Saturday, May 19, 2012

Narrative Practice 2

Here below I continue these posts on Narrative Therapy.  Each post is a section of an essay by the same title which I wrote recently for an M.A. in Human Development.

Knowledge and Power

Self recently in the classroom
It is also significant that Foucault always spoke about knowledge and power as being inextricably linked.  The teacher at classroom level has power as has the doctor has in his or her surgery. With the knowledge of pedagogy or medicine comes power.  The same argument can be made for every trade and profession under the sun.  However, all power can be abused, especially what White (1990, pp. 23-24) calls, after Foucault, “a descending analysis of power” and he recommends an “ascending” one.  In other words, White is here arguing for an analysis of power that begins with the ordinary person in his/her community, an analysis that stretches out from there up to the top of the pyramid where the more expert echelons live.  Social and political control comes from above whereas social and political empowerment comes from below.  Unfortunately, today we have merely substituted one form of political and social control from above by another form, namely “the normalizing judgement of society” which convinces some young girls that they are “too fat” (anorexia) and some young boys that they are “too weak/too feminine.”  Indeed, Foucault (1965, 1973) referred to how society ascribed “a spoiled identity to the homeless, poor, mad and infirm from the general population.” (White, 2007, p. 25)
We are all wielders of power and possessors of knowledge and the therapist, like any teacher or doctor or specialist of any kind, must realise this and be a questioner of his/her own motivation at all times so as to empower the clients in discovering their own potential.
      As we shall see below in this paper, re-authoring our stories is an example of this ‘power from below’ or ‘ascending analysis of power’ as it is effective self-fashioning.  If traditional power is about control, modern power, according to Foucault, is about taking control of one’s own life.  The former will lead to nothing short of paralysis and stagnation, while the latter will lead to ultimate freedom of choice, where one can choose one’s own authentic identity in freedom.  No longer will received, or even imposed, ideas be in charge of the person, rather the person is empowered to choose and to mould his/her own ideas not alone of things but of himself and others, too.  Received and imposed ideas would be those of “body beautiful” at all costs, “the macho man,” and indeed “Celtic Tiger” and “Post-Celtic Tiger” Ireland and “Ireland as an economy not a society” etc.  All therapies, not just Narrative Practice, seek to disabuse the mind of these reductive images and ideas.

We’ve already stressed that knowledge and power are inseparable, and no one realizes this more than the medical and legal professions who know how to charge for that privileged power, and who will go to all lengths to preserve it.  However, I mention this only to highlight the fact that even counsellors and teachers must ask themselves how much and how far do their counselling and teaching incorporate aspects of power and control.  Are, we too, replicating old power structures like the doctors and lawyers?  Is education itself another site of social control?  Do we privilege the cognitive above the affective and conative (action for change, the will) aspects in education? 
The call of Michael White, following Foucault, is to all of us to step out of ascribed or imposed identities and to start literally “self-fashioning.” This, then, is the powerful basis for Narrative Practice, which as we will see below, will enable people to step out of this or that negative story and write a new and empowering one.
Multiple Stories
Firstly, I should like to differentiate between “identity” and the “self” here.  We may say that each of us has multiple identities, for example, the present author is (i) a teacher, (ii) a night-student at college pursuing a further degree, (iii) a son, (iv) a brother, (v) a lover, (vi) a beloved, (vii) a hill walker etc.  Now each of these is an identity that goes to make up one face only of the diamond that is the “real me” or “real self” as Carl Rogers calls it.[1]  No one of them in itself is the real me.  Indeed no one can really ever grasp “the real me” in its fullness.  However, problems will emerge if I equate one identity with the “real self.”  One might end up in a dependent relationship or even become a careerist who identifies himself with efficiency or promotion at work at all costs depending on the over-identity I make.
Briefly, narrative approaches to therapy hold that identity is chiefly shaped by narratives or stories, whether uniquely personal to us or culturally general. As I have already indicated there are multiple identities and hence multiple stories.  However, identity conclusions can become problematic for people if they identity wholly with one negative story.  This, then, will grow into an identity crisis simply because the person over-identifies with a problem-saturated story.  As a teacher I am very aware of such negative stories and such negative over-identifications.  Problem students present with labels such as “ADHD,” “ODD,” “weak” (“stupid” or “thick” in their vocabulary), “difficult,” “depressed,” “alienated,” “odd” and so on and so forth.
Narrative Practice argues soundly and practically that problem-saturated stories gain their dominance at the expense of preferred, alternative and positive stories that often are located in past experiences and forgotten.  In other words Tommy (pseudonym) is not just “the boy with ADHD.” He has some other good qualities not often acknowledged by others, or more importantly not acknowledged by himself.  That others over-identify him with his ADHD only confirms his own internalised over-identification with this label or problem or, more aptly, his problem-saturated story in our present context.
Further, these other stories that Tommy can tell about himself are ones which the teacher, facilitator or group leader attempts to elicit during his/her meetings with him.  These could be called marginalized stories which will be placed out in mid-field, as it were, as the narrative practice advances.  The culture of any school will have certain rules and regulations which have been built into a guiding “cultural narrative” that says that all boys like Tommy have to be controlled at all costs.

[1] The self is the humanistic term for who we really are as a person. The self is our inner personality, and can be likened to the soul, or Freud's “psyche.” It is influenced by all the experiences a person has in their life, and our interpretations of those experiences. Two primary sources that influence our self-concept are childhood experiences and evaluation by others. Rogers believed that self-actualization occurs when a person’s “ideal self” (i.e. who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behavior (“self-image” or “real self”). This gap between the real self and the ideal self, the “I am” and the “I should” is called incongruity. The greater the gap, the more incongruity there is.  The more incongruity, the more suffering there will be. In fact, incongruity is essentially what Rogers means by neurosis: being out of synch with your own self. Rogers describes an individual who is actualizing as a fully functioning person.

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