By Anthony Foster,2014-10-16 08:13
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Narrative Discourse

Michael Bamberg

    Clark University

    Word count: 2,848

    Reference word count: 404

    This entry brings two lenses into fusion and in an exemplary fashion documents what narrative discourse is able to contribute to the general field of Applied Linguistics. On the one hand, we are modifying discourse by looking at discourse through the lens of a special type or genre of discourse--the generic form of narrative and the functions it serves. On the other, we bring a discursive perspective to narrative, i.e. we view narrative as a discourse mode--in contrast to viewing it as a text type or a literary genre (cf. Fludernik, 2000), or as a general formula for ‘experience’ or ‘life’. We will begin with a specification of narrative--first along

    formal and structural lines, extended by the question how narratives are contextually and functionally put to use, followed by a brief discussion of a practical field in which narrative discourse has been analytically explored and applied.

[A] Narrative in discourseforms, structures, contexts and purposes

    Narratives, as discourse modes, come in different types and formats and are put to use in different contexts, and often for quite different purposes. What falls under the header of narrative ranges from folk or fairy tales and oral histories to eulogies at funerals or sharing time recounts in preschool about what happened yesterday, to personal stories shared in institutional or more private conversational settings such as accounts in the courtroom, in therapy sessions or in research interviews, to bedtime stories, and to potentially more personal stories around the dinner table or in private (though sometimes also public) confessions. Varying quite drastically in content, these storied discursive genres nevertheless share certain family resemblances in terms of conventionalized discursive histories that set them aside and constrain the kinds of functions for where and how they can be put to use. In

    addition, speakers may choose to center their story exclusively on others (as in fairy tales, certain bedtime stories, eye-witness reports in court, or in gossiping about neighbors), include themselves to a degree (as in eulogies, roastings or wedding speeches), or make the self the almost exclusive topic (as in self disclosures or confessions in therapy or in research interviews).

    With regard to what is special about narratives, it is commonly held that narratives serve the purpose for passing along and handing down culturally shared values of what is considered good and aesthetically valued, so that individuals learn to position their own values and actions in relationship to established and shared categories and thereby engage in their own formation process as a person. It seemed to have been the recognition of this function that inspired a good deal of the Narrative Turn in the social sciences and humanities, because it highlights and brings to the fore the relevance of narrative in the identity formation processes of institutional and personal continuities. However, at the same time, it is through those narratives that counter established norms and conventions that people define ‘new’ positions, thereby contributing to change and transformation--first of all

    locally and contextually, but also potentially more generally in terms of larger societal transformations that even may take on global dimensions. The question whether narratives represent and simply mirror such changes or whether they are viewed as facilitating and maybe even instigating change and transformation is one that will be picked up again further below.

    Building on its function to position a sense of self vis-à-vis culturally shared values and existing normative discourses, narrative discourse claims a special status in the business of identity construction. In narratives, speakers typically make claims about characters and make these claims (that are said to have held for a there-and-then) relevant to the here-and now of the speaking moment. In other words, whenever narrators in their discourse rely on narrative resources, they connect some spatio-temporal coordinates relevant for a character in the past (or an imagined future) with a different time-space zone (usually one that is relevant to the

    character in the here-and-now). And mapping out this space and navigating it in terms of what has changed and what remained the same is what makes narratives one of the cornerstones for the construction of identities; irrespective whether these are the identities of institutions, groups and communities (real or imagined), or individuals (again: real or imagined) (cf. Bamberg, 2010; Bamberg, De Fina & Schiffrin, 2010).

    Summarizing thus far, it seems that attempts to fuse narrative and discursive lenses has the potential to bring issues of constancy and change into sharper focus and at the same time highlight particular positions that are taken as more personal or individual stances vis-à-vis commonly shared and circulating positions that are floating within communal discourse practices. Proceeding with sharpening these two lenses, two types of analytic work with narratives should be distinguished: (a) approaches in which discourse is underdetermined and narratives are analyzed as monologues in terms of what they are about and as units of structural form; and (b) approaches in which narratives are overdetermined and equated with experience and life, whereby discourse becomes the mere expression of narrative thinking or

    narrative being. A bridge between these two ways of work with narrative is a combination that makes use of the resources and analytic procedures that both approaches have to offer.

