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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Narrative Practice 1

The following sequence of posts are sections of an essay I wrote recently for an M.A. in Human Development.

Michael White (1948-2008)
Our first woman president Mary Robinson pledged herself to listening to the stories of others in her inauguration in 1990.[1] To tell a story, to listen to a story, to share a story is such a profoundly human thing. To listen to the real life story of another human being is a privilege. To tell your story to another human being is to reach out to the other, to say this is me, this is what I am about, this is where I came from, these are the ways I got here and there is where I am going.  Richard Kearney (2002, p. 2) puts it succinctly that when you tell your story you get “a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime… In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” Stories are also essentially about healing as many scholars from various disciplines attest to.[2]

Describing Narrative Practice
In short, then, we may say that Narrative Therapy is a form of psychotherapy using narrative. It was initially developed during the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Australian Michael White and his friend and colleague, David Epston, of New Zealand.  Winslade and Monk (1999, pp. 2-3) describe Narrative Practice by referring to the fact that we all tell stories both to ourselves and to others so as “to make sense of ourselves and of the circumstances of our lives.”  In short, then, stories provide us with a framework by which we can make sense of what it means to be a living being.  In the following several posts, I will outline the main ideas behind Narrative Practice with particular attention to the work of Michael White and will indicate how I have attempted to implement these ideas both in my professional and personal life.
Philosophical Basis of Narrative Therapy
Michael White (1990, 1-3), one of the founders of the Narrative Practice school of psychotherapy, emphasizes the fact that he found the writings of Michel Foucault on power and knowledge a solid foundation on which to lay the theoretical base for his practice.  He also adverts to the fact that he also borrowed the idea of the “interpretative method” from Bateson (1972, 1979) and hastens to define this method as comprising “those processes by which we make sense of the world.”  In other words, none of us, he argues, can objectively describe the world in itself, and so each of us must make sense of the world for ourselves in “an act of interpretation.” Now in Narrative Practice the clients are encouraged not only to tell their various stories but to engage upon re-authoring negative ones, and philosophically this is, therefore, legitimate because it is such “an act of interpretation” which gives meaning to the person’s life.  Unlike positivism, which argues that we can have objective knowledge of the world as it really is, this type of therapy works on the assumption that everything we know is personally interpreted in our own “lived experience.”
Further, we order our personal experiences in a certain sequence to give continuity and meaning to our lives.  Hence, we can tell our own stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, or, in other words, with a past, a present or a future.  White (1990, p. 12) argues that this process of making meaning through stories can be called “storying our experience,” and further points out that when noticeable gaps appear in these stories that the task of Narrative Practice is to encourage the client to fill them in so that the story may be performed.  He continues to argue (White, 1990, pp. 17-18) that “the re-storying of experience necessitates the active involvement of persons in the re-organization of their experience.”
Michel Foucault had a significant influence on the thought and practice of Michael White and Michael Epston, his friend and colleague, with whom he founded this way of therapy.  All our stories are framed by the contexts within which we are reared and within which we grow to maturation.  These contexts, whether we like it or not, exercise a power upon us. White (1990, 19-20) argues that according to Foucault we are subject to this power through “normalizing truths” that shape our lives and our relationships.  Some of these “truths” we accept unconsciously, though we can be encouraged to question them and re-construct our lives through various forms of therapy, most notably Narrative Practice.  Foucault advances the history of sexual desire, which from Victorian times was presented as dangerous in the extreme especially for children, as a powerful example of a “normalizing truth” that resulted in considerable sexual repression.  Ironically in this way, while supposedly consigning sex to the periphery of life, they ended up “speaking of it ad infinitum” in their various manuals on education and sexual conduct.

[1]‘I want this Presidency to promote the telling of stories — stories of celebration through the arts and stories of conscience and of social justice. As a woman, I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, “finding a voice where they found a vision.” ‘ (Robinson, 1990)

[2] See Bourke, A (1997)., Language, Stories, Healing in Arguing at the Crossroads, pp. 58-76 which gives the insight of a Celtic Studies’ scholar into stories.  Storytelling has been used for healing in many traditional cultures and it is also a valuable device when utilised in therapy by qualified therapists.