EIGHT. "And thereby hangs a tale": narrative dimensions of human life

Whether or not there has been the often-claimed, grand scale "narrative turn" in social sciences, is open to question (Atkinson, 1997); that a whole range of disciplines have looked to narrative theory and narrative-based research is undeniable. In his manifesto of narrative psychology, Sarbin (1986, p. 8) proposed that we all, "think, perceive, imagine and make moral choices according to narrative structures". Narratives create meanings by organiszing episodes, aspects, and, subsequently, accounts of our actions; in the words of the philosopher, we are "story-telling animals" (MacIntyre, 1984). And just as Tomasello (1999) argued that the human species is distinguishable from other primates by our elaborate intersubjectivity and ability to "mind read" each other, so Bruner (2002) argued that our very collective life depends on our ability to organise and express our experience in narrative forms. Time only becomes human time to the extent to which it incorporates this narrative, lived dimension; simply put, there are no people who exist without narrative.

So far in this book, I have used narrative examples several times, as in Nietzsche's notion of human beings as metaphorical creatures (Chapter Three), in the discussion of the sixteenth-century spiritual dialogue between a son and his mother (Chapter Five), and the analysis of Stevenson's novella (Chapter Seven), to name a few. Central to my formulation of social unconsciousness as discursive work of articulation and field of identity, is the assumption that we are continually bathed in the waters of narrative; the bath never empties and the water keeps flowing. Stories are building blocks for identity, providing a stock of ways of portraying ourselves, expressing our dominant possibilities, intimately connected to the culture in which we live.

Although "communication" is central to Foulksean group analysis, like many of his concepts, he did not develop its theory. This chapter addresses aspects of narrative theory, suggesting its value as a means of developing the concept of communication; given the ubiquity of stories, it is puzzling that group analysis, with few exceptions, has had so little to say about it.[1]

Group analysis is usefully regarded as the emergence and encouragement of narratives of group members; those narratives are braided products, performative creations shaped by, whilst populating, the group matrix. There is always a surplus of narrative, a view consonant with my philosophical position, of group analysis as a perspectival world built around successive layers and multilateral dialogue. If the "narrative turn" in social sciences is ignored, group analysis fails to benefit from this hugely productive, interdisciplinary paradigm, but, if embraced, we have a better basis for understanding that drive in group towards "an ever more articulate form of communication" (Foulkes & Anthony, 1957, p. 11).

Let us illustrate, through a simple example, how narratives connect and animate, create interest, and consolidate memory.

  • [1] While group analysts have addressed dialogue, few, to my knowledge, have commented on narrative. Giancarlo Dimaggio's (e.g., Dimaggio, Salvatore & Azzara, 2003) extensive research in Italy, using cognitive constructionism and the paradigm of "dialogical self" might be group-analytically influenced, but he does not refer to it in any explicit way (Dimaggio, personal communication). Cox's (Cox & Theilgaard, 1994) book on Shakespeare does, however, contain specific and illuminating reference to narrative concepts. 2. Rom Harre (1983) uses the evocative notion of "identity projects" to signify a trajectory within which the individual carves out a sense of uniqueness.
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