[A] Caveats: underdetermining discourseoverdetermining narrative

    Typically, the first kind of approach builds on a notion of discourse as representing and referring to events or happenings of the past and as minimally connecting two propositions that represent two temporally bounded events (see Labov & Waletzky, 1967/1997; Bamberg, 1997 for specifics). For lack of a better term, and in contrast to the next section, I am choosing the terms language-on-the-ground or bottom-up

    approach. The events depicted accordingly can have taken place in the past, can be ongoing in the present (as in a coverage of an ongoing event), or fictitiously take place in some future. Discourse here is defined, following the original definition of

    Zellig Harris (1952), as larger than the clause; and its analysis is concerned typically with the cohesive ties between the clauses, i.e. how events are connected in speech, forming a (back-)ground against which something else emerges as new, as relevant and foregrounded. These approaches start from the clause as the basic unit of analysis and analyze how connections bring about what a story is considered to be about: its content--its theme. Analysis focuses typically on what is old (already

    shared) and new information, what is the topic and what is being commented on,

    what is the background and what is foregrounded, the theme versus the rheme, and

    how agency constellations emerge at the content-level of stories that are interpretable as prot- and antagonists, as villains and heroes. What is deemed to be relevant (to the speaker--personally, or to the context in which the story is embedded) is part of a speaker stance that is signaled in how the information is

    presented at the clause-level and tied into the thematic whole of the discourse unit.

    A similar approach, also starting off from the referential and representative functions of discourse, focuses on speakers and hearers bringing to narrative discourse a particular kind of cognitive repertoire (in the form of a story grammar).

    This enables them to work from a prototypical (mentally represented) structure of storied discourse units (often called plots) down into their components--their

    beginning, middle and end. These component parts are said to consist of an (optional)

    abstract, followed by an orientation (or setting or exposition), followed by a

    complication (also called problem or crisis), maybe an action or action orientation toward

    a resolution, that--if acted upon--results in the resolution (or occasionally failure), which

    then is ultimately followed by a coda (or closure). The orientation takes the story

    recipient to the there-and-then where the action takes place--and where characters emerge as prot- and antagonists--while the coda leads the audience back into the here-and-now of

    the telling situation.

While the language-on-the-ground approach views the textual whole in a bottom-up

    configuration, emerging from the use of devices that form clauses and index how they are to be understood as text, the cognitive approach works the other way

    around: It starts from the textual whole that is assumed to be conceptually available--working down to the bottom parts to be filled in terms of discursive devices. Both language-based and cognitive approaches deal with discourse as representations of contents and from here venture into the audience-designs of these texts as a subsequent step. Both approaches also work with the notion of a speaker as positioned vis-à-vis an audience and fashioning the text from a point of view that is--at least to a degree--colored by affect and value orientations. In spite of laying bare important micro-level components as the building blocks of narratives, the interactional orientation of narratives in discourse settings is not fully exploited and leaves the notion of narrative discourse as textual units somewhat monologic and underdetermined.

    In contrast to underdetermining discourse and its value for shedding light onto narrative as a genre unit, approaches that equate narrative with life have gone the other way and resulted in the overdetermination of narrative. Starting with original claims of theoreticians who pointed toward the potential of narratives for the interpretation of lives (particularly life stories and life-event stories--e.g. The

    Narrative Study of Lives, cf. Josselson & Lieblich, 2009), a research branch has

    emerged that separates (told) narratives from discourse and posits narrative as an abstract and principled way of making sense of the world (as world-making--cf.

    Bruner, 2001, 2003) and more strongly, as the designing and generating force for (meaningful) experience and living a meaningful life (cf. McAdams, 1993; Rendall, 1995; Xu & Connelly, 2010). A number of critics have termed this tendency to overdetermine narrative a form of ‘narrative imperialism’ (cf. Phelan, 2005; Sartwell, 2000; Strawson, 2004), while others have engaged in a campaign to reformulate this thesis in an way to preserve the contributions of narrative in analyzing identity and experience and merging it with language-on-the-ground approaches under a

    constructionist flag (cf. Bamberg, 2011b; Bamberg, De Fina & Schiffrin, 2010).

    Naturally, and this is where both approaches can be transformed into one converging lens, narratives don’t just empower or constrain their users with

    identity generating potential, just as narrative discourse does not take place in disembodied minds. Narratives typically are shared and performed between and for people in situ and in vivo. Consequently, from a discursive perspective, particular attention needs to be placed on how and where identities and conventions from the past are confirmed and where and how they are contested (cf. Bamberg, 2004, 2010b). This space within the social dimension of discourse, i.e. narratives-in-interaction as bodily performed, is the site to be explored with an eye on where and how the boundaries of traditional categories are conventionally handed down and tested out over time. In interaction, narratives form the location to try out, contest, subvert, and draw up new boundaries that, if reiterated and practiced over time, may result in constructions of alternative and new boundaries for new identity categories.

