methods grounded in psychology-based approaches (see Crossley, 2000; Diamond, 2002; McAdams et al., 2007). Another area is a sociology-based approach, grounded in, for example, social constructivism and postmodernism (see Crossley, 2000; Riessman, 2002, 2003, 2008). A third position refers to social work-influenced approaches grounded in a multidimensional analysis that is often used in the social work area (see Larsson et al., 2008, 2013b; Riessman and Quinney, 2005; Smith, 2009). These different positions can influence each other or be combined (see Larsson and Sjoblom, 2010).

Critical social work

Coppock and Dunn (2010), who critically examine the world of mental health theory, argue that critical social work needs to recognize not only the important connections between intrapersonal and interpersonal factors but also the wider economic, social, cultural, and political context of the life of individuals. It is a real challenge for social work to develop theoretical models and research methods that can capture the complexity of the personal, institutional and structural aspects of mental health issues such as substance use-related dependency (see Amodeo and Lopez, 2011). Social work needs to understand the complex interaction between psychological and social processes that is associated with, for example, injustice, poverty, migration, and poor health including health problems such as substance use-related dependency (Amodeo and Lopez, 2011; Coppock and Dunn, 2010: 5—6; Hutchison, 2008; Parrish, 2010). Critical social work can be viewed as highlighting a meta-reflective position for thinking critically about the complex person and situation interaction processes associated with different issues such as unemployment, migration and addiction (Amodeo and Lopez, 2011; Barber, 1995; Tew, 2005; Tew et al., 2012). Narrative psychology and sociology can contribute to understanding of human existence on both individual, group and community levels (see Crossley, 2000; Larsson et al., 2013a).

Narratives and the self

The use of narratives or stories is relevant for critical social work since it can capture in-depth information (Lieblich et al., 1998) on both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions of psychosocial problems, such as addiction (see Amodeo and Lopez, 2011; Diamond, 2002; Heyman, 2009: 44—64; Parrish, 2010). One aspect of using alcohol and drugs is the subjective effects on the self and narrative descriptions fill an important gap in the literature since little scientific work has been published about the subjective experience of drug use/misuse (Heyman,

2009: 44) and its treatment (see von Braun, 2013; von Braun et al., 2013a—b; Larsson et al., 2013c). Narrative methods represent an important tool for analyzing the self. Personal narratives are people’s identities (Lieblich et al., 1998: 7). The narrative method is therefore important when analyzing the dialectic between the self-state induced by alcohol and drugs, compared to the sober self-state without use or misuse of alcohol and drugs (von Braun et al., 2013a, 2013b). Psychology and self-psychological perspectives are well established in social work (Goldstein, 2001; Hennessey, 2011; Hutchison, 2008; Miller, 2006; Parrish, 2010: 93—95; Perlman and Brandell, 2011). According to self-psychology it is impossible to understand the subjective experience or the self in isolation, outside of a social context of interpersonal. A critical narrative analysis of the self or the subjective experience of issues such as addiction needs to be integrated into a multidimensional reasoning that considers the complex interaction between personal and situational dimensions. The complexity of factors contributing to drug use/misuse considers psychological dimensions, cognitive, emotional, and learning issues as well as environmental or social factors and their interaction (Jung, 2010; Sussman and Ames, 2001: 55). Narrative methods are well suited to capturing this complexity.

The status of the self as an explanatory variable in psychology' and social work has gained strength, especially with the emergence of cognitive psychology', ego-psychology and attachment theory (Brandell, 2011; Miller, 2006; Parrish, 2010). A self-pluralistic approach contains the proposition that the mind can be conceptualized as containing a plurality of qualitatively distinct selves (Ornstein, 1986; Rowan and Cooper, 1999: 2—3). The conception of a multivoiced and dialogical self or pluralism in the self-structure is well researched and there is growing empirical evidence that supports this notion. The consensus validation of the multiple self-perspective has been emphasized by many researchers from different disciplines, e.g., cognitive science, contemporary psychoanalysis, transpersonal psychology, and by postmodern social theorists (Wetherell and Maybin, 1996). There is a complex conscious and unconscious narrative dialog going on between different parts of the self, inside the mind of the individual. According to psychodynamic or object relational theory we are a “series of selves,” which suggests there are many narrative voices that may speak with conflicting demands and inconsistent emotions at different times, in different places, and in different relationships (Thomas, 1996: 315—316). Narrative approaches make it possible to describe these kinds of inner dialogs, different voices and selves within the self-structure (Crossley, 2000: 114—132; Larsson et al., 2013a).

Using alcohol and drugs can evoke alternate states of consciousness or identity states in the drug user (Tart, 1986), which some authors have called the alcoholic self or drug self and have been described in narrative research (see Larsson et al., 2013c). The user often experiences and talks about one’s sense of self “with the drug” and another identity state “without the drug” and this is true for different kinds of psychoactive substances, e.g., tranquilizers, alcohol or narcotics (Larsson et al., 2013c; Singer, 1997; Tart, 1986). Many people addicted to drugs are dependent upon their mood-regulating effects (Liese and Franz, 1996: 477). The use or misuse of alcohol and drugs can in different ways strengthen the sense of self or the person’s self-confidence (Skinhoj et al., 2001; Singer, 1993).

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