Convergent Perspectives from the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Other
Paper I: "Basic
Elements of Narrative: Foundations for Interdisciplinary Research on
David Herman, Ohio State University
Paper II: "Small
Stories: From Narratives-in-Interaction toward a Sense of Self and
Michael Bamberg, Clark University
Paper III: “I
could not understand a word they were saying!”: Narrative as
Evidence and Object in Variationist Sociolinguistics
Barbara Johnstone, Carnegie Mellon University
Rita Charon, Columbia University
The past several decades have seen an explosion of interest in
narrative, with this multifaceted object of inquiry becoming a central
concern in a wide range of disciplinary fields and research contexts.
The “narrative turn” gained impetus from the development of
structuralist theories of narrative in France in the 1960s.
Noting that narratives can be presented in many media and genres,
structuralists such as Barthes argued explicitly for a
cross-disciplinary approach to the analysis of stories.
Only after the heyday of structuralism, however, did Barthes’s call for
an interdisciplinary approach to narrative begin to be answered.
Stories became at once a metaphor more or less loosely applied to
disparate content areas, a focus of inquiry in multiple fields of
study, and an explanatory framework for making sense of events defined
by their position in an unfolding time-course. The proposed session
will build on this prior work in interdisciplinary narrative theory,
exploring the extent to which ideas in several of the many fields
concerned with stories afford convergent perspectives on narrative. The
session seeks to demonstrate that inquiry into narrative in all of its
guises--from literary narrative to everyday storytelling--presents a
unique opportunity for dialogue among scholars and
practitioners working in a range of disciplines, from the arts and
humanities, to the social sciences, to clinical medicine.
Synthesizing ideas from recent work in narrative theory, Herman’s paper
aims to provide context for
the session by outlining core features that distinguish stories from
recipes, arguments, descriptions, explanations, and other phenomena.
The paper starts from the premise that narrative is both a way of
of the world and a class of artifacts (e.g., literary texts) in which
sense-making procedures are (more or less) evident. It then focuses
on five features that all stories have in common—even though any given
narrative may manifest those features in varying ways and to
Using several texts to suggest the
interdisciplinary relevance of
this framework for research on stories, the paper argues for a “more or
less” rather than “either or” approach to narrative. In other words,
the claim is not that a story must fully embody all of these five
features to qualify as a narrative. Rather, the more fully a text or
other artifact exemplifies the features, the easier it will be
to interpret that text as a narrative, and the more narrative impact it
- Stories depend crucially on
particular events, not just general patterns or laws.
- Narrative requires a
higher-order sequential structure; not all event-sequences are stories.
- Stories depend on disruption,
or a thwarting of expectations about the way things will unfold.
- Narratives portray not only a
sequence of particular events involving some sort of conflict or
disruption, but also an experiencing self that is conscious of and
affected by that turn of events.
- Different kinds of stories
impose different standards for assessing their truthfulness, but all
narratives orient themselves toward truth in one way or another.
Next, anchored in the field of social psychology, and based on
video-recorded interactions among male adolescents, Bamberg’s paper
will outline how the study of self and identity has been transformed by
narrative approaches, particularly by approaches that are associated
with “the biographic method” or “life-story” research. Bamberg
critically reflects on how some of these approaches entail
"interiorizing" (and potentially essentializing) the notions of “story”
and “identity”; they pay insufficient attention to the local
situatedness and interactive occasioning of stories about self and
others. Proposing a complementary approach based on the idea of “small
stories,” Bamberg’s paper enriches this earlier research by working
with narratives as discursive, interactive activities. He argues that
such an approach can yield a more genuinely developmental approach to
identity and self formation as “microgenetic accomplishments.” As
Bamberg shows, a unified sense of self may be an ideal of development,
but it is also an abstraction rather than an essential presupposition
for thematizing and narrating the self.
Johnstone’s paper shifts disciplinary contexts, moving from social
psychology to sociolinguistics, but maintains a focus on the
interconnections between narrative and identity. Johnstone notes that
in William Labov and Joshua Waletzky’s foundational work on narrative,
stories were not only subjected to structural analysis but also viewed
as a kind of elicitation technique: getting people to talk about
emotion-laden moments in their lives was thought to elicit their most
natural, vernacular speech. Some of the assumptions underpinning this
technique have since been challenged, but narrative continues to be an
important source of evidence in variationist sociolinguists’ work. In
most of this work, however, narrative is not the object of study, as it
was for Labov and Waletzky and as it is for narratologists in other
disciplines. Variationists ask about the structure and function of
sounds, words, and phrases they hear in narratives, but they have not
typically asked how understanding the structure and function of
narrative itself might help them answer their questions about
linguistic variation and change. Johnstone employs a Proppian analysis
of the plot of an often-told story about outsiders’ first encounter
with working-class Pittsburghers to illustrate how narrative analysis
can shed light on vernacular norm-formation, a topic of central
interest to variationists. She argues that circulating narrative plots
such as this help create shared orientations to particular sets of
nonstandard linguistic features and link them ideologically with region.
Finally, serving as respondent for the session, Rita Charon will draw
on her experience as director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at
Columbia University to identify convergent concepts and methods in the
three papers, and also to outline directions for future work in
interdisciplinary narrative theory.