    Summarizing thus far, and underscoring the contributions of narrative discourse as a research domain for applied language studies, it is the close link between narrative discourse and the construction of identity that opens up fields for exploration that go beyond traditional linguistic studies. If people make sense of themselves in their narrative practices, then questions of who-I-am as a female, who

    was born in Switzerland, grew up in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland (with a Swiss passport), living and working in New England (USA) (for the last 30 years)--as a therapist--as a Green-Card-holder, and as a mother of two girls who play soccer, practices a conservative form of Judaism, married to her lesbian partner who is a Catholic, and driving a Volvo station wagon open up as categories to be explored further; not only in terms of how these identities are expressed in isolation or combined; but in addition as exemplars of what it means to be Jewish and lesbian, or

    to be a Swiss Italian native-speaker who lives in the US, or to be a Volvo-driving soccer-mom. As interesting (or uninteresting) as these identity constructions may be as research projects, and while it may be doubtful whether any of these categories may be tied into spatio-temporal coordinates of presenting a past that is made relevant for the present (if at all), it is narrative par excellence--as a discourse

    mode that offers insight into how these identities may be put to work in terms of a spatio-temporal past that bears on the present here-and-now of its telling.

[A] Narrative DiscourseUse-Inspired and Use-Inspiring

    Since narrative discourse cuts through almost all dimensions of practical lives, it may come as no surprise that the fields to which narrative analysis has found entrance are manifold. Not only has it become a multi-disciplinary endeavor, spanning across the humanities and social sciences into the realms of education, medicine and law, it is increasingly being used to do inquiry into interesting knowledge domains--such as the body, emotions, sex and sexualities, aesthetics, art, education and institutional organization, to name just a few. Particular kinds of experience have been opened up to closer inspection by way of analyzing the narrative discourse that is used to make sense: marriage, weddings and divorce; emigration, immigration, nationality and globalism; menarche and menopause; loss of and relationships with loved ones--e.g. parents, siblings, friends; life transforming (traumatic) incidents--such as illness, retardation, war, and rape; professional careers and trajectories, especially those of care providers and teachers; and last but not least, of course, the restoration of identity in (narrative) therapy.

    Bringing a narrative dimension to discursive practices and a discursive dimension to shed light onto narrative practices does not automatically result in new or critical dimensions of knowledge production, and neither does the merging of these two lenses directly (and positively) feed into new real-life practices or policy making. Rather, the impact of narrative research remains often unnoticed and hidden. For this reason, let me pick one domain of narrative-inspired discursive research and illustrate which kinds of use-inspired dimensions may open up to be further explored. The domain chosen here is one where narrative discourse, particularly in its identity-building function, is threatened by mental retardation and memory loss.

    In one of their examples of practical fields of doing narrative discourse research, Gubrium and Holstein (2009) take their readers into the narrative practices of a family with a daughter who has been diagnosed as severely mentally retarded. And although the transcripts read to the outsider as if the daughter is communicatively inapt and not reciprocating, Gubrium and Holstein can document how stories unfold collaboratively between the participants who construct Mary as an “accountable subject who has sensible judgment and distinct preferences” (p. 157). A very similar point is documented in Goodwin’s (2007) analysis of story-telling practices in multi-

    party interactions with a participant who, because of a severe stroke, has a verbal repertoire of only three words: yes, no, and and. The contribution of studies that

    explore retardation not solely as a problem of individual consciousness but as one that is situated in narrative interactive practices has led to rethink issues around ‘quality of life’ and how to train care-personnel and advise family members in their care-work with patients.

    Turning to threatened identities due to memory loss, Hamilton (2008) uses the narrative lens to better understand the ‘narrative traces’ in Alzheimer’s patients’ discourse; and how such ‘traces’ can be used in vivo and in situ interactions to give patients “a chance to hold onto a robust and varied sense of self narratives … that serve as the stuff of enduring personal experience narratives” (p. 77). Similarly, Hydén (2010) can be seen as building on Hamilton by stressing that narrative meaning and narrative identity are the product of interactive work.

    While the use-inspiring orientation of these types of narrative research may often not directly translate into interventions or immediate practical applications, they certainly contribute to the debunking of accepted wisdoms, here assumptions of retardation and Alzheimer’s as purely individual deficits that have to be encountered and treated as such. However, the four studies presented here in short form entail implicit recommendations for change as well as a potential empowerment of those involved in daily interactions with those who live diagnosed and stigmatized (cf. Hamilton, 2008, p. 79).

    SEE ALSO: Analysis of Identity in Interaction; Analysis of Narrative in Interaction; Positioning and the Analysis of Narrative and Interaction; Discourse and Identity; Language and Identity; Multimodality and Identity Construction


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